Is Rioja having an identity crisis? For the average wine buyer staring at a supermarket shelf, this might seem a daft question. This famous region from Atlantic-influenced northern Spain continues to be a source of inexpensive, sound, flavourful wines. Even at this level, there is a style issue: if you want a red that is primarily about fruit, you would probably be best to look elsewhere, even in Spain. But if you want a savoury red wine with leather notes and some strawberry fruit, good acidity and balance, even inexpensive Rioja will hit the spot.
The style challenge arises when you get into the mid-price and top-priced wines. What should you expect? There are basically two poles and producers have to make a choice about where to sit on the spectrum. Since the 1970s, but with increasing intensity in the last two decades, the modernists have been at work. They, in turn, are responding to two main demands. First, there is the desire to be contemporary and new in their own market. Just as Super Tuscans have been all the rage in Italy and beyond, with their big, bold fruit flavours and expensive, new French oak, so producers in Rioja have sought a modern style. Here it is not about French varieties but about wines of deep colour and full flavour, big on new oak and body. The tendency also is for the red wines to be either 100% Tempranillo or at least 90%, in contrast to the blends of the past. A few producers also make wines which are 100% Garnacha (to give the Spanish grape its proper Spanish name) or even 100% Graciano, the spicy, intense, local speciality. Many modernists simply ignore the complex, age-based classification system (Crianza, Reserva,, etc) on the grounds that it is no guarantee of quality and, more fundamentally, is irrelevant to the style of wine. Second, these wines are undoubtedly aimed at American and international markets where big is beautiful. Classics of the new style include Roda and Artadi, and interestingly these are the wines that seem to command the highest prices. Correspondingly, there is modern style, Viura-based, white wines, with top examples aged for around a year in new French oak.
In the less fashionable corner is old school Rioja, much loved by aficionados but otherwise under-appreciated. (The aficionados don’t mind too much as it keeps prices down!) Here the style is about long-ageing in barrels, often of American oak, and release on to the market only after three, five or even ten years. The red wines are Tempranillo or blends, but in terms of colour, they are already on the ‘red brick road’ on release and will certainly continue to head off in this direction. The wines are medium in weight, with some tannic structure but they become beautifully soft with age, with mature strawberry fruit emerging in time, alongside obvious nut and dried fruit notes. They are unique – Rioja and some nearby regions are the only places in the world which makes this wonderful style of wine. They come out of a tradition made popular from the 1890s onwards when French wine merchants were in flight from the mildew and phylloxera which was decimating Bordeaux and they needed a new source of wine to sell. What happened in time was that the new-fangled barrels which they brought (the word ‘barrica’ in Spanish more than hints at its origin) were made from cheaper, easier to work, more exotically flavoured, more porous American oak. These barrels were then used to age the wines until they were ready to drink, perhaps after many years. From this basis the familiar age-based classification arose, which should tell you about quality but only does if the producer is scrupulous: Crianza (‘aged’, is a two-year-old wine, which in Rioja has spent a year in oak), Reserva (minimum three years, with a year in oak), Gran Reserva (minimum of five years old having spent at least two years in barrel). In reality, top producers release their wines when they think they are beginning to show the style they want which can be many years after these minimum stipulations – see the wines below. Heredia and La Rioja Alta are fine exponents of the old school style.
Andover Wine Friends had a great tasting of these wines for its January 2014 tasting. Here are the highlights:
Capellania Vineyard, Marques de Murrieta, 2008, new style white with fine Viura fruit from vines planted in 1955, the wine is aged for 19 months in new French barriques – obvious but classy oak on the nose, vanilla and clove but then intense lemon fruit and some lovely citrus peel notes, complex, well balanced
Viña Gravonia, Crianza, R Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia 2003 – 100% Viura from 45-year-old vines, fermented in oak barrels, aged in old barrels for four years, racked off every six months. The vintage was euphemistically labelled as ‘good’, ie extremely difficult and hot and the wine is rather oxidised but as yet with little of the layers of old wood, mushroom, and fruit it may develop; rather drying tannins. Very old school!
… so many highlights here:
Vendimmia Seleccionada, Gorrebusto, Bodega San Millán 2009 – 100% Tempranillo, 14 months in new French oak; a very sophisticated, knit together palate of leather, red fruit, tobacco and liquorice, a tad over medium in weight, very impressive in a modern style at a modest price
Viña Ardanza Reserva, La Rioja Alta, 2004 – 80% Tempranillo, grown on limestone soils, 20% Garnacha, from old bush vines; Tempranillo aged for three years in American oak barrels which average four years of age, the Garnacha for a shorter time: perfect balance of oxidative notes and fruit, still youthful grippy tannins promising much development yet
Gran Reserva 904, La Rioja Alta 2001 – 90% Tempranillo from 40-year-old vines, 10% Graciano; aged for four years in four-year-old American oak barrels made in the winery. Lovely garnet colour, impressive floral and red fruit on nose and palate, superb length, fine tannic backbone, brilliant now, much to come
Finally, a pair of CVNE Reservas from 2007 and 1978, nearly three decades between them! The young wine is intense and fruity, clove and liquorice, with great fine tannins and acidity; the old wine is delicate and floral with lifted old fruit and a soft but real structure. Remarkable and a midpoint between old school and modern.