The production of Rioja took off in the 1990s. VICTOR DE LA SERNA explains how new-style wines are a return to the past

The production of Rioja took off in the 1990s. VICTOR DE LA SERNA explains how new-style wines are a return to the past

Miguel Angel de Gregorio has answered the same question a thousand times, but commendably doesn’t sound jaded when replying: ‘What you make is very good wine, dark and spicy and structured – but is it Rioja? It doesn’t resemble Rioja or, at least, the Rioja clichés in everyone’s mind.’

De Gregorio is the owner and winemaker of Finca Allende, one of the most celebrated among the fledgling wineries that make ‘new wave’ Rioja. Yet he cringes visibly when hearing that expression, as do other purported modernists. They insist they are just going back to their roots, while the mass producers of soft, light, vanillin-infused, ‘traditional’ Rioja are only perpetuating a number of habits developed during the 1970s.

Contrary to what some non-Spanish wine writers who only discovered Rioja 30 years ago have been saying, the change in style over the past decade is down not to innovation but recovery; a return to its roots – although few have attempted it seriously and successfully.

The most successful members of this distinguished group are Finca Allende, Cosecheros Alaveses (Artadi), Roda, Señorío de San Vicente (and sister winery Sierra Cantabria), Muga (particularly Muga Reserva and Torre Muga cuvées), Contino, Fernando Remírez de Ganuza, Finca Valpiedra, Lanzaga, Marqués de Vargas, and even some small-scale growers like Abel Mendoza.

‘I have only been rediscovering what we used to do in Rioja,’ De Gregorio explains. ‘Old vines, low yields, good vineyard sites, careful winemaking, respecting the fruit, avoiding excessive manipulation. Is that betraying our ‘terroir’ and our style? I don’t think so. What is sad is that people have forgotten our true traditions.’

At 36, the feisty De Gregorio could be excused for having forgotten or even known traditions. But actually he grew up immersed in them. The son of Marqués de Murrieta’s vineyard manager, he remembers the time when great wines at the century-old estate were made by carbonic maceration (yet lived on for decades) and when yields were 25 hectolitres per hectare (ha). He knew and followed the power and concentration of wines made before he was born, like the 1952 Murrieta. He settled in Briones, whose clay-dominated soils he favours, for they give powerful wines like his acclaimed Aurus.

One of the most vocal critics of Rioja viticulture and winemaking since the 1970s is Telmo Rodríguez. ‘We have had to go back and taste many of the older wines – such as Marqués de Riscal 1958 – in order to understand what their profile was, and why they have gone on for decades,’ he says. ‘They had so much more concentration than wine made later, but never lost balance and elegance.’

Rodríguez, now 38, was known in the early 1990s as the winemaker for his family’s estate, Granja Nuestra Señora de Remelluri. He now makes wine all over Spain and Portugal, including his new Rioja venture, Lanzaga, from a small high-altitude estate near Laguardia. The wine is remarkable for its elegance and is proof of the diversity of styles in so-called ‘new wave’ Rioja.

De Gregorio has an explanation for what he terms a ‘misunderstanding’ of Rioja. ‘When international tasters started getting into our wines seriously, in the late 1970s, there were still many bottles from the 1930s and 1940s around,’ he says. ‘These were fine, silky, complex wines. They compared them with recent Rioja, which at its best was fine and silky, if less complex, and decided that this was the style. In my opinion, they didn’t pause to consider that a lively 40-year old wine had probably been deep and very powerful at age five, or that those new soft wines had little chance of living as long as a Marqués de Riscal 1945.

‘A five-year old wine with the smoothness of an old one is the product of three or four years in old oak – which diffuses the fruit and adds vanilla – and younger vines with a higher yield of less concentrated fruit,’ De Gregorio continues.

‘Until 1970 Rioja was a depressed state. It was more profitable to grow barley than vines, so vineyard acreage shrunk and fine old vines were ripped up. Then Rioja became popular and a planting boom started. The increase in yields is mind-boggling. There is no way you can get the same quality.’

Juan Carlos López de Lacalle, manager of Artadi – who became instantly famous this year when Robert Parker, the American critic, awarded his highest ever rating of a Rioja wine to his Viña El Pisón 1995 – echoes De Gregorio: ‘I’ll never forget the depth of a López Heredia Viña Bosconia 1954 I tasted a few years ago. This must have been very powerful stuff in its youth. And don’t forget that they not only had very low yields, but there were also still quite a few ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vineyards around back then.’

The increase in yields, a key to the current situation, has been phenomenal, particularly in the 1990s. Since only a tiny fraction of Rioja’s vineyards now are under irrigation, the causes lie elsewhere: sites, productive clones, pruning methods and fertilisers. Rioja’s production records have been broken every year between 1995 and 2000 (except 1999, when spring frosts cut yields measurably).

