Rioja enters the 21st century

A traditional Rioja scene with the river Ebro in the foreground and San Vicente de la Sonsierra villa in the background

 

Spain’s oldest appellation was created in 1925, when the name Rioja was authorised on wine labels as a collective brand. In 1991, it became a Denominación de Origen Calificada, again the first of its kind. Of the 70 Spanish appellations, only Rioja and Priorat have been awarded this status.

 

A cursory glance suggests that the idea of terroir has long played second fiddle to maturation, defined by the traditional terms ‘Crianza’ and ‘Reserva’. The appellation area has always been classified as a whole, with no hierarchy amongst zones. But in recent months things have changed with the introduction of new rules and wines now divided between: Zones (the 3 existing ones); village-appellated wines and unique vineyards. Wines from the 2017 vintage can already be classified using these new categories. The first level is the ‘Vino de Zona’ (Zone Wine). These are the already familiar Rioja Alavesa (13,000 hectares), Rioja Alta (27,000 hectares) and Rioja Oriental, aka formerly Baja (24,590 hectares).

Rioja Alavesa, in the northern part of the region, North of the Ebro, is the highest and steepest area, with clay and limestone soils. Its continental climate is a little warmer than in Rioja Alta due to the shelter afforded by the Sierra Cantabria.

Rioja Alta stretches over the area between Haro and Logroño, South of the Ebro, in a damp and mountainous region with an unmistakable Atlantic profile. Most of its soils are alluvial, limestone, clayey and ferrous.

Rioja Oriental (formerly Rioja Baja) is located in the South-East of the region, with some areas in Navarre. Its elevation is lower and its climate more Mediterranean (in summer, temperatures can rise to 35 ° C) and drier. Here, brown sand alluvial soils abound.

 

Very distinctive terroirs

 

The soils don’t vary as much as the climate. In Rioja Alta, the vineyards are located on alluvial and ferruginous soils interspersed with limestone and clay on the terraces of the Ebro. In Rioja Alavesa, the soil is rockier with silty-clay, and is more conducive to growing Tempranillo. In Rioja Baja (now Oriental), vines are often planted on alluvial glacis at lower elevations.

 

Permitted grape varieties

 

In Rioja, the 7 traditional grape varieties are, for reds and rosés: Tempranillo, Grenache noir, Mazuelo, Graciano, and for whites, Viura, Malvesía and Grenache blanc. In 2008, the list of authorised grape varieties in the appellation was extended for the first time since 1925 with the addition of 4 heirloom varieties found in old Rioja vineyards: the white varieties Maturana blanca, Tempranillo blanco, Turruntés and the red Maturana tinta. White wines can also include Verdejo, Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc.

 

The new categories

 

The zone wine is based on the existing areas presented above. Each of them has very different winegrowing characteristics.

The Vino de Pueblo or Municipio was introduced in 1999, but was not used. From the 2017 vintage onwards, 144 villages in Rioja will be able to use the designation. The marketing conditions for these wines are identical to those for zone wines, but applied to a specific village.

Lastly, Viñedo Singular was recognised by the BOE (Official State Bulletin) on July 30, 2019, when it published the list of the first 84 ‘unique’ vineyards in the D.O.Ca. Rioja. This new micro-designation only covers a diminutive 155 hectares, or 0.23% of the total vineyard area (for the moment). The wines must come from one or more plots in the same village in order to link them to their terroir and highlight their origin.

We set off with our pilgrim's staff (the Camino de Compostela is not far away) on a mission to meet and interview producers, of all sizes and in all locations (except Rioja Oriental), and here is some of the insight we gained.

 

 

The staff at Bodega Altanza in the winery

 

Bodegas Altanza: an inspiring story of friendship

 

This is a dream come true for a group of friends with a background in wine, who in 1998 decided that it was time to create their own winery. The project materialised in Fuenmayor, Rioja Alta, and the property now boasts 150 hectares of Tempranillo and 12 hectares of Sauvignon blanc. This is a cutting-edge winery, as confirmed by our visit with Claudia Mitrea, tasked with exports: “95% of our 7,500 oak barrels are French. Additionally, we have 9 French oak tuns with a capacity of 22 hectolitres which add the finishing touch to our top-end bottlings. All of our wines are estate-bottled”. They show great purity, like the 2014 Raza Reserva: still young and dense on the palate with a ripe but clean aromatic profile and a persistent, fresh finish. Only 15,000 bottles of this modern, palatable style are produced. However, a similar feat has been achieved with the winery’s 2017 Crianza Lealtanza, which is in the same vein but on a much larger scale (250,000 bottles)! The gamble has paid off for this young Bodega, which produces 1,000,000 to 1,300,000 bottles a year!

