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Let's Rioja n' Roll

>Printer Friendly Reviews, Issue #202

All reviews were written by Neal Martin and were published in issue 202 (August 2012) of The Wine Advocate. Original reviews can be found online at (subscription required). Tasting notes, wine and winery names, and technical information appear as published on, and may contain errors in spelling and content. The wines were tasted in 2012 and reflect vintages that were current at the time.

by Neal Martin

The police officer is apoplectic. Sixty seconds after departing from my very first visit, the eagle-eyed lawman pulled our vehicle over. God forbid, he spotted a passenger in the rear without a seatbelt, though his wrath suggests we had just run over a member of the royal family. He demands identification cards, but in the United Kingdom, Her Majesty never introduced them. And the policeman is furious because he has no way of knowing where I am from. I could have been born anywhere.


After my exploits in Catalonia, the next port of call was the most historically significant Spanish wine region, Rioja. Its reputation and familiarity are larger than its geographical size thanks to the success and ubiquity of global brands guzzled to the point where I suspect that to many ordinary consumers,Rioja wine is more famous than Spanish wine. This eminence has placed it in a peculiar position. It can be self-confident and assured that brand recognition shifts a lot of wine from shelves: a Godsend in these straightened times. Yet history tells us that it can breed complacency. Its wines can suddenly become passé. Look at German wine in the 1980s or Australian in the 2000s. There is a constant need for a region to re-invent itself and stay ahead of the pack. For sure, Rioja reigns in Spain, however, there are numerous prince and princesses with one eye on its crown, Ribera del Duero and Priorat to name but two, and countless further afield.

So beyond appraising its wines, I wanted to gauge how the industry is adapting to the ever-changing climate of 2012, against the backdrop of a country that boasts the most exciting cuisine in the world and a peerless football team, but also mass youth unemployment and withering domestic consumption. Is Rioja’s recipe for success still relevant? Where does Rioja stand in the pantheon of Spanish D.O.’s? Can it cater to new styles or unorthodox techniques?

What I found was a dichotomous region of Davids and Goliaths, modernists and traditionalists, a region located upon a fault line that separates Basque and non-Basque country, Mediterranean and Atlantic climates and an undercurrent of polarized views. It was important to take the measure of both sides. I sought to meet and taste with winemakers that represent different sides of Rioja because together, I feel that they have vital, symbiotic roles to play in the future of this great wine region.

The Land

Rioja is unequivocally a wine region that is easy on the eye. To the south, on the distant horizon, lies the snow-capped Sierra de la Demanda and to the north, the Sierra Cantábrica mountains rise majestically from the rolling land, protecting the region from Atlantic weather systems and deceptively giving the impression that surrounding areas are low in altitude. In reality, the land rises and falls some 300 to 600 meters above sea level: vital to afford the best vineyards a long and relatively cool growing season. The Ebro snakes through Rioja, overlooked by hilltop medieval villages such as San Vicente, Ollauri and Abalos, steeped in history and religion, a little too often spoiled by an eyesore built back in the day when planning permission was lax. The main town of Logroño throngs with locals and tourists alike, noisy tapas bars belying a country suffering economic strife. It only takes a few minutes to drive out and seek refuge in the tranquility of the countryside once more, where the air is so pure that patients recovering from respiratory illnesses still come to convalesce.

Of course, La Rioja is separated into three sub-regions: Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja. Alta is heavily influenced by the moderating Atlantic climate, Alavesa similarly so but with greater Mediterranean influence, while Baja is warmer and dictated by a Continental climate. An indication of the Mediterranean boundary is the point where olive trees abruptly disappear from the side of the roads; however, one should remember that there exist numerous microclimates within both. The meandering Ebro divides Alavesa to the north and Alta to the south (except around Labastida). In early May, the gnarled, leafless, ancient vines look like giant bristles sprouting from skin-colored soil that sinks underfoot. There are pockets of iron-rich and chalky clay, while the plains of Baja further south and southeast past Logroño are more fertile and alluvial, home to vast plantings of Garnacha.

Altitude did seem to be an important factor here, at least to the top producers. Speaking of winemakers, there seemed to be an unspoken competition to see who could cultivate their vines the highest up the mountainside! No doubt some over-ambitious vigneron will soon be planting a Tempranillo vine on its snow-capped peak, but in reality, there are now vines planted up to around 750-800 meters, a far cry from the days when producers sought the flat plains that were easy to run a tractor through. Nowadays, a 4x4 struggles to even reach the most isolated parcels. The elite Rioja winemakers are no longer taking the easy option, for they are on a constant search for unexploited propitious land.

