Rioja: the rise of indigenous grape varieties

  • Friday 9 October 2009

Tempranillo will always be Rioja’s anchor, but Amy Wislocki finds producers looking
to other indigenous grapes in a bid to offer alternative styles

Cojon de gato may never catch on, but it is among 70 native grapes being lovingly nurtured in Rioja, in a bid to restore their use. Literally translated as ‘cat’s testicle’ – and so called because of its appearance on the vine – it is hard to imagine parts of the feline anatomy gracing bottle labels any time soon. In truth, this particular grape will probably never see a bottling line, but the attention being devoted to reviving traditional Riojan grapes is part of a clear push in the region to maintain its identity in a market often dominated by identikit reds made from a handful of grapes, with little or no regional typicity.

‘We don’t want to make the same mistake as Navarra,’ says Ricardo Aguiriano San Vicente of the generic body Wines from Rioja. ‘After they allowed the planting and promotion

of international grapes, producers neglected Garnacha and focused on Cabernet. Suddenly they had to compete with 100 other countries, with “me-too” wines.’ Rioja hasn’t quite had the courage to completely close the door to international grapes, however, and in a long-standing, rather farcical concession to those who do want to copy the Navarra example, producers can make red wines using international grapes – so long as those varieties aren’t mentioned on the label. Such plantings and bottlings enjoy ‘experimental’ status, despite the fact that such experiments aren’t exactly new and the status quo is unlikely to change within the next decade.

So how can we expect to see the style of the average Rioja change in the 2010s? Rioja remains fiercely loyal to Tempranillo, aware it has brought a brand awareness that must be the envy of many wine regions. Despite global exports decreasing by 11% last year, overall sales in export markets rose by 57% in the seven years before that. The mantra seems to be ‘quality and consistency’, and this focus has paid off – most consumers probably have no idea that Tempranillo is the main grape of Rioja (and of Spain, for that matter), but they do know that the wine they pick from the shelf will have soft, strawberry fruit with a dash of vanilla.

Or at least this has been the case in the past. Today the jammy fruit and vanilla are being replaced in many wines by a more focused, pure, fruit-driven, structured style. Extended ageing in older barrels is falling out of favour, and wines are being aged for shorter periods in newer oak. Crianza continues to climb in popularity, at the expense of the declining Gran Reserva category.

There is also a new emphasis on single-varietal and single-vineyard wines, and more attention paid to Rioja’s different terroirs. ‘Historically, we focused on how long the wines have spent in cask and bottle,’ says Roberto Alonso of Bodegas Valdemar in Rioja Alavesa. ‘Now this is starting to change, with talk about soils and sub-regions, and single-vineyard wines.’

Growers remain the dominant force in Rioja, with wineries owning only 15% of the vineyard area. This explains why up to now, wineries have talked up the winemaking aspects of production – how can you enthuse over the terroir character of a wine when it is probably a blend of fruit from across Rioja? It also explains why Tempranillo accounts for 80% of red grapes planted here – it is easier for contract growers to cultivate and sell than the other main native reds, Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo.

Going native

Garnacha in particular has suffered at the expense of Tempranillo, with plantings in decline; there are just 6,000ha in Rioja, against Tempranillo’s 50,000ha. ‘There has been a push to promote Garnacha in the warmer Rioja Baja sub-region, but in Rioja Alta it will always be easier to sell Tempranillo,’ explains John Radford, Decanter World Wine Awards Regional Chair for Spain. ‘Or, if growers have the money, they’ll plant the fashionable but still rare Graciano instead.’

An increase in single-varietal reds made from Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo – plus the Rioja wine body’s project to rescue native varieties on the verge of extinction – is shaking things up. Tempranillo will always be the major force, but the region’s other indigenous grapes offer exciting alternatives for those determined to seek out wines which are often made in very small quantities.

Talk to anyone in Rioja about this subject and the name Juan Carlos Sancha invariably comes up. His doctoral thesis was entitled ‘The revival of native minority grapes in DOCa Rioja’, and this has been an all-consuming passion in his career so far. He made Rioja’s first single-varietal Graciano for Viña Ijalba in 1995 (‘It would have been the first in the world,’ he says ruefully, ‘but for Brown Brothers in Australia’), followed by the first Maturana Blanca in 2001 and the first Maturana Tinta in 2002. Today he is bringing to life more native grapes, in tiny quantities, under his own Ad Libitum label.

‘There are about 8,000 grape varieties in the world,’ says Sancha, ‘but just 10 of them account for 90% of production. Wine should have a geographic stamp; otherwise, it’s just Coca-Cola.’ Some varieties are impossible to revive, he says, but there are six that have been earmarked for attention: Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Blanco, Turruntés (not to be confused with Torrontes), Maturana Tinta, Maturano and Monastel de Rioja (not to be confused with Monastrell). Sancha owns 2.5ha of Maturana Tinta and 1.5ha of Tempranillo Blanco, and the latest vintages of both have great potential – the grapes are characterful, individual and have that all-important geographic stamp.

