Today’s face of Rioja
For many Spanish wine is Rioja despite the plethora of lovely wines from other parts of this country with a long vinous history. It’s great to try new wines but if the oldies that we know well are still good why not continue to enjoy them.
Rioja has a recognisable style and flavour that is based on the use of oak in both red and white wines creating a complex creaminess and depth of flavour. A classification of the wines based on the aging and length of time spent in oak was developed and shown on the wine labels – the terms Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. A Crianza wine has to be aged for two years of which one has to be spent in oak, Reserva for three years of which one in oak and Gran Reserva for five years with at least two years in oak.
Rioja was thus an easy first choice for oaky red wine drinkers but a in a marketplace where some of the richer easy drinking but still oaky New World wines that were not defined by regulation and often were better value for money they lost some market share. It has taken the emergence of a new generation of young winemakers whose respect for tradition is balanced with a will to produce contemporary wines. An example of this is some of the joven wines that have some delicate careful oak aging but fall short of the time needed for the classic classification categories. The benefit is that we can wines such as Conde Bel Tinto that has a lovely balanced flavour with a hint of oak (aged for 3 months in non new oak barrels)
Thus on a visit to Rioja I had the chance to meet with some of the current producers and taste some of their wines. In addition to making traditional wines they offer wines made from grape varieties including Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon that are not permitted within the denominacion rules and also that don’t fit the within the aging categories. Some wines are too delicate to be aged in oak for the length of time required in the classification but are still excellent quality. Look out for names such as Finca la Emperatrice, a company with a long history but a contemporary style & Vinedos Pujanza who only make three wines but each is stylish and distinctive with sensitivity to their oak aging potential. There are also experiments with Tempranillo Blanco, a white grape variety that makes a refreshing lemony wine but with low acidity so needs to be drunk young that is being grown as n alternative to the traditional Viura.
Traditional Riojas have too strong a niche to be easily usurped by the ‘young upstarts’ but they are making wines that are creating added interest in the region in north-eastern Spain and ensuring continued consumer interest in the region in their world markets including the UK.