Exploring Rioja with the Osborne wine family

By Valerie Fortney

Spain is the second most touristed country in the world, with more than 80 million visitors flocking each year to see Antoni Gaudi’s architectural riches in Barcelona, Picasso’s legendary Guernica at the Prado in Madrid and the Costa del Sol beaches on the southernmost coast. 

For those who covet its delightful wines, though, a must-see place is one of its many winemaking centres, like the La Rioja, a small region in the colourful Ebro River Valley of Northern Spain, where blends most familiar to the North American palate begin their journeys to our dining tables.

It’s somewhat surprising, then, to hear that it was only half a century ago that the Osborne Group got in the Tempranillo grape action by purchasing Bodegas Montecillo, one of the oldest Rioja wineries, found between the towns of Fuenmayor and Navarrete. Jose Luis Navajas, the renowned third-generation winemaker, had no descendants and was looking to hand it over to someone with a proven track record in the highly competitive world of winemaking.

These days, the iconic Osborne bull symbol is also ubiquitous in Rioja, the best known of Spain’s 60 winemaking regions. It’s the trademark symbol of a family-run business that has been making sherry in this country for more than two centuries.

“Many years ago, we set out to make wines that were still Rioja, but more approachable,” explains Rocio Osborne as she leads a tour of writers and wine experts at Bodegas Montecillo.

Rocio Osborne

The dynamic woman is six generations removed from founder Thomas Osborne Mann, an expat Brit; she’s also one of only four family members given permission to work for the company (the strict rules ensure professionalism through the generations). 

“We wanted a Spanish wine made for matching with food, but also we wanted to modernize the wines for the 21st century,” says Osborne, whose official title is Globe PR and Communications Director for the Osborne Group. 

After touring the winery, a tasting is overseen by Montecillo’s oenologist Mercedes Garcia Ruperez, who has devoted more than a decade to updating the winery’s offerings; the Tempranillo grapes’ maturity, acidity and flavour make them optimal for long aging wines. “We make great modern wines at an age-old winery,” Garcia Ruperez, with the help of an interpreter, says proudly. “We have a true passion for the land.”

Among the samplings are the Crianza, a Tempranillo-Garnacha-Graciano blend, which possesses hints of sweet oak reminiscent of black licorice; the Reserva, a Tempranillo-Mazuelo-Garnacha blend, is an award-winning combination of vanilla and black fruits with nuances of licorice and mint. 

“Working in the family business wasn’t part of my original plan,” says Rocio Osborne as she sips some of Montecillo’s wines with Garcia and her North American guests. “But it is now my dream job.”