Rioja’s production has gone from 161,000 hectolitres in 1990 to an estimated 320,000 in 2000. Yield per hectare (ha) – taking the increasing vineyard surface into account – has risen from 34 to 61 hl/ha. Even in 1994–95, during a period of drought, the yield jumped from 33 to 43 hl/ha.

No wonder De Gregorio, Rodríguez and the other ‘modernists’ seem more obsessed with old vineyards, green pruning, full maturity and grape selection tables than with reverse osmosis or malolactic in barrel. This, of course, means that they must own or at least control all of their vineyards – a break with Rioja’s ‘négociant’ tradition of bought-in grapes. This kind of quality and control is incompatible with batches of four million reserva bottles, which some old-time producers routinely make. Smaller yields and smaller cuvées inevitably push up costs.

All of the new producers are committed to Tempranillo as their main grape. Some favour blends with small percentages of Graciano, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, and occasionally of Garnacha (Grenache).

In the cellar, behind computer-controlled cooling systems and stainless steel vats (or oak fermenting uprights as at Roda, or resin-lined concrete vats favoured by De Gregorio), winemaking methods are traditional.

Their revolution has been, first of all, a viticultural one, not to mention a minority phenomenon. Their wines represent just one percent of the region’s output. And they can afford such idiosyncrasies as ignoring the old Rioja ageing levels (crianza, reserva, gran reserva), which to them mean little in terms of ensuring quality.

The manager of one of the new, much talked-about wineries, Bodegas Roda, is a viticulturist by training, not an oenologist. Agustín Santolaya, now 39, launched the new venture, owned by the Barcelona-based Rotllant-Daurella family, by identifying the top potential 100 sites in Rioja Alta and

buying land or signing long-term contracts to use grapes from old vineyards on 12 of those sites. The contracts give viticultural control to the Roda team.

Roda’s top wine, Cirsion, is made from Tempranillo grapes selected in the vineyard for unusually perfect maturity – their tannins having been polymerized while on the vine, thus not waiting for fermentation. They retain huge power but are totally rounded when the wine is quite young.

Fernando Remírez de Ganuza, whose wish is to make ‘the best Rioja wine ever’, made a fortune in real estate and knows the area like few others. A series of swaps and rental agreements have given him an enviable portfolio of old vineyards.

At his Samaniego cellar in a spectacularly restored mansion, de Ganuza shows some innovative skills, particularly at a grape selection table in which each bunch of grapes is cut in two: the more mature ‘shoulders’ used for the top wines, the bottom part going into carbonic maceration for’nouveau’-style wine.

The Eguren family of San Vicente de la Sonsierra also saw the need for individual vineyard sites for more personal, top-quality wines. Their San Vicente comes from a single vineyard planted to Tempranillo Peludo (‘hairy Tempranillo’), a peculiar Sonsierra clone. Even their larger Sierra Cantabria winery is recovering long-lost styles, like their floral Colección Privada in which half the grapes undergo carbonic maceration.

‘I’m lucky that this is a family winery and I can do what I really want,’ says Marcos Eguren, 41, the oenologist brother. ‘At a big bodega, commercial pressures would have made this impossible. When I started San Vicente in 1991, using 100% new French oak, everyone said I was crazy.’

‘Oak is one thing we know more about than the old timers,’ says De Gregorio. No musty 20-year old barrels are around now, and French is preferred to American. It makes for the one more debatable aspect of these wines – the aromatic predominance of new oak in them, at least when young, which is sometimes excessive, giving ammunition to critics who say they are too ‘international’.

‘Prices may go down now that grapes are less expensive than their 1999 records (£1,500 a metric tonne),’ says De Gregorio, whose Allende retails in Spain for £7. ‘But this counts mainly for large bodegas that buy in their grapes. Also, many of the prices seen internationally are outside our control, because we are more fashionable and speculation starts to play a role.’

Artadi Viña El Pisón 1995 shot up from £28 to £140 in Spanish shops within a week of Parker giving it a 99 score. Many of the larger Spanish wineries, attracted by the lure of higher prices, now mimic the newcomers, choosing their best barrels and bottling them in Italian-design bottles. But they seldom go the full distance, other than in appearance and price.

Contino, a CVNE single-estate subsidiary, is one of the exceptions. It began making ‘new wave’ wine in the late 1970s, and these early bottles attest to the ageing ability of the renewed Riojas – an ability that critics sometimes doubt. Brilliantly relaunched by Jesús Madrazo, its young winemaker, Contino now has a gem in its single-

vineyard Viña del Olivo.

Muga, Marqués de Riscal (with its Barón de Chirel), Martínez Bujanda (with its separate Finca Valpiedra estate) and Palacios Remondo (with its Dos Viñedos cuvée) are other large bodegas which have joined the movement, and not just cosmetically.

Written by VICTOR DE LA SERNA