Despite being one of Spain’s most traditional wine areas, Rioja is by no means standing still. Spain expert JOHN RADFORD examines recent changes within the region, looks at the key players and newcomers, and recommends the best new releases and good-value wines.
There’s a popular supposition that the world’s most traditional wine regions never change. But the opposite is true, and nowhere more so than in Rioja.
I have to smile when I hear people tasting the new-wave, ‘high expression’ wines and saying that, while they are excellent wines, they’re not ‘proper Rioja’. I’m sure that’s what they said to Murrieta and Riscal in the 1850s, and it’s certainly what they said to Enrique Forner of Cáceres in the 1970s.
Rioja is easily divided into four stylistic groups: ‘historic’, for fresh bright-fruit, joven wines, typical of Rioja Alavesa, made since Roman times; ‘classic’ for the wines pioneered by Murrieta and Riscal in the 19th century – crianza, reserva and gran reserva – which have entered the consciousness of the wine world as ‘proper Rioja’; ‘modern’ for the wines pioneered by Cáceres from the 1970s, fermented in stainless steel and given the minimum legal oak, with more emphasis on ageing in bottle; and ‘post-modern’ wines, which may be individually made from old plots of vines, minority varietials, or represent in some other way a unique expression of the vineyard.
The biggest recent change in Rioja has been political, with the establishment of the Organización Interprofesionel de los Vinos de Rioja (OIPVR) as the ultimate authority over the wine. Until April this year, the Consejo Regulador de la Denominación Calificada Rioja (CRDOCa) had been the ‘police force’ of the region and, indeed, so it remains – with one important difference. Namely, that the OIPVR, made up of growers and bodegas, is now in charge of policy-making in the region.
The worry among traditionalists is that, while the old CRDOCa was accused of being bureaucratic and out of touch with the realities of the market, the OIPVR is very much in touch with the market. So much so that some fear it will liberalise the rules, and dilute the international image of Rioja.
The outgoing CRDOCa was adamant that the new Spanish wine law of June 2003 was not going to change local regulations. Today, there is a good deal
of uncertainty surrounding future specifications. However, Rioja now offers a greater diversity of wines and styles than at any other time in its history.
The popular image is of a red wine, largely made from Tempranillo, good, big, strawberry/raspberry fruit, a hint of vanilla from the oak in the barrel, ready to drink but also capable of ageing for many years. This is still the style of classic Rioja. But there has been some considerable diversity recently.
The most controversial area has been the making of alta expresión wines. These were pioneered by bodegas such as Finca Allende, Roda and Primicia, and later taken up by Viña Izadi, Luís Cañas and almost every other producer – if only in the flagship category alongside the traditional wines.
Typically these are wines from old vines at low yields, hand selected in the vineyard and the bodega (sometimes obsessively so, like a beerenauslese) and they may be single varietals or single-vineyard production. The limited production usually comes in specially designed, heavyweight bottles with equally heavyweight price-tags.
One potential downside to all this is that small plots of old vines have sometimes been hijacked to make these wines. When these small but vital ingredients were what gave the mainstream wines their character, the bodega’s mainstream wines have lost out. Such worries are not entirely unfounded, but winemaking practices have changed so much in recent years in Rioja that responsible bodegas have managed to crank up the general quality of their wines as well as producing new ‘tête de cuve’ wines. (The term is actually ‘techo de cubo’ – literally ‘head of the bucket’ – in Spanish, though this doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.)
There have been three major changes in the last 10 years affecting quality. The first is hand-selection of bunches, which has always been a feature of Riojano viticulture: hand-picking was seen as a last-ditch method of quality control, though selection now goes much further.
Marqués de Riscal was one of the first to install a hand-sorting table in 1995, and co-owner Paco Hurtado told staff working on it that they should only select bunches of grapes ‘which they would be happy to eat’.
The second development is the method of fermentation: oak tinas from 1,000 to 3,000 litres (better micro-oxygenation) and epoxy-lined concrete tanks (better temperature stability) are making a comeback, with stainless steel placas suspended inside to control fermentation temperatures.