‘Tempranillo Blanco isn’t widespread yet because it’s a recent discovery – a natural mutation of Tempranillo Tinto,’ explains Sancha. ‘It has fantastic acidity and aromas, and will combine well with Viura.’ Sancha believes the best wines are blends, but there is value in monovarietal wines ‘to showcase other grapes and to educate people.’ Red grape Maturana Tinta is also an ideal blending partner, he says. It has good colour, elegance and acidity, an ideal match for the fairly low-acidity Tempranillo. Baron de Ley has 20ha of it, and managing director Victor Fuentes describes it as ‘a hidden jewel’. Bodegas Valdemar also has a small amount, and makes a single-varietal version under the Inspiracion label.

Far easier to find in Rioja are single-varietal examples of Garnacha and Graciano. Sancha hopes for a halt in the decline of Garnacha plantings. ‘Just 35 years ago there was more Garnacha planted than Tempranillo; now it accounts for just 14% of red plantings. The problem is that yields are inconsistent, it’s harder to vinify than Tempranillo, and it doesn’t have the colour that Tempranillo does, which means it’s harder to sell in the US, where Parker’s influence means it’s all about colour, colour, colour.’

A number of wineries are now making 100% Garnacha wines, including Bodegas Breton in Rioja Alta, where winemaker Pilar Bello values its pronounced floral aromas. She makes the wine in a full-bodied style, aged in French oak, but ready to drink. The first Rioja winery to make a reserva from Garnacha was Valdemar, with the aim of making a serious wine that could age. ‘We’re great believers in Garnacha,’ says export director Roberto Alonso. ‘There are old vines in Priorat and Châteauneuf-du-Pape that give wines that age well, so why not here?’ In Rioja Alavesa, Valserrano makes a Garnacha that shows what vines with some age and good soil can produce.

Up the road at Luis Cañas, commercial director Jose Miguel Zubia says Alavesa is too cool to make a 100% Garnacha, but the winery continues to experiment with the variety. But it does produce a varietal Graciano. ‘This grape is like Marmite,’ says Zubia; ‘you either love it or hate it.’ Good varietal examples show lovely colour, alcohol and acidity, a minty, spicy nose, and a minerality on the palate, balanced by inky dark fruits. The grape is notoriously difficult to grow – the joke is lightthat Graciano originates from growers’ response to requests to grow it: ‘Gracias, no’. Or it could come from the gracia – joy or grace – that it lends to a wine.

Graciano is often compared to Cabernet Sauvignon but, says Valdemar’s Alonso, it is more mineral and minty, less chocolatey. ‘It’s very inconsistent,’ he says. ‘It’s late ripening, and needs to grow in the warmer parts of Rioja to avoid being green. The yields are half those of Tempranillo, but Graciano doesn’t fetch twice as much money. Everyone claims they have it planted but if there was much as people say there is, it would account for far more than 1% or 2% of vines.’

Some wineries use Graciano in the blend of joven-style wines, such as Bodegas Ontañon in its Arteso label – but it is increasingly finding its way into varietal labellings, in many expressions. Contino has made an effort to rescue the grape since 1994, and its varietal Graciano is unusual in using fruit from Alavesa, often considered too cool for it. ‘We have about 15ha planted, and it’s in such a warm spot it often ripens before our Tempranillo,’ says Oscar Urrutia, key markets director. He believes 100% Graciano wines need time in bottle. ‘The acidity is high, and it’s great for ageing. We recently tasted vintages from the mid-1990s – fabulous.’

‘You have to get the balance right,’ says Rafael Vivanco, winemaker at Dinastia Vivanco in Rioja Alta, which combines a winery, an architecturally striking wine museum and a research centre. ‘Graciano needs to be fully ripe to get the full expression, but you need the right acidity too, so site selection is crucial.’ After extensive studies of soils, terroirs and microclimates, Vivanco has launched Colección Vivanco, a limited-production range including varietal Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo.

Mazuelo is probably the rarest of the three as a single-varietal wine, despite the fact there is far more planted here (1,610ha) than Graciano (990ha). Known elsewhere as Carignan, Mazuelo in Rioja is a robust, tannic, ageworthy variety. ‘It’s hard to sell, but we only make a few thousand bottles, for wine lovers and sommeliers,’ says Valserrano’s Pablo de Simon.

There are a few 100% Mazuelos – including one made under the Azabache label by one of Rioja’s largest co-ops, Aldeneuva. With an operation spanning 850 growers and 2,600ha, accounting for 5% of Rioja’s production, it’s encouraging that such a big commercial concern is producing such uncommercial wines. Of course, Mazuelo is unlikely to become the next big thing in Spanish red but, like the other native grapes gaining ground, it’s another string to Rioja’s bow. And proves that, when it comes to grapes beyond Tempranillo, Rioja can produce some weird and wonderful wines as well as the strawberries and vanilla.

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