Rioja is perhaps the most famous wine region of Spain. It produces over 400 million bottles every year – but that’s only (!) about 8% of all Spanish wine. It is mostly red (88% in 2016, usually 1 or 2 % lower) with some Rosé (5%) and White (7%).

The Red is made in four quality levels, from the highest: Gran Reserva; Reserva; Crianza; Generic. This [Wine Folly] graphic shows the rules, with the % of Red wine made at each level:

 

 

Gran Res’va 3

Reserva 19

Crianza 42

Generic 36

 

The Signature red grape is Tempranillo which accounts for about 80% of red plantings – followed by Garnacha (7%) and Graciano and Mazuelo (Carignan) about 2% each. White is almost as focused on one grape: Viura (which is 73%) with only one other white grape Tempranillo Blanco (10%) taking up more than 5%.

Rioja exports a lot of its wine – around 37%, a little more of the red and only 27% of the white. By far the biggest destination for that wine is the UK which takes in almost precisely a third of those exports – so nearly an eighth of all Rioja, twice as much as the next biggest importing country, Germany! So the British Rioja market should be a good sample of the styles, quality levels and innovations in Rioja.

The Rioja DO Wine region of Spain straddles the Ebro River for some 100 kms as it flows South East towards the Mediterranean. It is – mostly – in the central, Northern province of similar name: La Rioja. Not entirely though – roughly half – the Southern half – of La Rioja is mountainous and makes no wine at all, and some of the North bank areas are in Álava (which is Basque and accounts for about a quarter of all Rioja) or Navarra (about 5%).

Here’s a map:


You will see that Rioja is split into 3 sub-regions: Alta; Baja and Álavesa. The Álavesa sub region conforms to the administrative boundary  of Álava, and North of the river the Baja boundary conforms to Navarra’s. South of the River the Baja /Alta border follows the same general line just East of Logroño, with a few deviations to allow influential wineries (Marqués de Murrieta…) to be in Alta!

In general Baja is warmer, lower and better suited to Garnacha and maybe Mazuelo, as the Mediterranean influence moves up the Ebro. The Alta (and Álavesa) are higher (400-500m is typical), cooler and better suited to Tempranillo, Viura and Graciano. However the distinction seems pretty arbitrary near the actual borders and soil types and wine-making are much more important – here’s a soil map:

In the past the categories of red Rioja stood for clear stylistic divisions. Generic was plonk – Crianza was lightly oak-affected and showed strong tannin and acidity – Reserva was rounded, still woody but with a voluptuous fruit and Gran Reserva was getting towards an oxidative and secondary-, or tertiary-, flavoured style. Although Reservas had to have at least 1 year in oak, 2 or more was common – and GRs typically had 3 -5 years, and often the same again in bottle.

Now there is a trend to less oak, and fresher (modern!?) styles… The Wine Society categorises the wine styles thus:

Traditional: fragrant, silky and delicate wines from long ageing in cask (usually American oak) and bottle. These are mostly ready to drink on release.  Bodegas La Rioja Alta are an example of traditional style .
Modern-classical: younger, rounder wines that retain the delicious character of Rioja through cask ageing (often a mix of American and French oak) with the structure to develop in bottle. Bodegas Muga and CVNE,  fall into this category.
Modern: richer, velvety wines aged for less time in newer (usually) French oak, which are released earlier and mostly need keeping.

 

In fact I think the wine forms a wide spectrum and these three headings are but reference points. But it is true that there is a trend to more site-specific wines. Some growers are vinifying their better grapes from better sites in special Cuvées and using exclusively French (Tronçais or Allier…) oak for the time thought appropriate for the wine rather than the time set by the Gran Reserva (or even the Reserva) rules. The result is more elegant and more structured (and more Bordeaux-profiled) wine – a sort of super-Reserva!

Part of this is indeed soil (and more generally terroir), particularly the Agrilo-Calcaire found also in Bordeaux, Loire etc. This seems to be the soil in the most highly prized sites: for Tempranillo and Graciano; for carefully maintained older vines; vines used for single vineyard or restricted source wines (still a minority– though becoming more common in Rioja); and for more serious white plantings of Viura.

Another factor is grape variety. Red Rioja can contain Tempranillo, Graciano, Mazuelo (Carignan) and Garnacha. We tend to think of Rioja as a Tempranillo wine with some minority blending partners – a bit like Chianti and Sangiovese… But that’s not accurate at all. There are no rules about how much of each grape can be in a Rioja. So it’s possible to have 100% Graciano, 100% Mazuelo or 100% Garnacha! Indeed these seem not too difficult to find as growers move more to site-based wines, and single vineyard Graciano is a style to watch for…

I confess I am interested to see the outcome of these stylistic changes, and hope they don’t end up entirely “Internationalising” a lovely distinctive wine style. There is room for development of course, but there are still many beautiful examples of  Reservas and Gran Reservas, and I for one still enjoy the depth and voluptuousness of well-made classic Rioja, retaining a warmth, richness and sense of place.

Meanwhile the picture is very varied and flexible, for a while yet it will be a bit like Burgundy: it’s quite hard to know what you’re going to get! – so find a producer (or 3 or 4…) you like and follow them…

Very old Álavesa Viura Vines

For this month’s tasting we’ll start with a very old fashioned white (a very rare style nowadays!) – aged for 4 years in barrel and 6 in bottle.

Then we’ll try a couple of varietals – Mazuelo and Graciano; and a more classic Reserva and Gran Reserva, sandwiching a “modern-classic” “super-Reserva” highly rated wine.

Graciano Vines at Coto de Imaz, Oyon, Álava

I hope the tasting illuminates some of the issues discussed here. Anyway, notes on the tasting will be posted in 6 or 7 days, a little later than usual.

À Bientôt

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