The third change has been in the use of oak. Rioja has traditionally been aged for long periods in large-pored US oak, typically from southern states. French oak – especially the small-pored Allier – is gaining ground, providing slower but more structured development. The rules still demand 12 months for crianza (twice the national regulation) to ensure the wine spends a full winter and summer in cask. Oak is far more tightly managed, and bottle ageing is seen as being at least as important as time in oak.
So who broke the mould and is making the running in the ‘new’ Rioja? There are a surprising number of bodegas in this category, but the most influential (in chronological order) include:
Palacios Remondo | 1948
Palacios Remondo’s founder, José Palacios,
died in 2000 leaving a widow and nine
children, and the family came together to decide on the succession. The eldest son, Antonio, was the winemaker at the time but his younger brother Alvaro had made a name for himself as a visionary winemaker, first in Priorat and then, with his nephew, in Bierzo. He was persuaded to come back to the family firm, making his first vintage in 2001. He reduced production by 50%, dumped all but two of the contract grape-suppliers and revolutionised work in the vineyards and bodega. This is one of the leaders in the Rioja Baja fightback against its lowland, hot-country, all-Garnacha image. The main range is called Herencia Remondo, the flagship wine is the
hand-selected 2 Viñedos and there’s also an excellent, traditional joven called La Vendimia. All the wines offer copper-bottomed quality.
Roda | 1987
Roda is named after the founding family:
Mario Rottllán and Carmen Daurella. Mario is
a chemist turned wine merchant from Barcelona who identified an untapped
market for something different in Rioja. He researched the vineyards and identified 17
plots of vines (mainly Tempranillo but some Garnacha) which were ‘the best in Rioja’, all of them in the Rioja Alta. He then bought them or contracted the growers to sell him their grapes. Legendary Riojano viticulturist and winemaker Agustín Santolaya did the research and oversees the winemaking, with Carlos Díez as the full-time winemaker. The results are stunning. Roda I is the ‘first’ wine of the
bodega with grapes which don’t quite make
it going into Roda II. The flagship wine is Cirsión, selected from particular small plots
(at h125 a bottle). This bodega was widely
seen as the niño terrible of Rioja when it launched its first wines.
Miguel Merino | 1993
Miguel Merino is an export manager and still works on a freelance basis for other producers, most notably Javier Ochoa in Navarra, but this small bodega in historic Briones is his own baby. He has assembled a modest 9ha (hectares) of vines, all from within the village, plus grapes from the vineyards of two friends (also in the village). The small winery is equipped with stainless steel but without a heat-exchanger, so he uses a hosepipe and wet towels to maintain temperature control during fermentation and insists that his job is not winemaking but to ‘let the wine make itself’. He makes a joven (Cantiga) for another friend and neighbour who can’t afford a winery, but his own wines are at least reserva level and sold under the Miguel Merino name.
Allende | 1995
Briones is a weird place. It has 874 inhabitants and yet it contains magnificent and spectacular sandstone architecture and has its own wine and food culture within Rioja. Miguel-Angel Gregorio and his sister Mercedes live in a magnificent but crumbling mansion with a no-nonsense, modern winery out back, and make some of Rioja’s finest and most modern wines under the Allende name. Miguel was born when his father was winemaker at Marqués de Murrieta, and he and Mercedes started buying up small plots of vineyard in the village from 1986. They now own 42ha of vineyards. The basic range is Allende but the flagship wines are Aurus and Calvario, both single-vineyard wines of enormous individuality. Unusually, the white Allende (barrel-fermented old-vines Garnacha Blanca) is of almost equal stature.
Finca Valpiedra | 1999
A slightly more traditional take on new-wave Rioja, Finca Valpiedra is a single estate on the Rioja Alta side of the Ebro, sold in 1973 by the Osborne family when they bought Bodegas Montecillo. The buyers were the Martínez Bujanda family who replanted sections of the vineyard and, for the next 20 years, used the grapes in the company’s mainstream wines. In 1994 the family decided that the time was ripe for a new venture and they recreated Valpiedra as a name in its own right, with a lavish new bodega following in 1999. There’s only the one wine, and the youngest vines are 25 years old, mainly Tempranillo with a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon and even smaller amounts of Graciano and Mazuelo. The quality of all the wines is exemplary. www.bujanda.com
BEST NEW RELEASES
Among the 1,000 or so Rioja wines I’ve tasted in the last year, all those below achieved a five-star rating on at least one occasion. They are in alphabetical order listed by bodega, wine, vintage, price, stockist. I have only included one wine from each bodega, even though a number (most notably Finca Allende and Viña Izadi) had more than one at this level.
