Vines of Benedicto, “the origins of Tempranillo”, discovered in the Familia Luis Cañas vineyards

Research carried out by Familia Luis Cañas (Bodegas Amaren and Bodegas Luis Cañas), with the cooperation of the ICW – INSTITUTO DE CIENCIAS DE LA VID Y DEL VINO (Institute of Science of the Vine and Wine) – of Logroño, has identified grape varieties that were planted in Rioja Alavesa in pre-phylloxera times (or were re-planted shortly after phylloxera ended in the early 20th Century) were recently identified. The initial discovery occurred in vineyards property of the family.

This is the story of vines that survived

In 1912, Mr. Garcia de los Salmones (an Engineer) recorded 44 different grapes varieties planted in what is today Rioja. One could currently consider that there is a “Tempranillo monoculture” in the region that is the result of a limited number of commercial clones used for planting. Technicians refer to this as “genetic erosion”.

However, there are “strongholds” that remained side-lined by this “modernization” of the vineyards, where vines survived in older plots and there’s now an opportunity to find true viticultural dinosaurs.

The family technical team has, for years now, earmarked in the vineyards diverse old varieties that were not identifiable with the most commonly existing ones. They presented to the ICW in 2016 a series of samples of vegetal material gathered from older vineyards with the aim of identifying them genetically. The rarity of these samples drew the attention of Javier Ibanez’ ICW team, they quickly created closer ties to Familia Luis Cañas. Together a project was initiated of varietal identification and recovery that culminates in 2021 with the planting of an experimental vineyard for germplasm conservation.

Discoveries to-date

Due to the relevance of the samples submitted and the potential, two important themes of research were established.

On the one hand, truly minority grape varieties in Rioja have been identified and registered that were more prevalent decades or centuries ago in Rioja Alavesa. There are 5 large groups:

  • The first group is that of the “Benedicto” variety. Historically important, it is also of great oenological and viticultural interest and potential. Benedicto is the “mother of Tempranillo”, the flagship variety in Rioja Alavesa and many other Spainish regions. Stray vines are known to have been identified in Madrid, Aragon and Navarre too. The family’s vineyard team has identified 37 vines until now spread across 20 parcels. It was possible to make 17 bottles of Benedicto wine in 2019.
  • Indigenous varieties grown in other DO’s/ regions, though existing traditionally in Rioja too, but are not approved such as: Bobal, Mencía, Verdejo, Xarel.lo, Tinta Velasco, Palomino and Parellada.
  • Scarce, minority varieties often forgotten, some of which have great potential and such as: Garró, Marufo, Cadrete, Hebén, Salvador, Aramon, Castellana blanca, Santa Magdalena and Rojal Tinta.
  • Locally known varieties, that were commonly planted 120 years ago and are very different to the commercialy planted nowadays. They are: Malbec, Cabernet-Sauvignon, Grand Noir, Petit Bouschet, Alicante Bouschet and Clairette Blanche.
  • A small group of varieties that still haven’t been identified genetically.

On another hand, the team proceeded to select clones of traditional varietals, identifying biotypes of old Tempranillos, Garnachas and Gracianos with characteristics that are very different to the clones currently available commercially. The result is the gathering of:

  • 167 biotypes of Tempranillo
  • 53 of Graciano
  • 34 of Garnacha
  • 24 of Viura
  • 21 of Malvasía
  • 14 of Bobal
  • 5 of Calagraño

Final goals and related projects

The primary and urgent goal was to stop genetic erosion, perhaps initiating the process of reversal, by planting vineyards with all the vegetal material gathered. Together with the ICVV and Familia Luis Cañas, the VITIS NAVARRA nursery is alos a partner in this project and is responsible for the vegetative reproduction of all this material for new plantings.

This vineyard will materialise in the Spring of 2021 and aims to be the most complete germplasm bank of the DOCa RIOJA, specialised concretely on the indigenous varietal vegetal material of the Rioja Alavesa central area.

Beyond the botanical collection achieved, Familia Luis Cañas’ aim is to test the oenological and viticultural potential of these forgotten varietals. It ought to be kept in mind that all of these varietals and clones are very different to each other in: types of aroma, colour, tannins, sugar content, acidity, pH, potassium, maturity cycles, plague resistance, diseases, water requirements, vigour…and could for example be an alternative for adapting vineyards to climate change.