Rioja is Spain’s most prestigious wine region, with grape prices that fetch at least 200% more than the national average.It’s also one of the most appealing.
Stone, hilltop villages, meandering rivers and brooding mountains enliven the
vineyard landscapes, and a mix of new designer bodegas (cellars) and venerable,
rustic ones beckon the visitor at every turn.
The energy and vision that is driving the Spanish wine industry to new heights
of excellence has reinvigorated Rioja too. In 1991 it became the only Denominacion
de Origen Calificada in recognition of the high quality of its wines and the
quality control imposed.
Rioja’s reputation was established in the late 19th century when Bordeaux negociants
began shopping around here in the wake of a phylloxera crisis in France.
Its location in north-east Spain is ideally suited to prime grape cultivation.
Climatic extremes are rare, and the Sierra de Cantabria to the north and west
shelter the area from the harsh Atlantic wind and rain. The altitude ranges
from 300m in the east to nearly 800m to the north west, while the average annual
rainfall is between 300mm and 500mm.
The region is divided into three zones. Rioja Alta lies in the Ebro river valley
to the west of the provincial capital, Logrono. Rioja Alavesa, north of the
Ebro, is part of the Rioja wine region but falls outside the Rioja province,
being in the Basque province of Alava. Rioja Baja stretches south and east of
Many of the best grapes are grown on the cool slopes and in the clay soils
of the Rioja Alta and limestone soils of Rioja Alavesa. In Rioja Baja a more
Mediterranean climate prevails, with temperatures that reach 35C.
Rioja’s vineyards, in the hands of about 14 000 growers, tend to be small and
sparsely cultivated with low bushvines that are typically old and gnarled. About
80% of the 60 000 hectares under vine are planted to red varieties. Tempranillo,
an aromatic, indigenous grape, is the most widely planted and is particularly
well suited to the Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. Garnacha (Grenache) grapes
are grown mostly in the hotter vineyards of Rioja Baja. Most Rioja red wines
are blends of Tempranillo and Grenache. Also grown are Graciano, Mazuelo (Carignan)
and some Cabernet Sauvignon. The most planted white variety is Viura (Macabeo),
followed by Malvasia.
Though change is afoot, few growers make their own wines, and most wines are
produced by merchant bodegas or co-operatives with modern stainless steel tanks
and temperature control facilities.
Barrel maturation has always played a key role in Rioja wines. Regulations
specify the shape and size of the barrels (a 225 litre barrica bordelesa) and
the minimum ageing period for each category: at least a year for Crianza and
Reserva red wines, two years in the case of a Gran Reserva red. American oak,
for decades Rioja’s first choice, imparting the distinctive, soft, vanilla flavour
typically associated with Rioja wines, is being superseded by French oak. Barrels
are used many times.
The length of time an oak-aged Rioja must spend in tank or bottle before the
wine can be released is also specified. Crianzas require an additional year,
Reservas two and Gran Reservas at least three.
For whites the ageing period is six months, with a further year in bottle for
Crianza, two years for Reserva, and four for Gran Reserva, but the practice
of oak-ageing whites is tapering off significantly.
A certain Latin disregard for regulations as well as a revision in winemaking
techniques has resulted in extended maceration periods and a reduced focus on
ageing that is producing generous, expressive reds with a more modern, lush
Bodegas are beginning to grow their own grapes and some are quietly experimenting
with blends that incorporate non-traditional grape varieties such as Cabernet
Sauvignon. The whites too have moved from being bland and insipid to exuding
vibrancy and distinction.
The new generation of wines reject the old principles in much the same way
that Italy’s Super Tuscans dodge the DOC system. Ripeness and structure are
replacing the smooth, oaky aesthetic.
As Robert Joseph puts it, “Suddenly, like a car whose driver has just
found an extra gear, the wines have begun to leap ahead – into often largely
uncharted territory. There are traditionalists who would prefer all this pioneering
business to stop, but the wine genie is out of the bottle and there seems little
chance of anyone forcing it back inside again.”
According to Wine Spectator, the standout label is Finca Allende, a family-owned
bodega that grows its own grapes. Look out for their Rioja Calvario 2000 (“muscular
but graceful with ripe blackberry, licorice and nutmeg”) and Rioja 1999.
A white well worth tracking down is Rioja White Barrel Fermented 2002 from
Bodegas Muga (“lovely echo of traditional whites with a waxy texture and
marzipan and lemon curd flavours”).
Grapes: Red — Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache)
White – Viura (Macabeo)
Soils: Ranging from clay and limestone to alluvial.
Climate: Ranging from cool and temperate to Mediterranean. Few climatic extremes,
though summers in the south and east can be fiercely hot and dry, and winter
frost and snow are not uncommon.
Rainfall: Between 300 and 500mm annually.
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