Benjamín Romeo, La Viña
de Andrés Romeo 2001
Wonderfully concentrated and structured, new-wave style. £65; Tur
CVNE, Real de Asúa Reserva 2000
Classic marriage of rich Tempranillo fruit and modern winemaking.
Darien, Delius, Alta Expresión 2001
High-fruit, high power, low yields,
simply lovely wine from this new bodega. h40; N/A UK. www.darien.es
El Coto de Rioja Coto de Imaz, Gran Reserva 1995
Classic gran reserva, with fruit and oak in harmony. £15.99; Evy
Finca Allende, Calvario 2000
Lovely, rich, approachable fruit, clean, crisp balance, subtle, complex. £45; BBR
Herencia Remondo Propriedad 2001
Rioja Baja with class – elegant, warm, ripe – Alvaro Palacios. £14.95; BBR
Luis Cañas, Hiru 3 Racimos 2001
One of the best new wave wines – powerful, elegant fruit and length.
N/A UK; h65 www.luiscanas.com
Marqués de Cáceres, Gaudium Reserva 1996
Another modern classic: traditional Rioja writ large. £33.75; PWt
Marqués de Murrieta, Dalmau Reserva 1999
A modern take on an old classic, still marrying fruit and oak perfectly.
Montecillo, Gran Reserva
A magnificent old classic from a fabulous year, drinking at its peak.
Roda, Cirsión 2001
Perhaps the highest expression of
new-wave winemaking: tremendous concentration and power.
£99.99; F&R, Odd
Señorío de San Vicente 2000
Powerful, concentrated single-estate wines, absolutely reliable.
Valenciso, Reserva 2001
Lovely, silky, warm wine made with loving care by this tiny bodega.
N/A UK; h16 www.valenciso.com
Viña Ijalba, Selección Especial Reserva 1994
Spicy, aromatic, powerful with 50% Graciano in the blend.
N/A UK; h35 www.ijalba.com (Evy has other wines)
Viña Izadi, Expresión 2001
Astonishing wine made by cult winemaker Mariano García
(formerly at Vega Sicilia)
N/A UK; h45 www.izadi.com (Lai has other wines)
BEST VALUE WINES
Value depends on many factors. Herencia Remondo Propriedad and El Coto listed above are not only two of the region’s finest but also the best value – as is the Montecillo. But the wines below are consistent and reliable wines for less than £10 and all widely available. In price order:
Faustino, V Reserva 1999
This classic is a steal – on sale elsewhere at more than £10.
Viña Real, Crianza 2001
This is a steal at this price – inspired winemaking from one of Rioja’s greatest bodegas, CVNE. £8.69; Evy
Berberana, Gran Reserva 1997
A great opportunity to get wine at this level at a bargain price – drinking splendidly. £9.99; Maj
Viña Alberdi, Reserva 1999
The legendary quality of La Rioja Alta (of Ardanza fame) at an affordable price. £9.99; Maj
Selección de Familia 2001
A beautifully made sub-crianza by the legendary Jesús Martínez-Bujanda £5.69; Lai
Larchago, Pagos de Tahola 2002
This was a real find when I was in Rioja earlier in the year – excellent winemaking, modern style. £6.50; Lai
Campo Viejo, Crianza 2001
Good, honest, well-made crianza with fruit and oak, from a spanking new bodega. £6.69; Odd
Orobio Tempranillo 2001
One way of getting a sniff of legendary Artadi quality without breaking the bank. £6.99; Odd
Marqués de Griñón 2002
A more modern, fruit-led style with minimal oak – delicious. £6.99; Maj
Glorioso, Crianza 2000
Truly classic style, this could be described as textbook crianza.
Marqués de Cáceres, Crianza 2000
The benchmark by which the modern and less oaky wines are judged. £7.98; Evy
Montecillo, Crianza 2001
A glimpse of the style of the 1982 reserva: meticulous winemaking. £8.70; Evy
John Radford is the award-winning author of The Wines of Spain (£25, Mitchell Beazley)
Written by John Radford