Meet the Women Reinvigorating Rioja

Europe is full of storied wine-growing regions, but some are elevated above the rest — literally. Rioja is a landlocked, sundrenched region in Northern Spain nestled by the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range to the north and the Sierra de la Demanda to the south. It’s known for cultivating Tempranillo and other varietals prized for structure and tannins. For almost a century, the area has been home to Ramón Bilbao, Spain’s leading Rioja label and a five-time recipient of “The World’s Most Admired Wine Brands” award by Drinks International. 

In the heart of the Rioja Alta, Ramón Bilbao sources grapes from over 2,500 curated acres of vineyards and has a reputation for bold, innovative, and versatile blends. Wine connoisseurs reach for the label’s accessible varietals for everyday festivities or its limited-production, old-vine 100 percent Tempranillo blends aged in French oak for special occasions. But beyond its reputation for taste and quality, Ramón Bilbao is known for honoring the best of Rioja — while looking to the future for inspiration.

Meet Ramón Bilbao

The label’s namesake, Ramón Bilbao Murga, was born in 1876 during the infamous phylloxera plague, which sent the continent’s wine producers searching for new and underdeveloped regions. Many discovered an oasis in Rioja, and it’s even rumored that King Alfonso XIII, after a visit, was so impressed that he replaced the French vino of the royal household with Riojan blends. This spirit of innovation inspired Ramón Bilbao to open a bodega in 1924, and the family played a pivotal role in Rioja’s development of its DOCa status. (Today, Rioja is one of only two Spanish regions to boast the DOCa classification.) Now, under Rosana Lisa, innovation manager and technical director, and Sara Bañuelos, winemaker and technical director of Bodegas Ramón Bilbao Rueda, the label continues to evolve while championing local terroir, heritage vines, and bold blends — maintaining the highest standards in sustainability, even as local landscapes and climates shift.

The Women Behind the Brand

Sara Bañuelos comes from a long line of Riojan vintners, studying agricultural engineering before receiving her bachelor’s degree in oenology at the University of La Rioja. In school, she combined her studies with traineeships and field research, working with small, family, and cooperative wineries and partaking in Rioja’s harvests. Driven by curiosity, she is inspired by traditional methods while seeking to adapt them for modern use. “When I was at university, I studied chemistry but fell in love with the aromas, the tastes, and flavors of the grapes,” Bañuelos says. “Today, my passion, my life, and my family is wine.” Bañuelos has just passed her last exam to obtain the WSET Diploma. 

Rosana Lisa seeks to evolve the brand. Studying chemical sciences in school and with a bachelor’s degree in oenology, she considers the perfect blend to be alchemy between flavor and function, one that “is a sweet wine, rich in nuances, with the ripe tannins of a good grape and aged in the barrel.” Developing her career at several renowned wineries and appellations of origin, Lisa was critical in creating Lalomba, Ramón Bilbao’s terroir-focused project featuring single-vineyard wines. This year, Lisa has started studying for the Master of Wine program. “My formal winemaking journey began with my studies, but wine was always in my life. I grew up in La Rioja,” Lisa says, “but my work with Bilbao allows me to explore new horizons.”

Bringing 99 Years of Winemaking Into the New Century

“Ramón Bilbao is one of the most dynamic brands in Spain, but we have a significant desire to improve — from the winemaking to the fermentation to the selection of the bottles,” says Lisa, noting that this has meant adapting to the realities of climate change. “We frequently research the evolution of local temperature and rainfall and are focused on exploring new vineyards, new conditions,” she says. For the pair, growth has meant focusing on the Garnacha grape, which is remarkably hearty, resistant to drought, and able to withstand heat waves, which are expected to increase over the decades.

Ramón Bilbao is also certified by the Wineries for Climate Protection, which has 24 member producers in Spain and has recently joined the International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA), continuing the work to further reduce its environmental impact.  To date, the label has already reached its target to reduce greenhouse gases and improve energy efficiency and water management. “Sustainability is our philosophy,” Bañuelos says, noting smaller steps the brand has taken, including using recycled materials in boxes and labels. 

On Spain’s Shifting Wine Culture

“In Spain, things are changing,” Bañuelos says of the traditionally male-driven industry. “There are many more [women] in positions of power, and we bring a unique perspective,” she says, noting that many of her female colleagues have a meticulousness, a precision, that sets them apart. “Women have always been in the wine business, but previously with less responsibility,” Lisa says, explaining that female industry leaders often worked behind the scenes in labs or research. “Now, in the last few years, women are gaining more responsibility in the management of wineries.” 

Meet the Wines

With Ramón Bilbao, both women seek to produce the highest caliber. “A great wine sticks in your memory,” Bañuelos says, with Lisa elaborating that it’s “one that gives information about the identity, the brave realities, the place — it’s a wine with soul.”

Some of their favorite blends include:

Lalomba Finca Lalinde Rosado – An iconic rosé produced on vines cooled by Atlantic breezes and shaded by the Yerga Mountains. This crisp varietal is made from 90 percent Garnacha and 10 percent Viura and contains a depth of flavor ideal for pairing with rich cheeses, poultry, paella, and grilled autumn vegetables.

Ramón Bilbao Mirto– This ruby red blend is made from 100 percent pure Rioja Alta Tempranillo produced from old vines and fermented with indigenous yeasts for a clean and bright taste. The varietal’s high aromatic intensity is punctuated with notes of blackcurrants and cherries, spices, and a hint of cocoa. Intense on the palate, it has a balanced acidity with round and fine tannin, making it ideal for smoked meats, pork, spicy entrees, or a nightcap of dark chocolate.

Ramón Bilbao Limited Edition Modern, bold, and unique, this varietal is fermented in wooden vats at a controlled temperature to produce a sharp and vibrant taste with high aromatic intensity, giving notes of stone fruit softened by hints of nutmeg and showing rich terroir. An ideal special- occasion wine for pairing with steak, soft cheeses, or paella.

Ramón Bilbao Gran Reserva“A fantastic blend of Tempranillo with elegance, low acidity, and high concentration of tannins, it’s well blended, which keeps more potential for aging,” Lisa says of her favorite varietal, noting its hint of red and black fruits, which give way to aromas of vanilla. A garnet color belies a high-intensity layer and a flavor that lingers on the palate, the varietal’s silky and vibrant acidity making it the perfect match for barbecue and game dishes. 

Verdejo“Our Verdejo is a fresh wine with a crisp character, making it perfect for autumn weather,” Bañuelos says of her ideal blend, which “surprises you with its marked floral and herbal character” compared to the rest of the D.O.’s more tropical and aniseed notes. Pale green/yellow with medium intensity, it is clean and bright with herbal and floral notes of citrus and orange blossom and an herbaceous aroma. Pair with cold dishes, seasonal vegetables, poultry, or a fruit tart for maximum flavor.

But regardless of which bottle you pick up, you’ll taste the best of Rioja with every sip.

This article is sponsored by Ramón Bilbao.