Rioja old vines: The twisted ancient goblet vines that sprout all over Rioja.
Vines are predominantly Tempranillo, the workhorse variety that can give rise to high volume supermarket fare or, in the right hands, iconic wines that entertain profundity – and everything in between. The landscape is a mixture of trained and freestanding goblet vines, the former used by those who want to make efficient use of their land. There are several winemakers who see trained vines as an anathema to Rioja, none more so than Telmo Rodriguez of Bodegas Remélluri. He believes that Rioja’s “soul” lies in those twisted ancient, low-yielding bush vines and I am inclined to agree. Bush vines tend to demand more attention for the vineyard manager or winemaker and that can only be a positive thing. As I have written before, in the same way that Cabernet is enhanced by Merlot, I tend to err towards wines where Tempranillo has its wingmen by its side: Graciano lending aromatic flair, Garnacha lending flesh and Mazuela (a.k.a. Carignan/Cariñena) imparting acidity to weave the components together.

A Historical Background

Although viticulture can be traced back to Roman times, the region was known for its bucolic wines, often made through carbonic maceration: simple, easy-drinking, rustic fare for local consumption. The pivotal moment came when the phylloxera louse devastated Bordeaux, prompting merchants to supplement their trade by seeking fruit from elsewhere. Rioja lay close by and the absence of a structured industry enabled both sides to benefit, in particular the entrepreneurial marquises. Marqués de Murrieta and Marqués de Riscal modeled their estates on the expansive vineyards of Bordeaux that offered economies of scale and the chance to establish a recognizable brand.

These were followed by the likes of Berberana, Martinéz Lacuesta and Paternina inter alia that all exist today. The inevitable influx of Bordeaux varieties never usurped “King Tempranillo,” but their aging techniques and the use of barriques were widely adopted. Phylloxera arrived in Rioja at the turn of the century, and many small wineries that had bottled their own wine sought refuge with co-operatives that neutralized risk by purchasing their crop.

The region was governed by the Consejo Regulador that was established in 1926 and they installed the familiar classification system based upon aging criteria in both cask and bottle: Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. The predicate was that the best wines had traditionally undergone the lengthiest maturation prior to release and bottles would carry a seal as long as the wine met all its criteria, which is limited to vintage wines (even though up to 15% may be blended from other vintages). Their aim is a noble one: to guarantee quality for any bottle sporting the Rioja seal and the system suited co-operatives. With a myriad of lots entering their winery from small producers, and often from all three sub-regions, they simply need to ascertain the qualities of each lot or vat, and mature them in accordance to the stipulated rules.

For many decades this efficient system has been instrumental in bringing a wide audience to Rioja. Compare the Reserva system to say that of Burgundy or Germany, and it is no wonder the consumers know where they stand. And under the Reserva system, outstanding wines have been created from quality conscientious producers, often in great volume. I have tasted Riojas from Paternina and Berberana that have aged wondrously. Moreover, the large production compared to other fine wine regions meant that these wines are generally affordable and widely available, a refreshing state of affairs in a world obsessed about exclusivity and luxury branding.

Every culture will breed a counter-culture that will highlight faults in the system. Firstly, the Reserva system assumes that the greatest wines are those that undergo the longest maturation, which is not true. The optimal duration of barrel aging is not necessarily the longest one, and there was a period in the 1970s and 1980s when the supposedly top wines had dried out by the time they reached the disappointed consumer. Secondly, just like in Burgundy, the system is open to abuse, since growers are paid according to quantity and not quality. But who cared if consumers were still persuaded by Reserva or Gran Reserva on the label? Same old story: poor clonal selection, high yields, fertilizers, mechanical harvesting, lackadaisical vinification, sub-standard, high-volume wine for the undiscerning masses. This came to a head during the 1970s, when the Riojan authorities and co-operatives took their eye off quality control and the plethora of bulk wine besmirched the reputation that had been nurtured over the preceding decades. Thirdly, again, parallel to Burgundy in the 1960s, the large-scale co-operatives are set up to blend away any notions of terroir or geographic subtlety, nuances sacrificed to uphold brand and the Reserva system. I will return to this subject later.

Given the omnipresence of the Reserva system and the potential weaknesses I have described, this counterculture manifested itself in a movement towards what has been tagged “modern” Rioja. Both Marqués de Caceres and Contino began experimenting with French oak and site-specific bottlings in the 1970s. The so-called alta expresíon wines came to prominence, accentuating new oak and high-toned primal black fruit. The dogma was: the more ripeness, the better. Fortunately, it can be said that most producers have seen the error of their ways and retreated from such extremities.

Growing Seasons

This report focuses upon the 2009 and 2010 vintages, though I always think it is useful to include tasting notes from older vintages whenever they were poured, and on occasion, include complete verticals in order to give recent notes greater context (for example, Pujanza and Finca Allende).

