21st Century Rioja
By W Peter Hoyne
Spain is a captivating country of mountainous landscapes, lush fertile plains and Mediterranean seascapes. In the countryside there is a mosaic of unique soils and varying microclimates that make Spain a paradise for grape growing. There are the elegantly styled, textured reds of La Rioja, robust, mouth-filling reds from Priorat and Ribera del Duero, old vines renditions from Toro and the bold, inky wines of Monastrell from Jumilla. Alongside, are a collection of light bodied, citrus-driven whites of Albarino, aromatic Verdejo’s and mineral scented Godello’s, complimented by refreshing rosado (rose’), and finely tuned sparkling Cava’s. Let’s not forget the nutty and complex, aged Spanish Sherries, which predate the Roman Empire, from the town of Jerez. Of these notable growing regions, La Rioja is one of the most well-known and respected in all of Spain.
Situated on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain is bordered by Portugal to the West and Pyrenees mountain ranges to the northeast, separating the country from France. It is cradled between the Mediterranean Sea on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. La Rioja, a province within north-central Spain, is among the most respected wine growing regions, known for its complex and expressive reds, simply referred to as Rioja.
Rioja is derived from the words rio (river) and oja, one of the tributaries of the Ebro River which crosses this area. The vineyards trace the course of the Ebro River for roughly 60 miles between the towns of Haro and Alfaro. Rioja wines are produced from grapes grown in La Rioja, Navarre and the province of Alava, in Basque Country. The climate is continental with hot summers and cold winters. The northern border is the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range, which protects the region from the cool winds of the Atlantic. There are nearly 600 wineries, known as bodegas spread across the landscape.
While both red and white wines are produced in Rioja, 90% of the production remains red. Native to Rioja is the early ripening red grape of Tempranillo. The majority of red wine from Rioja is a blend of Tempranillo which is allowed to be complimented with other red varieties of Garnacha (Grenache), Mazuelo (Carignan), Garnacha Tinta, and Graciano. The white grape varieties in Rioja are Garnacha Blanca, Vinura, Malvasia and Verdejo. More recently producers have begun crafting Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Rioja Alta: Located on the western edge of Rioja, these vineyards are planted at high elevations of the Sierra Cantabria mountain ranges. The soil is a mix of alluvial deposits, clay and iron producing wines that are complex and elegant with well -balanced acidity. These wines may typically have more aging potential.
Rioja Alavesa: This small sub-region in the northeast has terraced vineyards at the highest elevations of the Sierra Cantabria. The sub-soils are made of clay and limestone. Although the temperature is cooler, the higher concentration of sunlight creates wines that are complex and fuller in style.
Rioja Oriental: Located in the southeast, this is the largest sub-region and is closer to the valley floor. The soils have a higher concentration of sandstone and limestone. The warmer climate of this sub-region produces fuller, fruit driven wines that are approachable at an early age.
There are four categories of Rioja wines, labeled according to how they are aged: Generico, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva.
Genérico: have minimal or no oak aging with 1-2 years of bottle aging.
Crianza Aged for a minimum of 2 years with at least one year in oak barrels.
Reserva Aged for a minimum 3 years with at least one year in oak barrels.
Gran Reserva Aged for 2 years in oak with 3 years of bottle aging.
In 1925, Rioja was recognized as a DOC “Designation of Origin” viticultural region establishing restrictions on yields, boundaries and grape varietals. In 2017, Rioja became one of only two regions in Spain to receive the highest status of DOCa, “Qualified Designation of Origin”, by the governing body of Consejo Regulardo. Rioja finest wines can now be set apart, signifying a single vineyard or village where the grapes are sourced. This designation is similar to the European cru classification. Despite the complex nature of this classification, it provides assurances of a higher quality level and consistency. It also allows the consumer to have clearer guide when choosing the style of Rioja that best suits their interests.
While there is an abundance of natural beauty and charm in the country, Spain and the wines of Rioja remain steeped in tradition with long established customs, social practices and winemaking styles. Through the centuries, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and others have influenced the culture. French producers and investments in the 19th Century also made an impact on Rioja’s ongoing winemaking evolution.
It is easy to recognize ancient ruins, castles, and cathedrals as an integral part of Spain’s history with a blend of Renaissance, Gothic and Baroque. Yet, this country also embraces modernism with Gaudi’s artistic expressions in Barcelona, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias in Valencia and works by Dahli and Picasso. Spain has a youthful lifestyle with a trendy wine scene and innovative gastronomy. While there is a traditional and contemporary feel in this country, there also exists a dichotomy in the style of Rioja wines.
Traditionally, Rioja was aged for extended periods of time in American Oak barrels, imparting scents of coconut, baking spices and soft vanilla overtones. The longer aging often created a translucent wine that was delicately laced with cherry fruit. These traditional-styled wines have a softer, complex expression along with a sense of elegance.
Some newcomers, in an effort to create a designer styled Rioja, forged ahead with a more concentrated and richer styled wines in trying to attract a new and younger audience. This resulted in an “evolution of consumer expectations and demands.” This New World style was embraced by some countries. In an effort to modernize while maintaining a deep-seated respect for tradition, Rioja producers employed new winemaking techniques and vineyard management methods along with the use of French barrels for aging. Jorge Ordonez was one of the recent pioneers who recognized the true potential of Spanish wines. He revitalized the perception of Spanish wines and played a pivotal role in technological advances in the winery and vineyards throughout Spain. What occurred was that tradition ended up co-existing with modern in Rioja, as what had already materialized throughout Spain. Consumers benefited from this modernization with memorable Rioja wines that are among the great values of the world.