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Rioja Embraces Modernity and Individuality

Rent a car in Bilbao and take the road south into the Cantabrian mountains - Rioja soon unfolds before you. Between majestic peaks dotted with quaint hillside towns lie undulating vineyards. This area produces 300 million bottles of wine a year and exports to 120 different countries. But beyond the statistics of widespread wine production, a new, more intricate story is emerging about the Rioja. The details present a modernizing picture as mesmerizing as the Frank Gehry designed hotel of the Marques di Riscal winery. 

Rioja’s History

But first, how did we get to a modern Rioja? The story stretches back deep into history.

Around 1100 BC, the Phoenicians who traded across the Mediterranean brought wine to Spain in amphorae pots. They spread their knowledge of viticulture and winemaking. They were later supplanted by the Romans, who planted vines to sustain soldiers and settlements. They hollowed out stone troughs to ferment the wine and improved the quality of the amphorae.

After the Romans came the Vandals, the Alani and the Visigoths. However, it was the Moors who ended up ruling Spain for over 700 years. Wine did not flourish under the abstentious Moors, but evidence shows that wine continued to be made. Slowly the Moors were pushed back. The Christian church arrived from France, and monasteries established their own vine growing practices.

The evidence of Rioja as a region dates back to 1092. Specifically, there is a story that relates to a monk, Gonzalo de Berceo, who resided in the Rioja monastery of San Millan around 1190. De Berceo is credited as the father of the Spanish language. In the first poem written in Spanish, he wrote of “un vaso de buen vino” or a glass of good wine.

In 1469, Prince Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castile, uniting Castile, Aragon and Catalunya into one kingdom. This opened the way for the Reconquista, which banished the last remaining Moors from Spain. Under the newly united Spain, winemaking returned along with exports. In the cellar, producers turned from amphorae to cleaned and cured animal skins. Oak butts (barrels) appeared at the end of the 15th century. When Francis Drake attacked the Spanish armada, his booty was 2,900 casks of fortified wine from Jerez (i.e Sherry).

By 1635, Logrono in Rioja had banned wagons and horses from roads close to ageing cellars to prevent the vibrations from hurting the wines. Logrono was also the regional Tribunal for the Office of the Spanish Inquisition. In 1610 it held one of its gruesome public rituals, called the act of faith, which was famous for the number of witches burned.

The Rioja Wine Growers Royal Economic Society was established in 1787, the first use of the term Rioja for the region. Next came evolutions in winemaking, as winemaker Manuel Quintana y Quintana travelled from the Rioja to Bordeaux to learn from Bordelais producers about cooperage and wine quality. On his return, he had trouble convincing his neighbours that spending money on expensive oak led to better wines. But he shipped his wines to Cuba in well-sealed oak barrels, which conditioned the young wines well and led to higher quality and prices on the other side. This was the first indication to the regional winemakers that oak barrels would be important to the quality and style of Rioja.

During the 19th century, Spain was riven by civil wars. Winemakers from Rioja were forced to flee to the Bordeaux from time to time. Marques de Murrieta studied winemaking while in exile and returned to make wine in oak casks. They can date the first wine made this way to 1852. Marques di Riscal returned from exile, bringing back Bordeaux vines and later hiring a consultant from that region. Debate continues to this day as to who between Murrieta and Riscal produced the first wine in the modern style of Rioja.

In the 1870s, Rioja boomed. Wine was shipped back to Bordeaux to bulk up the remnants of the Bordeaux vineyards decimated by phylloxera. Wineries were established in Haro beside the rail station, in the Barrio de la Estacion. Rioja was doing so well that Haro was the first town in Spain to have streetlights.

However, hard times befell the region. Phylloxera hit Rioja as well. France had regained the use of its vineyards and no longer needed its grapes. Markets in the Americas dried up as Spain lost its colonies, known as “the Disaster”. But a new syndicate was formed in 1907 to guarantee Rioja authenticity with most of the producers coming from around Haro.

In 1936, Spain was torn apart by the Civil War. Over 1% of the population of Rioja was executed. A mass grave lies in La Barranca. Despite the horrors of war, there were some exceptional years, particularly 1945, and some outstanding vineyards were planted. In 1975 dictator Francisco Franco died, and a democratic government rose. Spain joined the EU and winemakers could travel the world in large numbers to learn various winemaking techniques.

