For me there is something very special about being in La Rioja, the place itself has a great feeling (and no, I’m not into all that be one with nature rubbish). It has something to do with the mountains encasing the river valley in the north, the Cantrabrian mountains in particular have formed a vivid reference for me over the years. Mix this in with the terraced vines, the people, and the food, La Rioja is a excellent place to visit. I try to get back there every time I go to Spain. There is plenty to do and see asides from visiting bodegas and drinking wine too.
Rioja is without doubt the most well know wine region in Spain, however this is something of a blessing and a curse. Ask most people what they know about Rioja wine and they’ll say things like daggy, old wood, light, cheap, strawberries and vanilla. Old fashioned. With the amount of cheap crap that gets pumped into supermarkets in the UK and Europe its no wonder there is a notion that Rioja wine is cheap and not so cheerful. Regardless of all that, there have always been great wines made in Rioja and I think there Rioja has never made better wine than it does now. Over the past 30 years the industry has modernised, new styles have evolved while the prices are still very reasonable for the calibre of wines made.
Rioja is located in the high northern plains in the centre of Spain, strangely enough its right in the middle of the La Rioja Provence. The main wine growing areas run fairly much east-west in the Ebro valley, between the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range to the north and the Sierra de la Demanda to the south. The highest parts of the region are in the west at Rioja Alvesa. Its mainly a continental climate, but its such a large area that its impossible to summarise it in such a small statement. It takes about 2 hours to drive from east to west. As such it is divided into 3 very different areas: Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alvesa.
The only real diference between Rioja Alta and Rioja Alvesa is that Alvesa is north of the river Ebro and is part of the Barsque Country (Pais Vasco) provence of Alva. Rioja Alta is more Castillian and lies south of the river. It is not actually that clear cut, as there are sections of Rioja Alta above the river at Abalos, but this should give you the general idea.
The Consejo Regulador regulates the varieties that are permitted under the Rioja label, however there are a few that slip in a category of ‘other’, mainly for historical reasons. The allowed varieties are:
Tempranillo (61%), Garnacha (18%), Graciano (0.7%) and Mazuelo (3.5%). Viura (15%), Malvasía (0.25%) and Granacha Blanca (0.11%). Other: 1.44%. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo are now also allowed as of the 2007 vintage, however stats are not available on the size of planting as yet.
Climate and Geography
Wine making and styles
Red, white and rose styles are all made here, but its the reds that really drive sales and production. As you would expect for such a large area, there is a huge range of styles of wine being made. Anything I write here will be a gross generalisation, but this should give you a broad idea of what is going on in Rioja at the moment. There are two main styles in use at the moment in Rioja (you could also generalise this to most of Spain): Traditional and Modern. Many producers make wine in both styles, so it isn’t cut and dry as to what to expect, in fact the modern movement was kicked off by traditional producers looking for something new.
The traditional wines stem from late 19th century demand from wood aged wines in the style of Bordeaux at the time. These wines can be characterised by sublte wines that spend years in wood and are carefully blended from wines from a two or more of Rioja’s regions and the allowed varieties. Single variety traditional wines are rare, the blend of about 80% Tempranillo with the rest made of a blend made up of a varying amount of the 3 other red grapes is the norm. There can also be a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon in some wines, this is a historical throwback to the 1870s when it is was the cool thing to be growing in Rioja. An example of this is the Marques de Riscal ‘Barron de Chirel’ which uses some very old vine Cabernet and Tempranillo from Rioja Alta.
The Crianza aging system is used to give direction to the bodegas and consumers on style, But really its up to each bodega to monitor quality and the use of wood. American oak is one of the trademarks of the traditional style, usually low amounts (10-35%) of new oak are used, and many wines are aged in much older barrels that are effectively neutral in terms of imparting flavour. The grapes are usually harvested a bit earlier to realise about 12-13.5% alcohol and a good acid backbone, the Reserva and Gran Reserva wines usually getting the riper fruit to stand up to the extended oak treatment. Both white and rose wines can be given the oak maturation treatment as well. While not common, they are some of Rioja’s most distinctive wines. A good example is R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia’s whites and roses.
Of the traditional styles made in Rioja the wood aged wines tend to perform the best. The young joven wines can be a bit lacking in omphf in many vintages. But like any good rule, there are exceptions. I find that I prefer the great expression of fruit that can be found from young Tempranillo wines a little further west in Castilla y Leon. But when it comes to the crianza and reserva wines, there are few regions in Spain that can deliver the subtle but flavoursome and interesting wines at the same price point.
Powerful, very ripe, French oaked modern wines started appearing in the market in the late 80s early 90s. The term that has been coined for these wines is Alta Expreccion or high expression wines, and for many this is what they are. When they were starting to appear there was all kinds of rash statements made: they won’t age, they don’t taste like Rioja, too much oak and highly extracted. We are now seeing that many of these wines age very well and the older they get, the more they taste like Rioja with the volume knob turned up to 11. But the nay-sayers where right on the oak, way too much for many wines. A lot of winemakers are now very careful with their use of oak and its moved from 100% new oak down to more reasonable levels of 30-60%.
There are a few truly modern producers, like Roda for example, but many of traditional producers are now making these modern wines as well. For example Bodegas Muga makes Torre Muga and Aro in a modern style while still producing their traditional reserva and gran reserva wines. Even Marqes de Mirretta, one of the most traditional producers, is making a modern wine.
So which is better? Neither. They are both excellent in their own way. Some prefer one style, while others bemoan that all the best grapes are going into these modern wines and leaving their treasured traditional wines with lower quality materials. The only real answer comes from your own palate and tasting through a range of styles to find your own opinion.