 

Quiroga de Pablo: a family affair

 

The bodega is in the centre of the village of Azofra, in Rioja Alta. The climate here has an Atlantic influence with significant day/night temperature variations. The northern border is formed by the Sierra Cantabria (1,000 m), which can be seen in the distance laced with clouds. To the South is the Sierra de la Demanda (2,500 m) which blocks the Mediterranean influence.

The ebullient Maïté and her brother Juan Luis welcome us and immediately show us the ‘calado’, a vaulted stone vat located 8 to 10 metres underground, dug out by hand several centuries ago and used to make and mature wine. The methods may have changed but the sixth generation is proud of its history. The vineyards are planted on clayey-limestone, ferrous and gravelly soils. The reds undergo lengthy ageing in concrete vats in the underground cellar and are then matured in barrels. The 2013 Lagar de Cayo Reserva (90/100) exemplifies classicism with its ample, full-bodied, mellow and persistent palate, in a fairly ethereal, fresh vintage. The whites are also very interesting, and are either blends of several varieties (Sauvignon Blanc, Verdejo, Chardonnay or Tempranillo) or single varietals. They include the incredible white Tempranillo, stemming from a ‘natural’ genetic vine mutation. The 2018 Lagar de Cayo (90/100) is delightfully crisp and fresh with a subtle vanilla note on the finish. These wines show huge vitality and fully convey the family’s energy and drive.

 

Leza Garcia: A clan with a firm rooting in winegrowing

 

Still in Rioja Alta, a few kilometres farther North, in Uruñuela, Bodegas Leza García is a family business founded by grandfather Juan Leza Arenzana in the 20th century. Export manager Jairo Tilve expounds further: “We produce wines from 100 hectares of vineyards in the Najerilla Valley, at an altitude of between 500 and 700 metres above sea level. The confluence of continental and Mediterranean climates plays a major role here, with considerable temperature differences between day and night”. The Leza Garcia range embraces complex terroir wines with their own personal touch, such as the 2015 Reserva (90/100), intermixing black fruit and balsamic notes with beautifully balanced tannins, great finesse and savoury freshness on the finish. The future lies with LG Selección (Tempranillo and Graciano), which draws on the new regulations (September 2019), and also with the Viura-based Viñedo Singular for the white and Tempranillo for the red, both from plots over 35 years old.

 

Bodegas Castillo de Mendoza: a quest for excellence

 

Just a small trip northwards to San Vicente de Sonsierra in Rioja Alavesa, on the left bank of the Ebro, and communications director Maria Besga Martinez welcomes us to a building that has a modern exterior but very charming interior. “Castillo de Mendoza was founded in 1994. This is a family-run bodega stemming from the owner’s dream and passion when he decided to carry on the family tradition of winegrowing. We farm 100% organically and began to do so in 2000 with a few plots”. The bodega has 35 hectares of bearing vines and produces 120,000 bottles of red wine and no more than 3 to 4,000 bottles of white a year but from Viura and Malvasia vines in a plot that is about 120 years old.

The high-altitude clay-limestone soil and the area’s Atlantic climate clearly impart finesse, freshness and greater complexity to the wines. A quick glance at the tasting scores, rating between 91 and 94/100, is undeniable proof. The 2011 Reserva is the highlight here and undoubtedly offers the best value for money in Rioja (93/100). It is packed with ripe fruit, delicate oakiness and a toast-driven finish. Offering savoury chewiness and refined tannins, it is a real treat.

 

 

Cristina Forner, Enrique’s daughter, is currently at the helm of this iconic brand

 

Marqués de Cáceres: the icon

 

We are welcomed to Cenicero by export sales manager Joël Martínez who takes us on a tour of this magnificent bodega. The Forner family, the brand’s Valencian owners, started its wine business in 1920. Whilst in exile in France during the civil war, it continued its business in the Corbières, Rhone Valley and Loire Valley and even owned Bordeaux chateaux in the 1960s, including 5th Great Growth Haut-Médoc Camensac. At the end of the 1960s, Enrique Forner, then at the group’s helm, began to feel nostalgic about Spain and decided to re-establish a business in his native country, which he did with the astute advice of Emile Peynaud, whom he had met in Bordeaux. All that was needed now was a name that could rival the leaders of the time Marqués de Murrieta and Marqués de Riscal. Marqués de Cáceres was named after an actual Marquis who had been a long-time friend of the family. We asked Cristina Forner, Enrique's daughter, about her vision of the future for Rioja and the group she now runs, particularly as regards the new regulations introduced in September 2019. She is not very enthusiastic: “Creating new classification categories often meets a need to freshen up an image and market positioning. The classifications do not necessarily guarantee higher quality and can create confusion in consumer perception, and consumers are the sole judges of the quality and price of the wines they buy”. She continues: “Bearing this in mind, the new categories do not necessarily add identity and quality to the DO. So you might think that a Vino Singular supersedes the personality of a collection Gran Reserva or ‘Alta Expresión’ wines, a category where our top-end Gaudium and Generación MC wines have been ranked for 20 years”. From an export perspective, quality levels such as ‘Crianza’, the core of production, offer the kind of value for money that sets them in good stead to ward off competition. This important asset is clearly emphasised by Cristina: “We take particular care to ensure that each of our wines has an affordable price tag in its category compared to rival brands. This strengthens confidence in our brand among consumers. We strive to apply this model to every Marqués de Cáceres wine in its category. The fact that our brand is present in nearly 130 countries also lends credence to our strategy”.

