Blame climate change, young people leading busy urban lives and our capricious natures. Whatever the reasons, Spain’s Rioja region is diversifying, and this week I was invited to sample new and old red wines that demonstrate this. The result was cheering, with a good mix of wines, some of which make me want to head straight for northern Spain.
To make sense of what’s happening, you have to think of Rioja during the past 80 or so years, producing wines with such similarity in style and such an impact in the English-speaking world that if you said Spanish wine, people would nod and think oh yes, big and hearty reds from Rioja. The UK is the biggest consumer of Rioja, followed by Germany, then the US. Little Switzerland comes in fourth, which explains why the Consejo Regulator DOCa Rioja just held a Rioja Summit in Switzerland. We are a market that matters.
The new Rioja AOCa rules, now in effect
The changes went into effect 1 January 2019 but they won’t show right away. Those big red traditional wines are still being made, blends of the Tempranillo grape with Garnacha Tinta, Graciano, and sometimes Mazuelo or Maturana Tinta grapes, with Gran Reservas aged for years. Tempranillo remains the master, 80% of grapes grown in the region. American oak was and still is famously used instead of the more subtle French oak. Tempranillo benefits from time to mature, so oak-aging will continue to be important.
The new rules give wine producers far more flexibility than in the past. Wineries may now add label information to identify a single high quality vineyard. The growing zone and the village, or “pueblo” can be mentioned. For wineries concentrating on making fine terroir wines, this is a huge and positive change. The regulations for these Viñedos Singulares are strict, and include minimum ages for the vineyards, quality controls and hand harvesting.
There are name changes, with young wines now called Generico. The Rioja Baja has been renamed Rioja Oriental, as in eastern.
Importantly for the bulk of wine from Rioja, bottling times are changing for the Reservas and Gran Reservas. Reservas: 36 months total with 12 months minimum in oak and at least 6 in bottles; in the past there was no bottle time requirement. Gran Reservas: 5 years, 24 in oak, 24 in bottles, which reduces the amount of time in bottle.
A wine educator in Minnesota, Jason Kallsen, offers a handy way of viewing this:
Four levels of Rioja aging, on top of four zone classifications
So beyond the new single vineyard laws, and on top of the new ‘Generico’ aging classification, there are two more site-related classifications: Vinos de Zona, and Vinos de Municipio, resulting in a grid of sixteen possibilities.
In terms of aging, a Rioja can be: Generico, Crianza, Reserva, or Gran Reserva.
And regarding where it came from, it can be:
• Generico (anywhere in Rioja, blended)
• Vinos de Zona (wine of a zone, i.e., “Rioja Alta,” “Rioja Alavesa,” or “Rioja Oriental”)
• Vinos de Municipio (wine of a municipality, i.e., “Rioja Municipio Logroño” … there are 145 of them!)
• Viñedo Singulares (wine of a single vineyard)
The 14 wines we tasted in Lausanne 29 January at the Rioja Summit don’t yet have these new labels, of course, but they gave us some strong clues about what we can expect.
Modern versus traditional Rioja defined
We began with a flight of four modern wines, with “modern” described as often more extracted, single grape wines rather than blends, single vine parcels, more mature grapes, more use of French oak. Traditional Riojas, by contrast, tend to use American oak, no extraction, blends of grapes, very long maturing of the wine.
Our first of the modern Riojas turned out to be my favourite. Hacienda Pradolagar 2015 from Bodegas Marqués de Vargas in Logroño, at 400 metres. It has all five of the Rioja red grapes. The colour is bright, it has a rich and plummy nose, is velvety and mouth-filling with a remarkable and long finish. It was like diving into a pool of Rioja and I immediately had thoughts of lusciously roasted red meat. Modern is not subtle or delicate in Rioja. Price: about CHF100, clearly a top-end wine, given this price at this age.
Rioja is “hurting” from climate change
The second wine suffered by comparison (it is also one-quarter the price), but sparked a discussion about the impact of climate change. Viña Real Gran Reserva 2012 is from Oyón, the southernmost area, with a Mediterranean climate. In the 1980s producers here had trouble getting their wines up to 13% alcohol. Today one of the problems is keeping it under 14-15% because the heat in the valleys is pushing up the sugar levels in the grapes.
