With just shy of twenty hectares of vineyards that are rented, farmed or owned outright in Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja, Rioja Alavesa and Arlanza, and splitting his time between his own wines and those of Bodegas Lacus, it would be a gross understatement to say that Olivier Riviere is a busy man. Originally lured to Spain in 2004 by Telmo Rodriguez to convert his vineyards to biodynamics, Olivier came to appreciate the rich history of Rioja, and the diversity of its soils and grape varieties. In 2006 he started his own project and owing to the high cost of land in Rioja he traded his farming abilities for access to grapes from the best sites he could find. In 2009 he joined Luis Arnedo at Bodegas Lacus and found a more permanent home for his growing portfolio of wines.
Olivier, as you might guess, is not Spanish but French. We was born and raised in Cognac, studied enology (with an emphasis on biodynamic farming practices) in Bordeaux and gained practical experience there and in Burgundy. The list of estates where he has worked is impressive by anyone’s standards from the most dedicated fans of natural wines (Elian da Ros) to ultra-traditionalists (Domaine Leroy.) When his plans to set up a domaine in Fitou fell through, Olivier decided to spend a few years consulting in Spain, and he’s never left.
Coming from France, Olivier has an innate sense of terroir. Unlike most of his peers in Rioja, he bases his cuvees not on political boundaries or the length of barrel aging but on terroir. He believes in a quality hierarchy inspired by Burgundy with generic appellation and Village wines at the base and Premier and Grand Cru wines at the top. This is how to best understand what Olivier is doing in Rioja, rather than the moribund Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva model. As Olivier has steadily and carefully grown his production he’s been hampered by the high prices for land and grapes in Rioja. He first ventured into Navarra where he made a few vintages from high-altitude Garnacha before settling in Arlanza, a relatively new DO located between Rioja and Ribera del Duero. In Arlanza he found high-elevation vineyards of Tempranillo (some quite ancient) intermixed with a scattering of Garnacha and Albillo. This mountain fruit is potentially sterner stuff than what Olivier is used to in Rioja but in his hands it is remarkably vibrant and floral.
In keeping with his education and advocation, all of Olivier’s vineyard sources - whether owned or leased - are farmed biodynamically. The fruit is harvested by hand and each variety is fermented separately. Depending on the source it may be partially destemmed or fermented whole cluster. Fermentations are indigenous. Macerations are gentle and short. Aging takes place in stainless steel or cement tanks, foudre, and barrel. SO2 is kept to a minimum, usually added only before bottling. There really is no precise recipe, only the guiding principles of minimal-intervention and taste. These are not your grandparent’s Riojas (or Arlanzas, if it had existed 40 years ago) nor are they your parent’s. These wines represent a novel approach that relies almost entirely on the specificity of site and transparency of winemaking necessary to capture it.