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Rioja, Old and New
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Spain is filled with new wines…here’s how Rioja is keeping up

By Jim Clarke
September 2008

Every couple of years we seem to have a new Spanish red-wine region to talk about. Priorat is old hat these days, as is Ribera del Duero. Since their emergence in the 90s, the new names keep pouring in: Bierzo, Cigales, Toro, Yecla…. But despite all the new faces, Spain’s old warhorse, Rioja, has had no trouble keeping up.

Doing so, however, has created as split in the region’s identity, as some producers have changed their winemaking technique to embrace practices developed elsewhere. This “modern” style—often called “new wave,” but without the Flock of Seagulls haircuts—contrasts with the classic Rioja style, and is generally dated to 1970, when the Marques de Cáceres bodega began working with new French Oak barrels; almost forty years later, the division has yet to be reconciled in one direction or the other.

That French oak provides a clue about the direction of change. Rioja was once one of a handful of winemaking regions to use American oak. They rarely used new barrels, but wines spent a prolonged period in these older barrels—two years or more—allowing the wood a goodly long time to have its effect. American oak tends to have larger grained wood than French, so the wine can seep further into the staves and leech out potent notes of vanilla, coconut, and dill, even from older barrels. That extra time also allows oxygen to creep in, and oxidative, nutty notes are not uncommon in old-school Rioja.

Modern red Riojas instead use new French barrels, but for much shorter lengths of time. This more or less prevents any oxidative character developing, and the tighter grained French barrels are more likely to contribute subtler touches of smoke, clove, toast, and perhaps vanilla as well.

Another change will sound familiar to Chianti fans. Riojas are based on the Tempranillo grape, with Garnacha, Mazuelo, and Graciano used in smaller percentages. However, it used to be commonplace to throw some of the region’s white grapes into the mix as well—as much as 10%, according to Ana Martín, winemaker at Senorio de Cuzcurrita. As in Chianti, producers in Rioja have largely abandoned this practice, even those working in the older style.

Fermentation itself has become slower, with long macerations to extract more from Tempranillo’s thin grapeskins, resulting in darker color and a darker cast to the wine’s fruit flavors. Some experts say that aging and blending was the focus for old Rioja producers; hence those years and years of barrel-aging. Bottles would buy the fermented juice of various growers, barrel-age the heck out of it, and stitch the various barrels together into a wine—a very good wine, given the right starting materials. With a renewed emphasis on the beginning of the winemaking process, extensive aging has lost its importance.

If Cáceres started changing things in the winery, it was Roda who started paying attention to the grapes in the vineyard. In 1987 they began buying or leasing vineyards around Rioja—but only the best vineyards. Individual vineyard character came into play, and it was “adios” to the hodge-podge blending of “whatever grapes a bodega could get their hands on.”

“The harvest used to begin earlier than in the new Riojas; normally for new Riojas the alcohol percentage is between 14 and 14.5%” says Ana Martín, “whereas older wines often come in at 12 or 13%.” Even more significantly, “Ten years ago yields were around 8,000 kg per hectare, but now if you want to make a good wine you can’t have more than 6,000 kg per hectare, and for a very good one around 5,000 kg per hectare.” Lowering yields means better concentration of flavor, but less juice overall—a sacrifice of quantity for quality.

If I were talking about other regions, it might sound like I was merely saying that the wines are getting better; but there’s more to it than that. To sum up the effects of these changes on the “modern” Riojas, they can generally be said to have a darker, richer color; darker fruit aromas; fuller body and higher alcohol; and don’t demand as much bottle-age before opening. Old-school Riojas are paler in color, with red fruit, tobacco, and lots of spice touches; lighter in body, with higher acidity; and often need time in the cellar before they really strut their stuff. So it’s a big difference, but not a qualitative one—great wines come from both camps.

They also fail in different ways. A poorly made traditional Rioja is thin, perhaps tart, with little fruit showing through the oak, but it’s clearly a Rioja. A modern Rioja gone wrong is anonymously international, and can taste indistinguishable from a similarly generic California Cabernet/Chilean Merlot/Super Tuscan and so on.

The diversity can be a little confusing for consumers. Overlap between the camps is growing—among the “classic” producers, anything with traditional designations of Joven, Crianza, Reserva, or Gran Reserva are likely to be the most traditional. Wines with a “nome de fantasia” are likely to be more modern. For example, Mikel Martinez of Hermanos Pecina says their “Chobeo” is deliberately made in a modern style, in contrast with their range of conventionally named wines.

If you want to keep up with the competition from all those up-and-coming wine regions, it pays to be versatile.

Some Recommended Producers:

Lopez de Heredía
Hermanos Pecina
Marques de Murrieta

Marques de Cáceres
Bodegas Roda
Bodegas Muga


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