Rioja Revitalized

Rioja Revitalized

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.

Miguel and Marcos Eguren of Sierra Cantabria and other labels.

But taste something made by Marcos Eguren, or Miguel Angel de Gregorio of Finca Allende, or Agustin Santolaya of Bodegas Roda, or Jorge Muga of Bodegas Muga, or a new classic from any other member of this emerging vanguard, and more than size, power or specific flavors in the wine, it’ll be the overall balance that makes its mark.

“What makes things interesting, and arguably a little bit frustrating, is that these wines won’t come at you in perfect form vintage after vintage. Because Rioja is situated quite far north in Spain, with the best vineyards at about 1,400 feet of elevation, it is risky wine country. Certain years can be cool and rainy, i.e. 2002, and because harvests take place very late in the season—from mid October into early November—the wines may turn out raw, choppy and not that lush. Protected to the north by the Sierra Cantabria range and to the south by another set of mountainous peaks, there’s really no telling in advance whether Rioja will have a cool Atlantic year, a hot continental year (see 2003) or a perfect vintage formed by a divine confluence of Atlantic, Mediterranean and continental influences.

When all is said and done, Rioja usually sees two or three excellent vintages per decade (2001 and 2005 so far), a couple of bad ones (2002 and 2003), and the remainder fall somewhere in between (2004 and counting). And this is why, despite there being a number of fine single-vineyard wines, many winemakers still prefer to blend vineyards with similarities as opposed to going the pago (single plot) route; by blending they feel they can insulate themselves from Mother Nature’s inconsistencies.

Examples of top-notch new classic blends from multiple vineyards include Allende’s Aurus, Altos de Lanzaga, Remírez de Ganuza’s Reserva, Artadi’s Pagos Viejos, Roda’s Cirsion and Roda 1, and Muga’s Aro and Torre Muga. And we’d be remiss not to mention what many Rioja winemakers say is the sire, or at least the inspiration, of all these wines: Baron de Chirel.

Marqués de Riscal unveiled Chirel with the 1986 vintage, five years to a decade before most of these other producers joined the game. To date, this wine continues to rank as a new classic, and like the wines we’ve mentioned, it too is a blend of numerous old-vines vineyards. Unlike the others, however, it is aged entirely in American oak barrels.

“Chirel was new in 1986 because it relied on modern winemaking techniques and modern equipment, but it wasn’t really new because it was and still is made from some of the oldest and best vineyards in Rioja Alta,” says Javier Salamero, technical director for the Elciego-based winery. “More than anything, what we are talking about are new wines from the Old World.”

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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.

Old-vine Tempranillo in the Côte d’Or.

With old-vines vineyards so valuable but hard to come by, it should come as no surprise that the new classics rank as rare and expensive wines, with prices starting at about $60 a bottle and heading north from there. But such pricing makes better sense when you see the vineyards, the old vines, and the crumbly calcareous soils. A ton of work goes into tending and coaxing 50-year-old vines, including manual harvests that take place late in the growing season. Add in the cost of wood fermentation tanks, pricey French barriques and tiny production levels and it all adds up.

For example, Pablo Eguzkiza and Telmo Rodríguez, friends since winemaking school in the 1980s and partners in Vinos de Telmo Rodríguez, rely on about 35 acres of vineyards spread across 20 different parcels in Rioja Alta and Alavesa to find enough quality fruit to produce 500 cases per year of Altos de Lanzaga. Grapes that don’t make it into Altos go into a larger-production wine called Lanzaga.

At Finca Allende, one of the leaders in the movement to bigger, broader and better Rioja wines, Miguel Angel de Gregorio has spent the past 20 years identifying and buying old vineyards near the town of Briones. Today Allende owns 120 acres of grapes spread among 92 different vineyard plots situated in 14 distinct microclimates. One of those vineyards is Calvario, which isn’t even four acres in size and sits atop a mesa. Total production from Calvario in 2004 was a mere 650 cases of superb wine.

“We have a great Bordeaux history here, but to me Rioja is more like Burgundy than any other wine region,” says de Gregorio. “Every vineyard here has its own character, its own soil, its own exposure. And while guys like me and Agustin (Santolaya of Roda) and Juan Carlos (López de Lacalle, founder of Artadi) are different people with different ideas and wines, we share the belief that the only way to make great wine is to have the right vineyards.”

Agustin Santolaya of Bodegas Roda

With respect to Artadi, there can be little doubt about the quality of the 175 acres it is using for its lineup of wines, which is highlighted by new classics such as Pagos Viejos (a blend of multiple old-vines sites), the single-vineyard Viña el Pisón and the infrequently seen Grandes Añadas (Great Years).

Lacalle insists on employing a berry-by-berry selection process that ensures that only the best fruit goes into wines like Pagos Viejos, but that’s costly and tedious under the best circumstances. And he’s not alone in sweating the details; manual selection of berries is commonplace at Allende, Remírez de Ganuza, Roda and others.

Artadi also opts for large oak tanks for the primary fermentation, which softens the wine and sets the stage for malolactic fermentation in oak barrels. Not surprisingly, Roda, Muga, Altos de Lanzaga, Marqués de Murrieta and others use big oak tanks for the primary fermentation.

Such winemaking techniques, says Muga, are well known throughout Rioja and rank behind vineyard quality and the choice of barriques in terms of impacting the final product. Still, they are what make young wines like the 2004 Roda Cirsion, the 2004 Muga Aro, the 2005 Artadi El Pisón, and the ’05 La Nieta from Viñedos de Páganos so approachable at a young age.

Fernando Remírez de Ganuza, whose first vintage of the usually excellent Remírez de Ganuza Reserva came in 1994, is another master at making wines that are friendly upon release but structured. Remírez de Ganuza taps about 130 acres of vineyards, all of which are in Rioja Alavesa, and he’s not opposed to making his own rules.

Oak fermenters at Bodegas Roda in Haro.

For example, Remírez de Ganuza uses conical-shaped stainless steel tanks for primary fermentation, he cools his fruit overnight before starting maceration, he uses only shoulders (the high part of a grape cluster) for his best wines, and he trellises his vines whereas most of his neighbors prefer bush vines. He’s even fond of inserting a water-filled, heavy nylon bag into the fermentation tank to help press the wine.

None of these practices are particularly normal, and you’d never see a big, commercial winery cooling grapes in a refrigerated room before sending them to the tanks. Then again, we aren’t talking about big, commercial wines. These are the new classics, the wines that have thrust Rioja to the forefront of Spanish red wine.

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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.

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Published on September 4, 2007
Topics: RiojaSpanish Wines