The wines have changed a lot since the 2000s, which is the topic of our article. Marques de Cáceres is no exception to the rule. Cristina Forner continues: “Substantial financial and human resources have been poured into improving quality over the past 10-15 years. Diversifying the range based on terroir characters requires creative winemaking to realise their full potential. This is not just the work of nature and the winemaker but a general team effort”. The emergence of quality wines from other parts of Spain requires constant soul-searching. “We have always kept our finger on the pulse of wine markets, and we have also invested elsewhere, in Rueda, Ribera del Duero (Bodega Finca la Capilla), in our Albariño Deusa Nai in Rías Baixas and more recently in our Cava”. Some of the wines in the range already carry a lot of weight in DOCa Rioja. Examples are the 2015 ‘Excellens Cuvée Especial’ (92/100), the 2011 ‘Don Sebastian Gran Reserva’ (94/100) and its 2015 Crianza version (91/100).

  

Muriel Wines: a group with a commitment

 

Not far away, but on the other side of the Ebro, Elciego is the birthplace of Muriel Wines and where its main Rioja brands - Muriel, Viña Muriel, Viña Eguia and Marqués de Elciego - are made. This is where Javier Murúa Gangutia welcomes us. It is one of the main Spanish wine groups founded by José Murúa in 1926. Muriel Wines currently boasts six different wineries - four of them in DOCa Rioja - and a broad-ranging portfolio of quality wine brands.

 

 

Rioja wines are a reliable choice – they offer great quality and price tags, as we have seen across the region. Logroño's tapas bars serve remarkable wines by the glass for just €2.50 or €3! But times are changing and so are consumers. Javier Murúa Gangutia is aware of this: “Of course, the style of wine will evolve with the new hierarchy if, that is, excessive protectionism doesn’t stop it. But I think the style of wine is constantly changing anyway”.

Questioned about value for money, he says: “This is a huge asset for Rioja wines. Product diversity is what sets us apart. We offer a broad and differentiated range of products. Each wine has a well-defined origin, positioning and objective”.

When asked what has changed in Rioja, Javier is categorical: “Everything has changed! In recent years, we have constantly grown in every direction, through investments in the vineyard and in terms of technology”. In countless wine regions, technology has changed the face of the wine world and improved its overall quality. Javier concludes: “Rioja, like every other wine region in the world, has had to adapt, particularly to different consumer patterns. Within this appellation and benchmark wine region, the changes are fuelled more by market requirements than by the threats stemming from other wine regions”.

 

Marqués del Atrio: export pioneer

 

This sizeable group and major regional player owns 20 hectares of vines at the Mendavia location that are used to produce the Marqués del Atrio brand. Supplies in the aggregate, however, come from 3,000 hectares through contracts with winegrowers. Eduardo Peña Pablo, in charge of marketing, welcomes us and talks to us about the changes underway: “The new classification is a way of differentiating between areas and promoting their origin. These vineyard sites were already there and this will not affect the style of the wine. The way they are handled and their maturation prior to release are more important than the way they are classified”.

The brand is also well equipped when it comes to exports: “We have extensive experience spanning 40 years in the international market and we pioneered Rioja wine exports. We have created a brand that is recognised by consumers, made to a very high standard and turns the spotlight on a century of family history dedicated to wine”.

Here, the changes are focused on the vineyards. Eduardo continues: “We carry out meticulous research, monitoring and selection in the vineyard to secure the exact identity that our bodega is seeking for our brand”. This is nothing new, as our tasting of the remarkable 2007 Marques del Atrio Single Vineyard (92/100) proved. The issue of identity permeates life in Rioja. The region enjoys unique conditions, particularly in terms of the weather and geography, which is why it has long been recognised. “Our wines will continue to be benchmarks because they are unique. Other regions are different, which is why their wines are different”.

 

Rioja is producing the wines of the future

 

Common sense doesn’t get more practical than that. But the overwhelming feeling after this interesting trip to Rioja is that the changes are mainly psychological. Producers have realised that their wines are now being scrutinised, studied and tasted worldwide. Generally speaking, producers have taken advantage of an almost ideal configuration (elevation, day-night temperature variations etc.) to produce wines that are fresher, more invigorating and also more palatable. All of these features play to the strengths of Rioja wines and align with drinking conventions at the beginning of the 21st century.

 

By Sylvain Patard - Photographs: Gilbert & Gaillard - Courtesy of the Bodegas