Friday, February 3, 2012

Elements of the blend: A key Rioja critical success factor

The wines from Rioja, known and respected by wine drinkers around the world, owe their prominence to three factors: the terroir (covered in a previous post on this blog); its affinity for, and interaction with, oak (covered by Andrew Jefford in the January 2012 issue of Decanter); and the grape varieties that are included in the -- mostly -- blended wines.  I will close the loop by reporting on the Rioja varietals in this post.  I will begin with the grapes used in red Rioja wines.



The varieties approved for inclusion in Rioja wines are Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo, and Graciano; of these, Tempranillo is by far the most important component of the blend.  Tempranillo is the primary red grape in Spain with significant plantings in Rioja and Ribera del Duero (where it is known as Tinto Fino and Tinto del Pais).  In other regions of Spain, Tempranillo is known as Aragon, Cencibel, Extramadura, Valdepenàs, Tinta del Toro, Jancivera, Ull de Llebre, or Ojo de Liebre.  In the Douro region of Portugal, Tempranillo, under the name Tinta Roriz, is used as a key varietal in Port blends.  Staying in Portugal, the varietal is called Aragonez in Alentejo.


Tempranillo -- the name translates to "little early one" -- is an early-ripening, cool-climate-craving varietal that exhibits high vigor and low resistance to vine diseases (Its high vigor necessitates pruning in order to ensure that adequate resources are devoted to high-quality fruit production.).  The grape is low in sugar and acidity, high in pH and tannins, and tends towards undesirable characteristics in warmer climes.  This varietal has traditionally been bush-vine trained but some of the more modernist winemakers have been placing the vines "on the rack."

Tempranillo is authorized in 28 Spanish apellations and is the principal varietal in 12.  In Rioja, 31,000 hectares (57% of the appellations' plantings) are devoted to Tempranillo.  The varietal contributes spicy red fruit flavors and aromas, along with an herbaceousness and good minerality, to the blend.


Garnacha (Grenache, Garnacha Tinta) is planted on 10,148 hectares in Rioja (21% of the grapes grown in the appellation) and is the most extensively grown red variety in the world: 330,000 hectares, 240,000 of which is in Spain.  This varietal's repute stems from its inclusion in stellar wines form Rioja, Priorat, Languedoc, and Southern Rhone.


Grenache is a hardy, pest- and disease-resisitant varietal which generally is the backbone of red blends but, in some cases, old vines in Priorat, for example, is bottled asa varietal.  The grape yields full-bodied, high-alcohol, low-acid, low-tannin wines in warm climes but is well-balanced in colder regions.  The varietal needs a long season to ripen and the resultant wines are light in color with rich peppery red fruit and cinnamon notes.


Mazuelo (also known as Carignan, Cariñena, Tinto Mazuelo, Crujillon, and Samsó, among others) is the third most planted varietal in Spain and, at 1543 hectares, represents 3% of the plantings in the Rioja DOC.  Worldwide, the grape is planted on 22,000 hectares, 207,000 of which is in France, its country of origin.  The varietal is both tannic and acid and, thanks to late budding and ripening, requires a long growing season in order to ripen.  Mazuelo adds structure and longevity to Rioja reds as well as, according to, "... a fine, sparkling, ruby-red color, and a freshness, vigor, and personality which characterize the best table wines."


Graciano is planted to 198 hectares in Rioja, a paltry 0.4% of the DOCs plantings and a reflection of the varietal's contribution to the blend.  The varietal is called Morrastel in France, its country of origin. It is the most aromatic of the Rioja varieties and contributes tobacco and licorice notes, along with acidity, to the blend.  Graciano is very resistant to pests and vineyard diseases.


White Rioja wines are either a blend of Viura, Malvasia, and Garnacha Blanca or are 100% Viura.  Viura is best known for its floral aromas as is the Malvasia which adds structure and grapefruit flavor to the blend.  Garnacha Blanc adds aromas of sweet honeysuckle and apricot to the blend.  Rioja whites are fermented either in stainless steel or oak containers and are also subject to traditional and modernist interpretations.

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