An exploration of wine

Rioja: Spain’s classic region is changing

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Tower panorama Rioja Alta

Panorama of Rioja Alta and Alavesa from the top tower in San Vicente

Rioja, the most famous wine region in Spain. Home to Tempranillo and the American oak barrel. One of only 2 regions, with Priorat, carrying DO Calificada status above the humble DO.

Over 300km North-North-East of Madrid along the valley of the Ebro river and its tributaries – including the Rio Oja itself – Rioja is primarily in the eponymous La Rioja administrative region. The wine region divides into 3 sub-regions.

Rioja Baja is Easternmost and lowest in altitude, from c. 260m at Alfaro – now officially renamed Rioja Oriental as “Lower Rioja” was considered pejorative. It was home to more Garnacha as it is the warmest sub-region (more Mediterranean-influenced climate) with most clay and sand soils.

Rioja Alta (Upper Rioja) starts just East of La Rioja’s capital, Logroño and stretches west along mainly the South bank of the Ebro, beyond the capital of Rioja Alta, Haro. With more limestone and higher altitudes up to 6-700m, plus more Tempranillo, wines are typically more elegant with higher acidity and more finesse. Wine villages include Briones, Ollauri, Fuenmayor and Cenicero, with San Vicente de la Sonsierra unusually on the North bank of the Ebro.

Rioja Alavesa vineyards

View across Rioja Alavesa from the tower at San Vicente de la Sonsierra

Rioja Alavesa sounds like it should be even higher in altitude, but the name simply derives from its being in the separate Province of Álava, in the Basque Country. It is nevertheless hillier and higher – up to 800m – being on the North bank of the Ebro for much of the length of Rioja Alta, pushing up towards the Sierra de Cantabria mountains. Laguardia is its principal town, alongside notable wine villages like Labastida, Samaniego and Elciego.

Laguardia Rioja Alavesa

Bronze shoe sculptures in picturesque Laguardia, Rioja Alavesa

Traditionally, wines were Tempranillo-based blends with Garnacha (Grenache), Mazuelo (Carinena / Carignan) and perhaps some Graciano, and often blends of vineyards from across the region and its subregions. Whites, mainly from Viura (Macabeo / Macabeu), Garnacha Blanca (Grenache Blanc) and sometimes Malvasía Riojana, were also made, but in comparatively small quantities. Rosés even tinier.

Quality was identified by the length of oak barrel ageing in predominantly vanilla-scented American oak, from unoaked Joven to progressively longer-aged Crianza, Reserva and finally Gran Reserva. At 1-2% of total production, Gran Reservas were the pinnacle, only made in top vintages and with wines capable of spending 3 years in a barrel. Apart from wood-flavour influence, oxidative ageing also defined the style.

Production was concentrated in large producers like Campo Viejo, Paternina and other multi-million bottle winemakers. With the 300 votes of the Consejo Regulador allocated by production volume, regulatory power was also concentrated in the hands of the big boys. Innovation and quality can be hard to drive in such circumstances, as can change.

In the 1990s a first wave of change came as the influence of international wine critics grew, particularly Robert Parker and James Suckling. 3 key shifts took place to create a ‘modern’ style of Rioja:

  • Tempranillo: became the favoured grape and more 100% Tempranillo wines emerged. A side effect was that much of the then-disfavoured Garnacha was uprooted or grafted over to Tempranillo
  • Ripeness: greater ripeness of grapes to enhance fruit concentration, resulting in higher ABVs (13.5-15% vs. 12.5-13.5%), higher bodies, but lower acidities
  • New French oak: along with more protective winemaking, switching to French oak but also mostly new adding more subtle clove-cinnamon aromatics and less overtly oxidative balsamic tones, along with firmer oak tannin addition to the wines

Perhaps the ultimate expression of modernism was the concept of Vinos de Autor – super-cuvées like Faustino de Autor or Finca Allende’s Aurus.

Not all existing producers went ‘modern’. Some remained staunchly classical, especially neighbours Lopez de Heredia-Viña Tondonia and La Rioja Alta. Some blended both, like Muga and CVNE. Others established themselves as modernists, most notably Roda in the early 1990s, but also the likes of Contino.

But change hasn’t stopped there. If anything, there is a greater shift now than at any time. A new wave of Rioja producers are changing the game again – and ultimately resulting in changes in the underlying regulations.

The new changes can be summarised as:

  • Single vineyards: making wines from individual parcels, particularly of old vines sometimes over 100 years of age (with much bemoaning of the loss of so many low-production, old Garnacha vines in the 1990s). Allowing those parcels to express the variations across the Rioja region and in different places, as opposed to the traditional multi-region, multi-vineyard blends where fruit quality and style define the wine
  • Less oak: reducing oak flavour and texture influence to focus on vineyard expression. In turn this also necessarily rejects the established quality hierarchy, which requires long oak ageing to define the quality category that the wine sits in
  • Other varieties: rediscovery of varieties other than Tempranillo, including Garnacha (with associated lamenting of the loss of much old-vine Garnacha), Graciano (with several single-varietal expressions), Mazuelo and minor varieties like Maturana Blanca and Maturana Tinta

These, for me, are the ‘new wave’ wines of Rioja.

100 year old Garnacha vine

One of Bodegas Ysios’s centenarian Garnacha vines

To say these changes have led to controversy is a massive understatement. Perhaps the most notable illustration of this was the decision of Artadi to leave the Rioja Consejo in 2016.

Artadi have pioneered wines like Viña El Pisón, from a 2.4Ha old vine plot outside Laguardia. It is aged for less than 9 months in oak, so it doesn’t even qualify as a Crianza in the ‘quality’ scale. Yet it is internationally acknowledged as a great wine – balance, length, intensity, complexity, ageworthiness all combine to demonstrate its finesse. And it carries a price tag over €200 a bottle to prove it.

