In the proverbial book of wine, Rioja is Spain’s most storied region. There are early chapters involving kings and pilgrims, and later ones that chronicle the arrival of phylloxera-fleeing Bordelais. Here too are tales of the subsequent advent of world-class red wine, and Rioja being anointed Spain’s very first denominación de origen.
But it’s the segment of the Rioja story that’s just now going to print, one that focuses on the past 15 years or so, that should qualify as required reading for modern-day wine lovers. Much of this chapter is dedicated to a group of revolutionary wines, or more appropriately, a revolutionary style of wine, that came onto the scene beginning in the 1990s. This style has greatly elevated the standing of this traditional, often overly commercial region.
The wines are small in production and deep in color, body and alcohol, with exuberant flavors of old-vines Tempranillo as well as the toast and chocolate that comes from aging in new French oak. These “modern” wines and the level of acceptance they have achieved have literally changed the way the world looks at Rioja. A workhorse D.O. since 1925, Rioja is divided into three subregions—Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja—with more than 500 wineries, a whopping 150,000 acres under vine, and 80 million gallons of annual wine production.
Call these wines what you will; it seems as though everyone has taken a stab at labeling them. Circa 1994-95, the Rioja Consejo Regulador, the governing body that oversees regional wine production, coined the term alta expresión, or high expression, to describe a proliferation of more extracted, bulkier wines coming from the region’s large-scale wineries. Since then journalists, importers and marketers have referred to these purple-tinted, stocky wines generally made from tennis-court sized vineyards planted 30 to 80 years ago as vinos de autor (author/artisan wines), vinos de la vanguardia (vanguard wines) and even la nueva ola (the new wave).
But the name we like best is new classics. And the wineries and individuals making these so-called new classics seem amenable to this label.
“To us, a nuevo classico is a wine that’s neither flat nor fat,” says Marcos Eguren, one of Rioja’s most skilled winemakers. Along with his brother Miguel, Eguren has spent the past 10 years minting single-vineyard stunners such as El Puntido and La Nieta from the town of Laguardia in Rioja Alavesa as well as San Vicente, Finca El Bosque and Amancio from vineyards near the village of San Vicente de la Sonsierra in Rioja Alta.
“The wines we are talking about must have big fruit from mature vines, structure, freshness and elegance. But most of all, they must have balance. The difficulty in making these wines is the lack of vineyards. Less than five percent of Rioja’s vineyards are older than 50 years,” notes Miguel Eguren. “There’s a long history here of throwing many vineyards together, and while we still do that for some of our wines, we are also trying to keep things separate, to emphasize the character of individual sites.”
At the end of the day it is balance that distinguishes the new classics from the average and the subpar. It’s not enough for a new wine to replace Rioja’s traditional lighter hues and tart, dilute flavors with dark colors, high alcohol and extract because that can be achieved through extended maceration or fiddling with temperatures during fermentation.
Rioja’s Côte d’Or
So what is it that distinguishes the so-called new classics from the thousands of other Rioja reds on the market? “Eighty percent of it is the grapes,” says Jorge Muga. “Rioja is very big, and there’s a lot of everything—grape types, quality of grapes, soils, exposures. You need vineyards that are around 40 years old to get the fruit necessary for these wines. Trouble is, it’s not easy finding and acquiring these vineyards.”
According to Miguel Eguren, the best vineyards in all of Rioja lie along a 20-mile stretch of terrain that begins in the town of Haro in Rioja Alta and extends east along the Ebro River valley to Laguardia in Rioja Alavesa. Eguren calls this the “Rioja Côte d’Or,” and it is anchored by vineyard-heavy towns like Briones, Elciego, Cenicero, San Vincente de la Sonsierra, Ollauri and Samaniego.
A Mixed Case
96 Viñedos de Páganos 2004 El Puntido (Rioja); $57. As expected, the wine exhibits a dense black color, with mineral, burnt toast and dark fruit on the bouquet. The flavor profile offers cured meat, leather, graphite and plenty of blackberry, mocha, caramel and coffee. Beautiful modern Rioja; a great wine with tremendous complexity and style.
