Iconoclastic upstarts are threatening to outperform the venerable old wineries of Rioja. GILES MACDONOGH considers how the established names are confronting the changing face of the market
For a generation now, Rioja has been familiar to wine lovers all over the world. Chiefly red, it has always been identifiable by a whiff of vanilla-scented American oak followed by a slightly tarry mouthful of red fruits. In the past decade, however, much has changed, and we could be witnessing the beginning of a fundamental remodelling of the wine, with the desire for change driven chiefly by Spanish consumers.
Thirty years ago, there was just Rioja. Now Spain has a lot more to offer. New wine drinkers in Madrid or Barcelona have lost the taste for august reservas and gran reservas – they want young, chunky, black wines in an international mould.
International critics have also played their part, debunking the old-style Rioja.
In fact, change has come easily. Rioja wines are unquestionably brands and only rarely has their style been dictated by terroir. Most attempts to revitalise the wine have embraced the concept of the ‘superior brand’ – something that tops even the most venerable gran reservas. Terroir has raised its shaggy head, though as, with the revamping of wine laws, some producers are now beginning to ask whether they should seek out a small plot of land to make a pago, or single-vineyard, wine.
The liberalisation of the laws will allow producers with a reputation for producing high-quality wines – whether inside or outside a DO – to produce a pago wine, provided it is made and bottled on the property. This should allow for varietal experiments while maintaining a sense of place. However, the legislation is still on the minister’s desk and few Rioja companies possess enough land of their own to make it viable. The exceptions are Ygay and, to some extent, Lopez de Heredia and Bilbainas. Like Champagne, much land in Rioja is still in the hands of part-time growers who make companies pay through the nose for grapes – a kilo will cost between 1 and 1.40 euros – so no-one wants to sell land.
Marqués de Murrieta is the oldest company in Rioja, yet to some extent it is the most innovative. It was founded in 1852 at the Finca de Ygay at the southern limit of Rioja Alta by the colourful first marqués. He installed wooden casks to replace the pungent goatskins of yore. Ygay is unique in being one single block of land. It was possessed by the Murrietas until 1983, when it was acquired by the late count de Creixell, whose son now owns it.
The old-style Murrieta, with its wonderful buttery whites and fabulously rich gran reservas, had many admirers. The wines, however, are now being overhauled and the new Dalmau has replaced the gran reserva as the flagship wine. According to marketing director Richard Grant, the process of reform is designed to be ‘silent’, so as not to isolate too many old fans. There will be more Tempranillo wrought in a riper, more accessible style. As Ygay is an estate, the new wines will be classified as pagos.
It was the Marqués de Riscal who breathed French wisdom into the wines of Castille when he brought in Jean Pineau from Médoc’s Château to manage his bodega. The present image of Riscal is white hot, partly due to American architect Frank Gehry, who designed its new building in the form of a flamingo. Like Dalmau, this is an iconoclastic wine; the pride of Riscal is Chirel, not its gran reserva.
By comparison, nothing appears to have changed at López de Heredia since the place was founded in 1877, although appearances can be deceptive. The wines are still vinified in old tuns and matured in banks of dark, stained barrels. Mercedes López de Heredia explains that they aim to capture the cellar yeasts to avoid the standardisation that comes from the more antiseptic bodegas. Reservas and gran reservas are truly old. As López de Heredia puts it, ‘We are not in a hurry to bottle our wines… You have to be patient to make great wine.’ The youngest on sale are the 1985 red and 1981 white. The oldest red still commercially available is the 1942.
López de Heredia is one of the smallest of the old bodegas, with a turnover of fewer than a million bottles. The company does not hold with flavouring wines with oak and believes that the slower the micro-oxygenation, the better the wines. Yet the rumours are that something is afoot even here. A pure Mazuelo was released for the company’s 125th anniversary and Mercedes López de Heredia shakes off the notion of being bound by tradition. ‘We have been a modern winery for 126 years,’ she says. ‘We are not closed to new technologies, but they must not change the nature of the wine.’
Neighbouring CVNE has chosen the pago route in its desire to reform its image. Séguin-Moreau fermentation vats have been installed and new wines are being made to complement the old range, so fans of Viña Imperial need not be alarmed.