With regard to the 2009 growing season, the year began with high rainfall levels that provided vines with a good reserve of moisture. Budding was relatively early and then a dry July and August with high temperatures (up to 37 degrees Centigrade) meant that the vines could call upon those reserves to prevent them from shutting down. Still, such heat creates a dissonance between ripeness and phenolic ripeness; it catches out those growers unprepared to risk waiting for the latter. Mid-September rains affected Alavesa more than Alta and Baja sub-regions, but nudged many of the vines towards full ripeness, and from the end of September through the end of October, the harvest progressed under dry, sunny conditions.

As for 2010, this looks to be a very promising vintage. Clement weather during the flowering period offered the prospect of a more abundant crop, but the summer was cooler and mitigated against yields. Harvest commenced in Rioja Baja on September 1 and continued around the region until the end of October, stopping briefly for a spell of rain around October 10. The Consejo Regulador set maximum yields at 10% below those of 2009 in their aim to increase quality and moderate supply.

First Impressions

Rioja Benjamin Romeo: winemaker at Contador, inspects his vines in the shadow of St. Vicente.

I visited the region for ten days in early May. Apart from a series of intensive tastings professionally organized by “Wines of Rioja” at the Consejo Regulador offices in Logroño, I conducted numerous visits to an array of producers. I made a great effort to meet and taste with large-scale co-operatives and small bodegas. (Indeed, a couple were pleasantly surprised when I knocked on their door, assuming that their diminutive size would mean they would not get a look in.) I took account of modern and classic Rioja. Nothing illustrated that more than visiting the immaculate, state-of-the-art winery of Bodegas Baigorri with its arresting architecture and cathedral-like vat-room, and on the following day wandering wide-eyed through the labyrinth of mold and cobwebs at López de Heredia. It was a breathtaking juxtaposition, one that I could not imagine elsewhere. I spent time with Riojan “terroirists,” the likes of Telmo Rodríguez, Benjamín Romeo and Fernando Remírez de Ganuza, to gain not only an understanding of the minutiae of the soils, but absorb their passion as well as their philosophies. Their output would be a drop in the ocean for Campo Viejo, where I was escorted around their enormous winery on the outskirts of Logroño. I visited the tapas bars of Calle de Laurel, ate the local cuisine and practically overdosed on white asparagus. Tasting should go beyond simply what you put into your mouth and spit out.

Having tasted well over 1,000 wines, both in the UK and in Rioja itself, I was generally impressed by both 2009 and 2010, with a preference towards the latter. I do not seem to be alone in that opinion. Many winemakers rate the 2009 highly in terms of its voluptuousness and generosity, but in terms of structure and purity, they generally seemed to rate 2010 higher (in parallel to Bordeaux). At their best, both vintages offer a clutch of spellbinding wines that should offer serious aging potential and, unlike Bordeaux, Tempranillo is more approachable than Cabernet Sauvignon, which means wines do not have to be squirreled away if you relish primal fruit.

My two main criticisms were ones that I could have predicted before visiting the region. Firstly, there remain too many co-operatives churning out ordinary, soulless, tasteless wines that lack vigor, freshness and, occasionally, cleanliness. Even some of the more successful names did not pass muster, and some of them seem to prioritize profit margins over quality. That is their choice, but it does not enhance the image of Rioja. Secondly, there was a preponderance of what I term “oak by rote.” For the record, a lashing of new French oak is not a prerequisite for achieving a top score or indeed, justifying a high price. By all means, use new oak if it enhances your fruit and does not obscure the wine’s terroir or personality. Unfortunately, there were many “identikit” wines subjugated by the oak, often accompanied by excessive alcohol levels and a pretentious bulletproof bottle. They are just as soulless as the poorer wines from co-operatives, but much more expensive. The bottom line is that this style of fermented grape juice is becoming generic across wine regions, to the extent that too many flagship wines could come from anywhere in the world.

Within the traditional Reserva system, there is the notion that a Gran Reserva is superior to a Reserva, and a Reserva superior to a Crianza. This is only true some of the time. Rioja boasts some wonderful Crianzas that are fresh and vibrant and can offer as much complexity as the Reserva or Gran Reserva. As always, I have no hesitation in reflecting that in my scores, which are not hidebound to a system that dictates one is implicitly superior to the other.

Then there is Rioja Blanco, predominantly Viura that occupies just over 7,000 hectares of vineyard. This genre of Rioja is forgotten by many and generally disliked. Part of the reason is that Viura is a grape variety that can create good rather than great wine, but all too often is cropped at high yields, offering little more than bland, glugging fare. The exception is when it is allowed to age in the hands of an exceptional winemaker or when it is blended with a seasoning of Malvasia. There are several wines in this report that attest how Viura can transcend its limitations, but they are the exception rather than the rule. There is a gulf between the thrilling whites of say López de Heredia or Abel Mendoza and others vapid and devoid of flavor. I do hope that Riojan growers experiment more with the likes of Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca, and lesser-known varieties such as Turruntés that could lend another bow to Rioja’s arrow if expanded further, especially at higher altitudes.