The Grapes

DNA analysis shows that Tempranillo probably developed in Navarra and La Rioja and spread rapidly from there. In several locales the vines adapted well to their new environments. Vega Sicilia have identified eight different Tinto Finos (Tempranillo) in their vineyards. RODA, one of Haro’s prominent winemakers, has a project with 500 different morphotypes for its Tempranillo Seed Bank. However, most Tempranillo is derived from two or three clones and tends to be sourced from vineyards throughout the Rioja. This leads to less connection with a single vineyard, something that many Rioja makers are attempting to change.

Tempranillo has black cherry and red plum fruit flavours and moderate acidity. It is not as stylistically dominant as Cabernet or Syrah. Blending and careful oak ageing gives winemakers much creative latitude.

Tempranillo’s moderate acidity level means that, for ageing, it is often blended with higher acidity varieties. The most commonly used in blends are Graciano, Mazuelo (a local name for Carignan) and Garnacha (Grenache). Graciano is an aromatic variety, with licorice and spice notes. Its high acidity blends well with Tempranillo. Mazuelo is known as the workhorse grape, delivering colour, acidity, tannin and yield. Garnacha is grown extensively in the region, particularly in warmer Mediterranean subzones. It has low tannins and retains high acidity in warmer climates. It provide warmth, ripeness, generosity and spice to blends.

The Regions

Rioja runs west-to-east along northern Spain. The main river that runs through it is the Ebro, together with several laternal-flowing tributaries. The main mountain ranges that protect it from extreme weather are the Sierra de Cantabria to the north (rain and Atlantic influence), and Sierra de la Demanda (arid heat) to the south.

Most divide Rioja’s wineries into three politically demarcated regions: First, there is Rioja Alta, which has an Atlantic climate. Soils are chalky clay, ferrous clay or alluvial. Rioja Alavesa - the second region - also has an Atlantic climate, with soils of chalky clay, broken up into terraces and small plots. Then there is Rioja Baja, now known as Oriental, with alluvial and clay soils and a more Mediterranean climate.

However, there is much more diversity of terroir than this nomenclature would suggest. Jose Pepe Hildalgo, a prominent wine consultant, made his own map, which divides Rioja into nine sub-zones according to terroir. Three of the areas that are the most interesting from his classification are:

1. La Sonsierra – this is in Rioja Alavesa and a few areas of Rioja Alta – the soils are calcareous clay and is the only Rioja area to have these soils.

2. Riberas del Oja and Tiron is around Haro. Brown limestone is found closer to the mountains; closer to Haro, Briones and Ollauri is calcareous and ferrous clay. This area is much cooler and with 11-12 C average temperatures and varying levels of annual rainfall. These have the greatest ageing potential and are most Atlantic in style.

3. Another sub-zone to note is Monte Yerga, around the mountains. This focuses on Garnacha and is starting to gain some attention.

The Future

As described earlier, Rioja has not always been about ‘terroir’. Much of its historical prominence was due to the French fleeing phylloxera and the corresponding need to serve demand in France. For too long, much focus has been on quantity, rather than individuality. Today, as in many other premium producing regions around the world including Burgundy and Barolo, terroir is back, and vineyard distinctiveness is driving modern Rioja.

Victor Urrutia of CVNE said, ‘part of Rioja’s problem is that everything is sold as Rioja, but it’s a very diverse region. Not everything is the same.’ Alejandro Lopez, the winemaker for Bilbainas says, ‘Rioja is now in the perfect moment to show all its diversity regarding terroir, knowledge and origin.’ A highly detailed map of the region is coming, much like what has long been in Burgundy and more recently done in Barolo. However, due to the inertial weight of tradition and local politics, it is unclear when the delineations will be made official.

Simultaneously, there is less emphasis on oak aging and flavours in the winery. Watch out for cult ‘Generico’ wines, where the rules about oak ageing are less strict than in the existing system. New barrels and vanilla-flavoured American oak is on the decline. In reaction to these modernist trends, some of Spain’s winemakers are turning back to amphorae, albeit with temperature controls and other gadgetry.

White Rioja is also up and coming. 1986 Castillo Ygay white wine from Marques de Murrieta, with 30+ years of age, became a hit and collectible fine wine. Tondonia produces a high prestigious Gran Reserve white wine. These wines can be beautifully balanced, with subtle oak oxygenation and complexity.

In terms of vintages, the cooler 2021 vintage was one of the best, 2001 and 2011 are also strong. Those ending in ‘3’ are to be avoided – 2003, 2013 and 2023. 2023 was a very challenging year due to the heat.

Without question, change is afoot in Rioja. It is an exciting area to watch as winemakers embrace terroir and innovation to produce some age-worthy wines that are the peer of any premium region in the world.



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