Basilio Izquierdo at CVNE says the chief difference that someone coming to Rioja after a break of a decade would notice is an absence of Grenache. The Grenache came from the Rioja Baja, but during the 1990s many growers there ripped it up and replaced it with the more fashionable Tempranillo. About half the Grenache has now gone, inevitably altering the weight of the wine. Companies that do not wish to see Rioja denatured in this way need to ensure supplies, even if that means planting Grenache themselves. La Rioja Alta, for example, needs Grenache for its flagship Viña Ardanza, while Martinez Lacuesta’s rich, fruity Campeador is up to 60% Grenache.
Rioja is still oaky, but it is subtly different to the wine we knew and loved. Barrels are turned over on a more regular basis. There is less of that creamy crème brûlée character and the absence of Grenache in many wines has made them more angular and claret-like. Indeed, companies such as CVNE and Riscal seem to be intentionally making their wine more like Bordeaux than anything we might have associated with Rioja in the past.
As Grenache dwindles, there are more and more experimental bottlings of Graciano and Mazuelo (Carignan). Traditionally, these had supporting roles to Tempranillo. Now, companies such as the excellent Bodegas Riojanas in Cenicero are vinifying them experimentally to see what they yield. The best results come from Mazuelo. Murrieta is selling its, while for the time being Bodegas Riojanas is – more’s the pity – fighting shy.
Also on the wane is white Rioja. Murrieta’s has been renamed Capellania Gran Reserva, reduced to a plot of nine hectares, which is due to be halved again, with prices set to double. Meanwhile, Bilbainas has scrapped the white it made in the Viña Paceta. An exception is the excellent, inexpensive Paternina, though this is not exported. The greatest of all white Riojas today is the Gran Reserva Vina Tondonia from López de Heredia.
The old laissez-faire attitu
de that lay behind those venerable old vintages has been replaced by intervention and modernisation. As Javier Amescua at La Rioja Alta puts it, ‘We don’t have any excuse to make bad wine.’ Cordoniu is completely refitting the old Bilbainas winery in Haro. Export has blossomed, making the business much more cutthroat. ‘There has been a revolution in winemaking and a revolution in the market,’ says Paternina’s Carlos Latas.
Then there are the usual suspects applying global styles: Pascal Châtonnet performs a limited service for La Rioja Alta; Paul Pontallier does rather more for Marqués de Riscal; and even Michel Rolland lends his services to the Marqués de Cáceres. Others are home-grown, like Jose Hidalgo at Bilbainas.
The brand concept has changed. In the old days it was not so much the date on the label that counted, but the age statement. Today, wines are released earlier. As Basilio Izquierda says, the reservas used to be released at seven years. Now it is more likely to be five. The gran reservas had ten years in the past, now it is eight. Hence today’s gran reserva is yesterday’s reserva.
This is part of an assault on the ageist pecking order, on the cosechas, crianzas, reservas and gran reservas. In their place come super reservas, super Riojas or viños de alta expresión. For Luis Martinez, ‘To be a gran reserva does not mean being superior to a crianza or a reserva. It is the cosecha wines that are the high expression wines.’ His Selección Añada is his own stab at the genre, like the excellent Gran Albina from Riojanas. A fuller list would include Murrieta’s Dalmau Riscal’s Baron de Chirel, Bilbainas’ La Vicalanda, Paternina’s Clos or Rioja’s Alta’s Baron de Oña and Marqués de Haro. They all have a heavy glass bottle and an indulgent attitude towards cultivars.
Most Riojanas favour brands before pagos, but this could change with the new law. The pago does require stricter definition, though. A vineyard such as Bilbainas’ Viña Pomal is nearly 100 hectares. At that size, a vineyard becomes a brand. To prove the point, Bilbainas’ new Super Rioja La Vicalanda is actually from within Pomal.
Of course, for fans of chunky old reservas and gran reservas the reforms may be unwelcome. When current stocks run out, we might see these wines supplanted by the garagistes and the essence of old-style Rioja diluted. In the main, however, producers are keen to show the world that, for now at least, the old and new can co-exist.
For a vintage guide to Rioja, visit our website, www.decanter.com
Written by GILES MACDONOUGH