Putting Rioja Into Focus

Returning to my discussion about the Reserva system, there is certainly a schism between the ideologies of the co-operatives and the small brigade of growers that believes that the system means Rioja is effectively riding roughshod over its site-specific jewels. Its mosaic of terroirs needs winemakers to vinify its nuances and stopper them under cork. However, this sits uncomfortably with what was often described as an inflexible structure and regulations that discourage and make little room for those wishing to experiment away from the system. For example, Article 22 of the Consejo’s “Registry of Aging Bodegas” stipulates: “The bodegas should have a minimum stock of 225 hectoliters of wine being aged, of which at least one half should be contained in a minimum of 50 oak barrels with an approximate capacity of 225 liters.” Surely a minimum fifty oak barrels immediately quashes the notion of individual growers branching out on their own? How many Burgundy winemakers would vanish under such regulations? Perhaps the authorities fear a similar trend that transpired in Burgundy since the 1970s, whereby independent growers wishing to bottle their own wine have eroded the dominance of négociants, a trend that snowballed as more and more were inspired to strike out on their own.

Rioja soil change: Here is clear evidence of Rioja's terroir. See how the colour of the soils change so abruptly in the middle of the vineyard.

This puts the authorities in a difficult position. When terroir-driven, single site wines inspire superlatives from commentators, waxing lyrical over the likes of Contador, Finca Allende and Artadi inter alia, is that something to be proud of? Or is that something to fear? Is David showing Goliath how it is done? Some artisan growers expressed frustration that the regulatory bodies only begrudgingly accept the existence of those determined to follow a Burgundian model, whereby a bottle of Rioja can be pinpointed to a specific place, year after year. But if everyone followed this example, that risks undermining the co-operatives that, let us not forget, support so many growers, most of whom do not possess the same level of talent or commitment. During these economic travails, for many, a steady income is far more imperative than having your name on the bottle or winning the favor of critics. Of course, I am assuming that farmers are paid a decent price for their labors, which is not necessarily the case.

Personally, I cannot see why the two cannot inhabit Rioja side-by-side, just as growers and négociants do in Burgundy. It is no good if David stamps his foot and Goliath pretends to ignore him. Others could learn from the Consejo Regulador, which does an excellent job administering and promoting the region. Even as I write this, there is an excellent annual consumer event taking place in London (Tapas Fantasticas). Such events should be applauded. While an artisan producer may win plaudits from critics and cognoscenti that enhance the global reputation of a region, we should not underestimate the importance for “Joe Public” to be able to purchase a good, clean, delicious bottle of Rioja from supermarket shelves. I bet there are many whose penchant for Rioja began with a nice bottle of Marqués de Riscal and such like.

But there does need to be more dialogue between the two sides. They exist as ambassadors in different ways. The two markets, one catering to cognoscenti and the other to ordinary consumers, are so exclusive that the success of one should not impinge upon the success of the other. Rioja could easily promote its microclimates, its multifarious terroirs and its artisans without damaging the brand image that it has nurtured for so long. Once you visit these pockets of ancient vines, you can completely understand why it is sacrilegious to blend them into non-existence. In 2012, discerning consumers are seeking artisan wines with personality, flair, individuality, a sense of place and with a winemaker behind them, and Rioja needs to foster these growers and not treat them as rebels, while supporting co-operatives, putting politics to one side and pulling the socks up of the larger producers that consistently do not make the grade. I am not suggesting that every boutique winery is superior to co-operatives. There are numerous occasions when the co-operatives produce better crafted wines that some of the excessively oaked, charmless cult wines that are bereft of character. I just feel that there needs to be more balance between the two, and Rioja could win so many more admirers by examining its system and readjusting it so that it caters to the 21st century.

I return to my opening vignette. The policeman was annoyed because he could not identify exactly where I came from. I had no place of origin. I was just a white, English-speaking male from anywhere. And sometimes, I feel that is how wine-lovers view Rioja. You can view many wine regions through a perfectly focused lens, even down to a few square meters in some cases. Burgundy can come from Musigny and Bordeaux from Pomerol and Mosel from Wehlener and Napa from Mt. Veeder. But as it stands, most Rioja wines can only come from Rioja. Free up the system and let Rioja speak of its place, because it has a lot more to say.


Spain 2011
Export Market Big, Domestic Market Small

>Printer Friendly Reviews, Issue #195

All reviews were written by Jay Miller and were published in issue 195 (June 2011) of The Wine Advocate. Original reviews can be found online at (subscription required). Tasting notes, wine and winery names, and technical information appear as published on and may contain errors in spelling and content. The wines were tasted in early 2011 so some of the vintages reviewed may not be current.

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