95 Finca Allende 2004 Calvario (Rioja); $105. The bouquet explodes with tobacco, leather, dry oak and waves of berry fruit. In the mouth, the wine sits comfortably on the tongue, with firm tannins offering structure to the bedazzling boysenberry, black cherry and cassis flavors. Long and intoxicating on the finish. It’s 90% Tempranillo and 10% Garnacha and Graciano.
95 Artadi 2004 Pagos Viejos (Rioja); $95. Classic in color, and backed by aromatics of lavender, graphite and pure blackberry. This is not overly weighty, as the acidity keeps it pointed and pure. There’s a lot of elegance and balance to this wine; a perfect example of how to blend multiple vineyards into one excellent whole.
95 Sierra Cantabria 2004 Finca El Bosque (Rioja); $145. What a superb combination of new oak, leather, mineral, mocha and berry fruit this wine delivers. It’s a giant, with a ripped palate of upfront boysenberry and then coffee and vanilla in support. All the power, precision and other attributes of modern Rioja are on display. Best in a few more years. Cellar Selection.
95 Vinos de Telmo Rodríguez 2004 Altos de Lanzaga (Rioja); $105. Masculine and heady stuff, as leather, espresso, smoked meat, mocha and potent blackberry aromas set the stage for an intense, driven, structured palate that’s full of coconut, vanilla bean, cocoa and pure plum and berry. A serious nuevo classico Rioja if there ever was one. Cellar Selection.
94 Bodegas Muga 2004 Aro (Rioja); $194. Plant-by-plant fruit selection leads to intensity, concentration and structure. Aro shows gripping tannins and juicy acidity, and overall it reeks of power and precision. At this early stage it seems like it could last forever. In reality, it should be just right in about seven years. Cellar Selection.
93 Señorío de San Vicente 2004 San Vicente (Rioja); $57. Slightly tighter and more complex than previous years, this single-vineyard wine delivers a ton of spice and herbs on a manly bouquet and palate. Well-blended acids and tannins allow for it to be drunk now or over the next five to eight years.
92 Bodegas Roda 2004 Cirsion (Rioja); $273. Char and chocolate, then a touch of rum raisin and black cherry, and there is your nose. This version of Cirsion, compared to previous years, is a touch soft, raisiny and less complex. But that doesn’t mean you won’t love the wine’s smooth texture, cocoa and baked berry flavors.
91 Marqués de Riscal 2001 Baron de Chirel Reserva (Rioja); $50. Still the current vintage, this wine remains dark violet in color, with vanilla, spice and round fruit on the nose as well as tobacco. It’s just now beginning to mature on the palate, while the finish is still redolent with mocha and chocolate. Hefty, but with nice tannins and balance.
91 Remírez de Ganuza 2003 Reserva (Rioja); $77. Thick, brooding and aromatically mature, this wine delivers heft, grab and balance. It has developed black-fruit flavors followed by a cushioned, soft finish. Drink now and over the next several years as the 2001 gets better and the promising but not yet released 2004 begins to settle.
90 Marqués de Murrieta 2003 Dalmau (Rioja); $100. Dark mineral, toasted French oak and black fruit carry the nose. This is a sturdy, nicely made high-end Rioja, but due to the heat of the year its range of flavors is narrow as it settles on baked plum and molasses. Medium long on the finish, with a lasting taste of chocolate.
90 Martinez Bujanda 2004 Finca Valpiedra Reserva (Rioja); $30. Red fruit is the dominant player on both the raspberry-driven bouquet and the currant- and cherry-laced palate. In the mouth there’s integrity, natural acidity and restrained oak as opposed to heft and unnecessary burnt coffee and chocolate notes. A clean and well-made wine with aging potential. Good upon release and will hold through 2015.
For more information or additional reviews, visit our Buying Guide.