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Reinventing Rioja

The rise of New World wines has forced Rioja's wineries to adapt to modern styles - just don't tell the Spanish. Margaret Rand reports...

Apparently, it’s fairly common practice for brewers to freeze samples of their beer.

Not for cheering up the staff on hot afternoons, but to monitor changes in flavour over the years.

Rioja wineries, as far as I know, do not do this.

But if they did, samples from 10 years ago, dug from the glacial depths (past the long-lost frozen peas and leftover ice cream), would be startlingly different from what appears now under the same labels.

Astonishingly, many consumers seem unaware. It’s quite an achievement: to have changed the colour, flavour and often the alcohol content of your wine, and quietly slipped the changes past your regulars.

Only Rioja could have done it. But then, only Rioja needed to.

By ‘regular’ customers I mean Spanish consumers. Some 70% of Rioja is drunk in Spain, of which 70% again is drunk is bars and restaurants.

So about half of all Rioja produced is destined to be drunk with food, either leaning against a bar picking at some jamón, or sitting down to hake cooked with pimientos and spices.

In which case, what would you order?

Something sweet and oaky, dense and dark? Or something with acidity, not too much alcohol and a light colour?

You’d almost certainly go for the latter.

And that’s what Spaniards did, week after week, year after year: thus the traditionalstyle

Riojas kept their market. A big market, that no one wanted to lose.

But in the boardrooms, they were worried. Their export markets were showing a distressing predilection for fruit. New World wine was sweeping all before it, and Robert Parker was changing the style of Bordeaux.

Rioja had to modernise – if only for part of its market.

And so began The Great Creep Forward.

The oldest barrels were sold off as flower pots. New barrels (some French) were bought, and replaced more frequently.

Wines were given less time in barrel – at La Rioja Alta, still a bastion of tradition (though positively modern compared to López Heredia), they were proud of their 20-year-old barrels. ‘Then, eight years ago, we went down to 12-year-old barrels.

Now the average age is four years,’ says export manager Javier Amescua. ‘It used to be six years in barrel, six in bottle for 904 Gran Reserva. Then it was five years and five years, and now it’s four years and four years.’

And, of course, the oak is younger. But the changes are gradual: you’d not notice any difference. ‘You have to change little by little,’ says Fernando Villamor, managing director of co-op El Patrocinio.

‘You can’t make big changes.’ Compare this to Bordeaux, where châteaux may change their style year on year and trumpet the news. Or Champagne, or anywhere. Only Rioja is so diffident about its hard work.

It’s not just oak; the alcohol level has increased, too. Wines that used to be about 11.5% are now 12.5% or 13%, and they’re darker, fresher and have more fruit.

It’s a huge change, and yet it’s been carried out by companies insisting on tradition and antiquity. Rioja in Britain and the US is promoted as something young and modern – the US slogan is ‘Vibrant Rioja’.

In Spain it’s ‘Rioja Passion’. ‘Vibrant’ say Riojans, simply doesn’t press the right buttons in Spain.

So while changes are presumably not hidden from customers, it’s a case of not frightening the horses – or, as Amescua says, ‘evolution not revolution’.

Older drinkers in Spain still like faded, frail, light-coloured wines. A Rioja house can only modernise so far without losing its consistent character, and its customers.

La Rioja Alta built a new winery in 1996 that enables it to keep different lots of wine separate during vinification; it’s gone back to basket presses too. Bordeaux wine scientist Pascal Chatonnet consults.

The wines are seamless and elegant, with lovely mouthfeel and balance; the noticeable volatile acidity is part of their attraction.

If La Rioja Alta wanted to modernise further (it says it doesn’t) that savoury, leathery character, and the volatile acidity that goes with it, might have to go.

That would be a big change indeed.

Another brake on rapid change is growers. There are a few single-estate producers in Rioja, but the big houses depend on growers for at least part of their raw materials.

And in order to get them to produce the riper, darker grapes for more modern styles, the houses have to pay by different parameters. Or buy more vineyards, as La Rioja Alta did, increasing from 250ha (hectares) to 450ha.

A shorter cut to modernisation is to buy another company to be your modern alto ego, just as La Rioja Alta did with Baron de Ona. The most popular way of all, though, is to launch new wines to attract modern drinkers, while nudging your existing wines more gradually into the modern world.

Marqués de Murrieta launched Dalmau, dark and dense with extraction and Cabernet Sauvignon, at the same time as releasing its existing wines younger. The new wine thus leapfrogs the whole process. Muga has Torre Muga; Riscal has Baron de Chirél.

Style-conscious Riojans have become adept at clinging to tradition while going all out for modernity. It’s there in the buildings, too: look at Riscal’s hotel by acclaimed neoexpressionist architect Frank Gehry; or the shop at López de Heredia.

This company is the final bastion of antiquity – Maria José López de Heredia, the founder’s great-granddaughter, swears she will never modernise the wines or winery – but the new shop was designed by famed deconstructivist Zaha Hadid.

So these days, exactly what is Rioja?

According to shipper Carlos Read of Moreno Wines, ‘In the absence of a brand, Rioja has become a brand. It covers all sins, and that’s the source of the problem.

Spanish consumers are indiscriminating, and they take two-thirds of the production. Many want gentle, frail styles with lots of wood. The advent of new money into Rioja brought lots of big, dark, overextracted wines.

There’s a small following for these, but not that much.’

It certainly seems to be true that consumers under 50, certainly those under 35 – want darker, fruitier wines.

But even more recently founded companies are not always uncomplicatedly modern. Allende, for example: beautifully made, beautifully balanced wines, but its only modern wine is the refined Calvario.

Even Roda isn’t that modern, if you understand ‘modern’ to mean ‘fruitdriven’.

But if someone says they’re happy to sacrifice body and colour for fruit, does that make them ultra-modern? Or postmodern?

So says Elsa Ubis García, winemaker at Maruqés de Arviza. She describes her wines as ‘classical’, and she seeks the complexity of the old, without the frailty. Her wines have freshness, silkiness, perfume and balance; and they’re very moreish.

Over at El Patrocinio, the wine billed as the most modern, called Zinio, is light on new oak, and its ‘classic’ wines, it admits, are not that classic: they’re an exercise, says MD Fernando Villamor, in ‘how to approach the younger market while maintaining your consumer base’.

But perhaps Rioja has been fortunate in being unable to respond instantly to fashion. Certainly, some wines in Rioja have succumbed to the lure of carpentry, but by and large it has escaped the trend for massive extraction.

Now that this trend is receding, Rioja should be in a perfect position to offer carefully thought out balance and fruit. At undeniably modern Darien, for example, the flavours are refined, positive, confident.

At Viña Hermosa, its heart is clearly in the modern wines: Ermita, Abando and Irep. There’s no shortage of experimentation going on in Rioja. El Patrocinio will launch a trio from different soils; Ijalba will launch wines from old Rioja grape varieties such as Maturana Blanca.

La Rioja Alta is busy looking at maturing Tempranillo from one year with Garnacha from a younger year, to see if the blend ages better than with Garnacha of the same age. These are as interesting ideas as you will see anywhere in the world.

I’m not against old-style Rioja.

López Heredia is looking a little eccentric now, but what’s wrong with that? What is odd is the widespread reluctance to be seen to change.

Roll on the day when Rioja can shout its modernity from the rooftops.

Written by Margaret Rand

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