Rioja: Rooted in tradition

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | oct. 2017

As a wine region, Rioja has an older history than Bordeaux. The Roman Empire, as it expanded and grew, saw increased demand for wine. The Roman explorers were always on the hunt for suitable wine growing regions and followed the River Ebro up from the Mediterranean Sea much as they followed the Rhone River as a corridor from the warmer climate into a colder climate that was suitable for wine production. High up the Ebro at 1950 feet above sea level where the Ebro meets the Rio Oja, they found the ideal spot for making good quality wine and the Rioja region was born. As we will see the wines produced then, they bear little resemblance to the modern day Rioja, but we wine drinkers have much to thank those ancient Romans for because they discovered virtually all the major fine wine growing areas of Europe and the Middle East.

Geographically, Rioja is located in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains bordering southern France. The Rioja wine region is just south of Pamplona where the annual “running of the bulls" occurs. The region is quite large at 152,000 acres. The area is divided up into three major sub regions: Alta, Alavesa and Baja. Thanks to its diversity, Rioja is more like a wine country than an appellation. Few regions can claim to excel in both young and old reds as both grape varieties and vinification methods expand their offerings: from juicy wines made using carbonic maceration to extracted oaky wine; from single vineyards to regional blends; from almost reductive New World styles to seductively oxidative traditional gran reservas; from reds to drink before the next harvest to wines to drink next century; from dense Tempranillos to floral Garnachas, to elegant Gracianos to wild Mazuelos. For this essay, traditional Riojas will be the subject.

The finest wines are produced in the Rioja Alta, which has the highest elevation. This reminds me of the ancient Roman adage “Bacchus amat colles" (The god of wine loves the hills). It is significant that there are many bodegas or wineries in the region and these bodegas produce wines that are classified as either “juven" (young) without oak aging, “con crianza" (with upbringing or age) which implies one year of oak aging, Reservas which are at least three years old with one year in the barrel and Gran Reservas, which are at least five years old with two years in the barrel. These are the modern wines of Rioja, but it took a calamity in France in order for the ancient Rioja region to become the premiere wine growing region of Spain. Prior to the 19th century, Rioja was producing vin de pais or country wines that were simple, fruity and meant to be consumed within the year. At the same time the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy were enjoying world renown. Thomas Jefferson was negotiating the treaty of Paris between the fledgling republic and the British and stocking up on cases of Haut Brion and d'Yquem to take back to his Virginia farm. These were wines that, considering the lack of antiseptic conditions of the time, could age for many decades; while Rioja was a backwater still recovering from the invasion of the Moors and the Islamic prohibition of alcohol. But this was going to change dramatically when the French vineyards were destroyed by the Phylloxera epidemic.

In the early 1850s, the Phylloxera aphid was introduced into France from grapevine cuttings from the United States. This was one of the first introduced agricultural pests that were made possible by the increasingly fast Atlantic sailing vessels. The aphid injected its poisonous venom into the vine's root system, which caused the roots to die. Before the French vintners realized the cause, 40 percent of the French vineyards were wiped out and losses were estimated at 10 billion Francs. The scourge lasted for twenty years before a solution was put in place, but the damage was done. Wages of wine industry workers was cut in half and the wine industry was desperately looking for other sources of fine wine. At this moment, Rioja was about to change into the powerhouse of Rioja that we know today.

The French winemakers were in a hot hurry to replace their sources of grapes for wine descended into Spain in the 1860s and revolutionized the Spanish wine business. In many instances, Spanish wines were stored in animal skins (botas or zahato) rather than barrels before the French arrived; you've probably seen pictures of Spanish people squirting wine from bota bags into their mouths in long streams as part of traditional festivals. The French emphasized long aging in barrels before release and vertically integrating the product from growing to bottling to distribution. This was first tried in 1787 but the local Luddites quashed that idea right away. Finally, reform-minded aristocratic landowners prevailed and the use of oak barrels and prolonged aging prevailed.

The first commercial bodegas of the modern age of Rioja were founded in the 1860s by the Marqués de Riscal and the Marqués de Murrieta with the Bordeaux Château system very much in mind. Both bodegas used (and still use) grapes from their immediate districts and sold their wine in bottles rather than in bulk containers. Before the end of the century, a dozen much bigger new bodegas had been built drawing on grapes from a much wider area; the three regions of Rioja all contributed to their blends. At this time, individual vineyard sites or terroirs had not been designated. The practice of branding was the way that individual bodegas stood out; in fact, both the large raffish buildings and branding more represented Epernay (the Champagne growing area of France than Bordeaux). As a result, top producers were identified by name rather than location. Blending and vinification techniques were secretive and advertisements emphasized the quality of the bodegas techniques and aging process. Some of the old wines can occasionally be found today.

It wasn't until 1991 that the Rioja DOCa (Denominacion de Origen Calificada) which translates as Qualified Denomination of Origin was introduced. The word qualified means a guarantee of quality rather than “with reservations" in this instance. As of this essay, there is a debate in the Rioja region about creating individual viticultural areas or vineyard designated areas that produce the best wines. Change in Rioja does not happen quickly and this debate won't end soon because there will be winners and losers when and if it happens. The old producers want to show brand not place, while the younger millennials want just the opposite.

I have selected three different varieties of Rioja; a young crianza, a 2005 Reserva and a 2008 Gran Reserva. Each bottle represents different aging processes and each has its own characteristics.

The first wine is the Campo Viejo crianza, $7.49 at Woodman's and 13 percent alcohol. Campo Viejo is one of the largest bodegas in Rioja harvesting grapes from about 5,000 acres. The bodega is part of the Pernod Ricard drinks corporation. This wine is a consistently good value for soft fresh wine with a bit of oak. It is 100 percent Tempranillo and is cool fermented in stainless steel to maintain freshness. Four months of oak aging gives the wine the characteristic vanilla aroma. It is a good companion to grilled chicken or light cheeses.

The Ontañón 2005 Rioja Reserva, $25 at the Main Street Market in Egg Harbor and 13 percent alcohol. The Ontañón Bodega is located in the Baja (lower) Rioja region. Ontañón is a family owned bodega that it farms organically and all the fruit comes from their family vineyards. Aromas of cranberry and dusty violets give way to red cherry, lavender and ginger on the palate. The year in oak makes this wine a good companion to slow roasted pork belly which we had for dinner with this wine. This is a good special occasion wine.

Marqués de Cáceres 2008 Gran Reserva, $32 at The Main Street Market in Egg Harbor is 13.5 percent alcohol and represents the highest most prestigious Rioja classification. The ideal companion for this wine is slow roasted suckling pig in the Spanish tradition. This wine is a mix of 85 percent Tempranillo, 8 percent Garnacha and 7 percent Graciano. The vines that bore the grapes for this wine are 65-85 years old and produce very low yields with highly concentrated flavors. The grape must undergo prolonged (930 days) contact with the skins to extract as much flavor and color as possible. The new wine is aged for 24-26 moths in French oak barrels and is racked every six months. The racking process moves the wine from one barrel to another leaving the tannic lees behind, gradually softening the wine. The resulting wine is a deep ruby red color with intense aromas of ripe fruits and Morello cherries with toasted vanilla notes. A great wine to share with someone you love deeply.

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