Rioja is suffering, we were told, and climate change is forcing producers to adapt. It’s also encouraging them to better understand how to work with their soils and microclimates under these new and tough conditions. There is a tendency to turn more to Garnacha, which handles climate changes better. Lowering yields is a goal for many producers and organic methods are gaining ground because this can slow down the growing season. Another problem is that cellars and barrel rooms are becoming warmer – up 1 degree C each of the last three years, which is huge.
Two other modern style wines I appreciated were:
Contino Viña del Olivo 2014 from Viñedos del Contino in Laserna, another very hot place. The wine is named for the 1,000 year old olive tree on this single estate property. 90% Tempranillo and 10% Graciano. Rich and plummy yet fresh – still young – high acidity, more elegant than some of the others. Aromas go from plum and black currants to red fruits. This is one of the high-end wines (CHF80) from the company that has the Cune brand you find in every Spanish supermarket; Graciano is a specialty here.
El Ribazo 2014 from Bodegas La Marquesa is 100% Tempranillo, from the village of Villabuena de Alava. The 4 hectares of grapes were planted only in 1980, so they are relatively young. This is a winery that was known for its barrel-aged wines, but it is moving to large oak casks. This was the first vintage that was matured in a 5,000 litre oak vat, then aged in American casks, so the impact of the wood is much gentler. I loved everything about this wine, with its refreshing change of style. It felt like Tempranillo unmasked and I’d like to see more of this: the grape not covered by long or heavy oaking. CHF35
One wine, a more traditional style one, gave me hope that grapes at higher altitudes might perform better. Oinoz Crianza 2014 from Bodegas y Viñedos Carlos Moro, another 100% Tempranillo, is a beautiful wine, grown at 600 metres in San Vicente de la Sonsierra. The village in the far northwest of the region has a reputation for having some of the best Tempranillo in Rioja. The wine is rich and chewy, tannins are very present, the long finish is peppery – a classic Rioja but not overdone. Sadly, the two other high altitude (for Rioja) vineyard wines were less impressive. CHF25
The beauty of traditional, aged wine
We ended with two older, very traditional wines, a 2005 and 2009, and my first reaction was not terribly positive. After the high acidity, high colour, plummy rich modern Riojas which insist you get to the table for a meal, these seemed to have noses that are too animal and a mouth that lacked something. And yet … I took a pause while my neighbours had an intense discussion about whether the long aging of Gran Reservas makes some of them feel “dead”.
I came back to the wines, gave them more time, realized I was with a wine that has an oxidized style and ended up wondering how I could have not been impressed. Lesson learned: fine wines need our time and our attention. If you’ve been hanging out with the kids, give yourself a moment to change gears or you’ll miss the qualities of the great statesman. In the end, the Gran Reserva 890 from La Rioja Alta, vintage 2005, had a nose that I think Jamie Goode at Wineanorak describes well (he tasted it in April 2018), although I’m not sure what his floral red cherries are. The finish was very long and elegant. Pure class, one of the greats. Price CHF120
The winery’s Gran Reserva 904 (price CHF60) has a remarkably complex nose that was confusing at first, and finally so compelling that I kept picking up my glass just to smell it. Here is what the winery says about it. “The nose reveals a bouquet of great aromatic complexity, with balsamic notes of vanilla, toasted caramel, mint chocolate, tea leaves and cinnamon that gives way to elegant notes of stewed fruits and prunes.” They could be right.
La Rioja Alta is one of the great wineries of Rioja and as long as they keep making such distinguished wines, there is no chance of the traditional Rioja style disappearing. But these are not everyday, easy wines, and there is plenty of room for newer styles. Whether the lighter, younger wines will hold up well under new rules and the problems caused by climate change remains to be seen. But at least Rioja’s wineries are being given more room to experiment and learn what will work best in this tough new world.
A final note, on Rioja whites. The two white wines I had with dinner worked well and were pleasing, if not exciting. Expect to see more of them, although they account for only 10% of grapes produced. Tempranillo Blanco is a recently discovered natural mutation, which was approved only in 2008, but 700 hectares have already been planted. Old vine Viura grapes are also becoming popular.
And then there was dinner …
Dinner at Franck Giovannini’s Hôtel de Ville restaurant in Crissier, Rioja wines paired with his cuisine. Still speechless.