In frustration at this inflexibility of the rules and apparent lack of desire to look at within-region variation or push the Rioja name toward higher quality, Artadi opted-out and now sell their wines as Vinos de la Tierra. No mention of Rioja, which they believe is devalued by big volume, basic wines. No DOCa.

Perhaps driven by this, the Consejo Regulador has just announced a swathe of changes permitting the addition of places to the Rioja label, from the 2017 vintage, including:

  • Sub-regions: wines from Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental may now be labelled as such – Vinos de Zona
  • Towns: Vinos de Municipio permits wines from, say, Laguardia or Elciego to append their village to the Rioja name, in a manner similar to villages labelling of Burgundy
  • Vineyards: Viñedo Singular, as the name suggests, allows for labelling specific plots as single-vineyard Riojas

If this looks to address the smaller, quality producers’ desire for ‘terrior’ labelling, then changes introduced a few more years back (2007) are more likely to support the big boys making big volumes – inclusion of ‘new’ varieties in the DOCa regulations. Like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo.

Though the regulations stipulate that these varieties “may be used but none of them may dominate in the final product“, surely this is simply to allow ‘international’, commercially-successful varieties that can be characterful at high yield to give some flavour to cheap white Rioja? But to what end – how can Rioja outdo Chile for cheap Chardonnay? Or New Zealand for flavoursome Sauvignon Blanc? Or Rueda, the home of Verdejo? How does this make Rioja Blanco distinctive? At least the revival of Maturana Blanca (and Maturana Tinta) link to Rioja’s heritage.

Either way, change is most certainly afoot and Rioja should be watched as more and more serious, different wines come out over the coming years.

 

Producer Profiles

Producers I have visited or know well and who have interesting wines and / or stories. By region and village where their bodegas are located.

Rioja Alta, Haro

  • Bodegas Muga: family-owned bodega that deftly balances ‘classic’ and ‘modern’ styles, with great quality. One of my ‘Big 5’ of the Barrio de la Estación
  • La Rioja Alta: classically-styled wines, including the great 890 Gran Reserva and the great value, benchmark Viña Ardanza Reserva. But with a modern angle after acquiring Torre de Oña in Rioja Alavesa. Barrio Big 5
  • Lopez de Heredia-Viña Tondonia: the family-owned, über-traditionalists who have eschewed stainless steel and temperature control, while continuing long – very long – American oak ageing in an oxidative style for both reds and whites. But when they’re great, they’re really great. And they have Tinto, a winery-dog-of-the-year contender. Barrio Big 5
  • Bodegas Roda: bang next door to ultra-traditional Tondonia is ultra-modern Roda, whose first vintage in 1992 made them the newest of the Barrio Big 5, pioneering high-quality ‘modern’ Rioja
  • Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana (CVNE or Cune): a large producer of classical Cune entry-level Riojas, and Imperial Reservas and Gran Reservas. CVNE also own classical, elegant Viña Real near Logroño and more recently bought the rest of modernist Contino they didn’t own. Barrio Big 5
  • Ramón Bilbao: not in the Barrio, but a producer that has been growing and investing in upgrading itself since acquisition by the Zamora Company of Licor Cuarenta y Tres (43) fame. Becoming more in the modern style, but also experimenting a lot with altitude and other ways to moderate climate change

Rioja Alta, Logroño

  • Marqués de Murrieta: centred on the historic Ygay property, just East of Logroño, Murrieta’s Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial is a classical great. However, styles have become increasingly modern, with greater ripeness and new oak – particularly switching their Capellanía Rioja Blanco from a highly oxidative style to fruitier, new oak version in the early 2000s

Rioja Alavesa, Laguardia

  • Artadi: the forerunner of ‘new wave’ Rioja, with single-vineyard expressions at the pinnacle of their winemaking philosophy, including the rightly-lauded Viña El Pisón. No longer in Rioja DOCa
  • Pujanza: relatively new winery, focusing on ‘new wave’ single-vineyard, old-vine expressions of red and white Rioja. Some really classy wines from ‘entry’ level up to their top Cisma bottling
  • El Sacramento: new project showing potential, with wines made by Jesús de Madrazo the long-time winemaker of Contino. He joined in October 2017, but surprisingly left El Sacramento in July 2018, a month after we tasted the wines with him. It remains to be seen where the wines will go
  • Bodegas Ysios: space-age winery designed for 1m bottles of ‘modern’ Rioja, that is in right in the middle of transition to being a ‘new wave’, single vineyard, quality producer of 100,000 bottles. One to watch
  • El Fabulista: very unusual bodega, making wines with carbonic maceration within the walls and catacombs of Laguardia, and selling it all to their 25,000 annual tourist visitors
  • Contino: founded in 1973 as a single estate, ‘château’-style Rioja, Contino has built a strong reputation for excellence, in a modern style. From a relatively warm estate in a big meander of the Ebro, West of Logroño. With benchmark, single-varietal Graciano and Garnacha, in addition to their top, single-plot, Viña del Olivo, these are generous, but undeniably great Riojas. Owned by CVNE, with wines now made by Jorge Navascues who took over from Jesús de Madrazo in 2017

Rioja Alavesa, Elciego

  • Marqués de Riscal: long-standing, classical producer, whose Frank Gehry-designed, 2006, super-luxury hotel somewhat outshines the wines – and certainly most of the rest of the village of Elciego. Wines are solid, with some highlights, but behind the likes of Murrieta, Muga and Rioja Alta

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