Monday, November 25, 2013

The Rioja Wine Region -- Revisited

I initially wrote a post on the subject topic on February 8, 2012 but, after my visit to the region as an attendee of the 2013 Digital Wine Communications Conference, and after reviewing excellent articles on Rioja by John Perry (Rioja Terroir: Approaching the concept of terroir in wine, Vrazon, 10/7/13), Quentin Sadler (Oak in Riojan wine: Fundamentals of a style choice, Vrazon, 10/1/13),  and Sarah Jane Evans MW (Vintage Guide to Rioja, Decanter, 11/15/2013), I saw a need to update my original post to reflect my new learnings, as well as to correct any errors that might have been contained in the original.

The Rioja region (named after the Oja River, Rio Oja in Spanish) of Spain, has a winemaking culture dating back to the 9th century and codified into law since 1600 when it became the first Spanish wine region to receive the Denominación de Origen Calcificada (qualified designation of origin) classification. 

With its proximity to France, Riojan wines have long been subject to influence from the Bordelais. This influence became most pronounced when the French rootstock was wiped out by phylloxera causing Bordeaux negociants to seek out alternative sources of supply. This French influence, especially evident in the use of oak, is one of the factors that set Riojan wines apart from other Spanish wines.

Spain is subjected to three climatic influences: Mediterranean, Continental, and Atlantic.  Rioja DOCa, the wine region, is unique in that it lies at the confluence of all three.  Because of ancient plate tectonic activity, Rioja lies in a depression and this allows for a Mediterranean-dominated climate but also allows for the flow of cool Atlantic air, especially in the northwestern portion of the region.  The Atlantic air cools the grapes and provides the diurnal temperature differential that is so advantageous for grape growing. 

Rioja DOCa, falling on both sides of the 142-mile-long Rio Ebro, does not map neatly into the political unit called La Rioja.  Rather, elements of the region spill into the political units of Navarra and Alava. The Rioja wine region is further divided into three sub-regions -- Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja -- each one having its own climate and terroir.  

According to Wines from Spain, the soil types vary from calcareous clay in Rioja Alavesa; to calcareous clay, some ferruginous clay, and alluvial soils in Rioja Alta; to ferruginous clay and alluvial soils in Rioja Baja. According to Manuel Ruiz Hernandez (as cited in Perry):
The calcareous-clay soils are ocre-colored soils that comprise stair step terraces running from the Cantabria Mountains to the Ebro River ... The alluvial soils are found in terraces near the rivers that flow from the Sierra de la Demanda Mountains down to the Ebro River ... They comprise flat lands, which are easily worked ... The ferrous-clay soils are found on ridged slopes of low mountains that separate the valleys of these two afore,mentioned rivers. They are reddish or garnet-colored lands which provide for moderately sloped vineyards.
According to, the soil in Rioja Alta is rich in iron, limestone and clay along with nutrients deposited in the region by the tributaries of the Ebro River. The alluvial soils are highly permeable with varying water-retention capabilities. Approximately 90% of the wine produced in Rioja is red, with a typical blend of 70% Tinto Fino (local clone of Tempranillo), 15% Garnacha (Grenache), 7.5% Graziano, and 7.5% Mazuelo. These grape varieties are covered in greater detail here.

Oak aging is a key element of Rioja wine production, a practice which, according to Sadler, dates back to the 1860s, a little over 190 years after Murietta and Riscal applied the processes they had learned in Bordeaux to the making of fine wines in Rioja. Due to its ready availability -- and lower cost -- American oak became the wood of choice in Rioja. According to Wines from Spain, "... this concentration on oak aging has sometimes overshadowed other critical factors such as the contribution of the site and the vineyard." Current Rioja rules stipulate that the finished wine must be matured in 225 liter casks or barrels for defined periods in order to be classified accordingly. The aging regime is as follows:
  • Crianza -- Two years aging before release with 12 months in barrel
  • Reserva -- Three years aging with at least 1 year in barrel
  • Gran Reserva -- Five years aging with at least 2 years in barrel.
In today's Rioja, American, French, Hungarian, Slavonian, and Russian oak are utilized in the aging of wine, with the former two dominating. The characteristics of American and French oak are detailed below. Hungarian, Slavonian, and Russian oak are stylistically similar to French oak and are used in small proportions in concert with American oak.

In my travel through the region I have seen a producer alternating American and French staves in the same barrel in order to increase the complexity of the maturing wine. In another case I have seen the use of American oak in the staves and French oak as barrel tops, again in pursuit of increased complexity.

According to Vibrant Rioja, Rioja Alta produces full-bodied, medium-alcohol wines, Rioja Alavesa produces lighter, aromatic wines, and Rioja Baja produces wines that are deeper in color and fruitier in taste. A classic Rioja wine is seen as having elegance and a seductive quality. It exhibits characteristics of tobacco, leather, cedar, leaves, dark fruit, dark chocolate, and cigar box. 

Within the corpus of Rioja winemaking, there is an ongoing debate between the traditionalists and more modern winemakers. As characterized by Sadler, the traditionalists harvest the fruit early from a wide variety of vineyards, ferment after a short maceration period, and then age the wine in barrels according to the wine type. After oak aging, the wine is blended and then placed in bottle for an additional period of aging. The modernist, on the other hand, pays greater attention to the land and matches the grape variety with the soil. Supporting this perspective, Sarah Jane Evans MW sees some of these modernists focusing on "the expression of a single vineyard, and they choose the oak regime to suit the wine not the regulation." Wines of this ilk, according to Ms. Evans, tend to spend between 18 and 24 months in barrel before bottle-rest in a cellar.

This move to modernity did not arise in a vacuum. Rather it arose in response to consumer tastes shifting in the 1980s to more powerful, fruity wines and the desire of some of the Rioja producers to play in that market space. With the decline in domestic wine consumption brought about by (i) current economic conditions and (ii) by declining wine consumption among Spain's young adults, the foreign, and, especially, the US market, beckons. The result has been that, in many cases, both modern and traditional offerings are resident under a single roof. An example of this trend is Bodegas Muga where the very traditional Prado Enea Gran Reserva resides alongside Torre Muga "a more powerful wine, aged in new barrels of French oak, with more prominent fruit flavors that required less aging before hitting the market." 

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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