Spotlight on Spain: La Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza Reserva 2000

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Moving from Spain’s second most famous region to its most famous, today’s post will start to explore the world of Rioja. Rioja is an intriguing land that has a history which epitomizes the dialectic between tradition and modernity that is so much a part of Spain’s wine culture. Traditionally, wines in Rioja were made to emulate the style of Bordeaux by long term aging in wood and bottle before release. This was done because the domestic French wines had been decimated by phylloxera in the 1800’s and Rioja stepped up to fill the gap left by the destroyed French vineyards. It was not uncommon to see wines released decades after the vintage date. This practice has diminished over time, with a move towards more approachable and accessible wines released earlier. In fact, this new push in Rioja to produce modern wines has almost totally overwhelmed the traditional bodegas, so much so that there are almost none left.

The famous Lopez de Heredia (founded in 1877) is the most important traditional bodega (its current release of wines is from the 90’s), but La Rioja Alta (a family owned winery founded in 1890) is also very much making wines in the traditional style.

Of course, phylloxera’s insidiousness did eventually spread to Spain and most of the vineyards had to be ripped out and replanted in the 1920s.Civil war in Spain and the second World War essentially collapsed the industry even further and it was not until the 1950’s that Rioja started to regain its reputation and market share in international markets.

I find it interesting that after the world wars cheap Spanish wine started to be marketed as “Spanish Burgundy” and “Spanish Chablis” – these wines were so bad they damaged the reputation of Spain as a wine region. Does this remind anyone of Cellared in Canada and the mass produced plonk sold by most BCLDB outlets? As soon as Spain made it illegal to use those terms, Rioja (which was legally regulated for quality control in the vineyards and bodegas) finally started to build the reputation that it enjoys today. Clearly, effective regulatory regimes are essential for the development of an industry and British Columbia could learn a lot from the lessons of older and more established wine regions. The VQA is a step, but is not nearly as effective a tool as the D.O. system in Spain (which of course has its own issues). In order to brand and market B.C. (and Canadian) wine effectively, a little more attention needs to be paid to creating inducements to increased quality. Systems that subsidize or assist the branding of poor quality wines are not going to help the industry grow and improve quality.

In Spain once Rioja was given a DOCa grade (the highest grade for wine quality in Spain), the quality of the wines drastically improved to the point where it is now difficult to find poor quality wines from Rioja. Clearly, incentivizing quality is essential for the growth of an industry.

Now, turning to the region itself, it is important to know that wines from Rioja are not just made with grapes from the most prestigious region (known as Rioja Alta), but can also derive from places like Alava, Ebro and parts of Navarra. So, if you are looking for the highest quality grapes, you should look for wines made from grapes grown in Rioja Alta.

This wine made by the Bodega with the same name as the region in which it grows its grapes, is made with Tempranillo from the warmer parts of Rioja and so the skins are thicker, giving the wines more natural tannins. Along with Tempranillo, wines from La Rioja Alta often have Mazuelo and Graciano added to the blend (two indigenous grapes) for tannins, colour, freshness and aroma. The soils in Rioja Alta are clay based, alluvial, and have outcrops of iron and chalk-rich subsoil.

Without going into tremendous detail, I would note that the battle between modernity and tradition applies to viticulture and vinification beyond simply barrel aging for extended periods. For example, a traditional producer will use large wooden vats to allow for more natural fermentation. Modernists use epoxy-lined vats with temperature controls that allow for more precise wine making.

La Rioja Alta (the winery) owns about 300 hectares of land and makes both crianzas and reservas. The reservas can be somewhat confusing as there are two lines – the Arana and the Ardanza (indicating different vineyard selection). This wine, from the Ardanza series, is made in a spicier more ageable style than the Arana, which tends to be fruitier.

When I tasted this wine I immediately noticed its baking spices and vanillan character from the long aging in American Oak (which Riojans prefer to French). The dill characteristics classically indicative of American Oak were also present in the medium bodied wine. This is a soft and taught wine with cherries and earth and that classic, almost tired, feeling for many older red Riojas. This is not a wine about modern fruit, however, but is a wine about tradition married with the cleanliness and alacrity of modernity. You can taste time when you drink this wine, and that will prove to be a superb experience for many. For me? Well this is not my favourite Riojan traditionalist, but I appreciate their attention to tradition and quality and they certainly deserve the reputation they have.

Very Good
$55 at Liberty Wine Merchants

In the next few posts expect a look at the various styles of Rioja, including a glimpse at their rarely considered (but oh so brilliant) white wines.

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