Updated: Oct 15, 2022
“Spain’s favourite table wine is as distinctive as melons are melony or cheese cheesy. It combines a degree of soft fruitiness ranging from faint to jammy, with the pronounced vanilla flavour and slight astringency of oak” Hugh Johnson, Decanter, 1983.
It's the first time at Cépage we've embarked on a collaboration with a specific wine region, but I was captivated after reading an article by a colleague of mine, Fintan Kerr, on how a Spanish estate (Bodegas Artuke) is inspiring winemakers of Rioja and wider Spain to focus indigenous varietal clones, vineyard expression and quality over quantity. Over the month of October, we'll be delving into a fabulous wine region, from the conventional wines to producers totally off the beaten track, talking about how they pair with local and international cuisine, and Rioja's impact on the wider wine industry...
Even in the 80s, Rioja was distinctive in profile, a brand in itself, like Chablis, Champagne, Napa or Barolo. Once you’ve tasted a few, the ‘generic’ style becomes incredibly recognisable; a blind tasting dream! Typically, the reds (from Tempranillo, occasionally with a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon) will be oaky with high acidity and soft tannings, showing notes of sweet spice and vanilla, accompanying typical Tempranillo characteristics of sweet cherry, strawberries, tobacco, cassis and cloves. Oak is predominantly American, hence the overtly sweet spice character. However, the top wineries are increasingly moving towards more restrained, elegant French oak in search of finesse, varietal and vineyard expression.
The whites are very interesting, commonly made from the most widely planted grape in the Rioja region, Viura, which also goes by the name of Macabeo. It's a blending grape for Cava, and in Rioja, it's occasionally deliberately oxidised. Overall, Viura is relatively neutral and 'green' in character. In the glass, you'll notice honeydew, jasmine, cut green grass and lime rind. It can age incredibly well, and the use of oak makes for phenomenally complex styles.
However, real change is occurring all around Spanish wine regions, especially in Rioja itself, away from the conventions of 'typical' Tempranillo. Spanish vignerons are undergoing a quiet revolution, a colossal move away from the corporate grip of Torres, Campo Viejo and the like. The big-name producers must certainly be credited with putting Rioja and wider Spain on the global wine map. Though, we cannot deny it has been a race to the bottom in recent years, with supermarkets taking hold of the Rioja ‘brand’. It’s rediscovering itself, slowly but surely, and Rioja lies in the heart of this renaissance. It is undoubtedly the region in Spain most notable for its commercial, high-volume output.
People are going back to the traditional ways of vinification and work in the vineyard, expressing single vineyard sites, using little or no oak unlike the strict criterion of Joven, Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva denoting the minimum time wines are required to age…
Minimum Total Ageing
Minimum Time in Barrel
Thankfully, in the new wave of Rioja and elsewhere in Spain, we can forget this all-important table, and allow terroir (‘teh-wah’) to speak for itself. Spain, as well as France, is rare in the fact it has its own word for terroir, terruño. We in England don’t. Quite simply, terroir is derived from the Latin Terra, denoting ‘earth’, or ‘land’, but it goes far beyond the notion of land. In fact, Nicholas Joly (a superfluous Loire Valley producer of Savennieres wine) frequently describes the notion of terroir as sang de la terre. Blood and kinship of the Earth. French composer and writer Pierre Boulez says of great art, that “a landscape painted so well that the artist disappears in it”. This can easily apply to the best wines of the world. We are slowly starting to see this in Rioja, and it’s truly exciting!
The stunning winery of Marqués de Riscal, in Rioja Alavesa. Credit: Ferran Ventura via Unsplash
Rioja, named after the river Oja, comprises aorund 55,000 hectares, or 140,000 acres under vine in the Northeast of Spain. It’s split into three primary communes (loosely based on quality). First is Rioja Alta, which is also the highest in average altitude. This is followed by Rioja Alavesa and then Rioja Oriental (formally known as Rioja Baja) the largest commune under vine. Rioja in its expanse has a multitude of climatic factors influencing grape growing, from Atlantic Sea breezes to cold winters with dry and warm Mediterranean summers.
Located in the westernmost part of the Rioja region, and home to Rioja's largest town, Haro (which hosts an annual wine festival), Alta is the best known sub region. Rioja Alta literally translates to 'high Rioja'. As the name suggests, the vineyards benefit from altitude, providing acidity in the grapes, transferring to fresher wines with great ageing potential. Limestone and clay soils are present in Rioja Alta; clay based soils are well known for producing incredible quality wine across the world in places like Pomerol and Barolo.
Notable Producers: La Rioja Alta, Muga, López de Heredia, Roda
Alavesa occupies the northern Northern Territory of Rioja, is the smallest in area and has a rich history. Archaeological excavations have discovered ancient settlements such as La Hoya, which carbon dating places at 1500 years before the birth of Jesus. The real flourish in winemaking came from the French in the 19th century, as they searched for wine regions to occupy following the outbreak of the Phylloxera disease throughout their domestic vineyards. French winemakers commercialised what was previously a 'table wine' making region. Quality is closely comparable to the wines of Rioja Alta. It's also equally high in altitude, but, closest to the effects of the Atlantic Ocean makes for a noticeable addition of acidity in the wines (generally speaking). Garancha (Grenache), Mazuelo and Graciano are used to blend in Alavesa, resulting in some of the most age worthy wines in the whole of Rioja.
Notable Producers: Palacios Remondo, Marqués de Riscal, Artuke, Artadi
Rioja Oriental (Baja)
Previously known as Rioja Baja (meaning lower), accounts for 40% of Rioja's overall output. It was previously associated with higher volume, lower quality wines. The 2018 change in name was a decision made to try and remove that stereotype. The climate is drier, warmer and drought is a bigger risk. Alluvial, well draining and fertile silts can be found in Rioja Baja. Highly fertile soils often mean a larger canopy with less concentrated berries, and thus, poorer quality wines. This is compared to soils with little natural nutrients, where the plant struggles sending the roots deeper. The priority here is the berries for reproduction. Generally, you’ll find less yields, but greater complexity of flavour and higher quality wines.
Notable Producers: Contino, Alvaro Palacios
The vineyard area of Rioja Alta
- Rioja boasts over 600 wineries with 140,000 acres of area under vine, creating 250 million litres of wine annually;
- As a wine region, Rioja holds the most amount of oak barrels in the world, with the wineries collectively housing over 1m oak barrels;
- Even though red wine makes up 85% of production, more white grape varietals are permitted than red.
- The most expensive Rioja is called Sierra Cantabria 'Magico'. It's from Rioja Alta, and averages around £400 per bottle.
Photo Credits: Rioja Wine UK