Rioja is Spain’s most famous wine region. In fact, to many Rioja is Spain’s icon wine region, reaching that apotheosis where a place name immediately indicates style and quality. But, how did Rioja get to the level of prestige it now enjoys?
Certainly consistency in quality has been a big factor, not to mention a historical connection with the French practice of aging wine in oak barrels (although the Riojans add the unique touch of using mostly old American oak for extended periods of time). There is, too, the moderate pricing compared to most of the world’s great wines – this helps to bring many sommeliers and wine aficionados into the equation, pushing the essential ‘value’ of Rioja. Of course, alongside the relative international value that Rioja offers is its domestic status and high price by Spanish standards.
The prevalence of Rioja on wine lists within Spain cannot be discounted as an important factor, both with the domestic consumers and with tourists visiting the country. The current trend (both climatically and stylistically) towards greater ripeness might also be contributing to the increased interest in Rioja amongst the North American crowd. The ability of the wines to age and improve in nuance and delicacy is also a significant factor.
But all of these elements speak only to how good wine becomes famous or reputable – none of these answers help us with the deeper and much more difficult question: how does good wine become great?
Culture and history likely play a part here – but historically the current form of Rioja is as much a product of the downfall of French vineyards in the 19th century than it is of anything distinctly Spanish. Then again, how far can one go in looking for ‘roots’ to ground the greatness of a wine. As global warming is making inescapably apparent, the meaning of place is also ever changing, and ‘culture’ – one of the bugbears of Europe – is not always about tradition.
Great wines also seem to need a profound difference and distinctness from everything else that is out there and, often, a unique, singular and important contribution to the international world of wine. What is Rioja’s contribution? It offers a unique expression of Tempranillo and uses methods unlike those used most elsewhere. However, these traditions are being lost in the wave of internationalism. And, despite what I have read about Rioja, the traditionalists are, at least in my experience, losing the battle. Too many of the modern style wines are making it onto wine lists and consumers’ shopping lists.
In fact, I might even venture to claim that Rioja is becoming emblematic for Spain not just for its traditions, but more for the evisceration of historical methods and grapes in favour of internationalism. In fact, this is a trend that has come to dominate the majority of Spanish wines available. While certainly offering more variety in the ‘value’ category than places like Argentina and Australia, the momentum towards internationalization has had the effect of dumbing down the wines of Spain and of giving increasing prevalence to such unfortunate varieties as Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. The recent changes to the Rioja DOC will allow some of these international grapes to be grown and blended into the wines.
Rioja’s structure of thousands of small growers supplying the larger houses does not help this situation since growers tend to be beholden to the giants. Of course, and luckily, there are a few staunch traditionalists that will help to maintain some of the most important aspects of Rioja’s tradition, and there is probably no danger of Tempranillo losing pride of place to other grapes. However, other regions of Spain, such as Somontano and Jumilla are already capitalizing on the appetite for international varieties. But, at what cost?
One of the saddest experiences I had in Spain was the sheer volume of boring internationalized wines I came across and the relegation of the truly interesting wines to a handful of specialty shops and high end restaurants. The grass is greener adage seemed apropos to many of my experiences in the country.
So, wherein lies Rioja? Rioja is still bobbing its head higher than the majority of Spanish wine regions, but it seems to me that it is also succumbing to some unfortunate trends. The modernization of Rioja should be about distinctiveness and about finding contemporary expressions of traditional techniques, methods and beliefs. If Rioja goes to the point of no return by increasing the use of new wood, by over-expressing the consistently greater ripeness of the grapes today compared to a decade ago, and by playing to certain perceptions of international palates, then it will be the beginning of a painful decline for the region. That there are only a handful of traditionalists left in a region with hundreds of wineries is the pronouncement of an unwelcome herald. Luckily, for now, there is still hope, and I managed to taste quite a few excellent wines from Rioja while in Spain. Here are some of my favourites:
Montecillo Reserva 1998: Subtle, earthy and beautifully silky drinking. Not as complex as the other two wines on this list, but the perfect example of classically made Rioja that pairs perfectly with subtly seasoned meats. Still showing fruit and acid. Very Good+ and about 30 euros on restaurant wine list (15 retail).
Muga Prado Enea Gran Reserva 2001: A truly exceptional wine with the potential for much longer aging. This was the most complex Rioja I tasted on the trip, and also the Rioja demanding the most contemplation. I find wines with this much nuance are often difficult to pair with food, not because they can’t combine to create very tasty harmonies with the right food, but because such pairings often mute some of the more interesting and exciting characteristics of the wine. That there is so much going on here, though, is certainly not a bad thing. Excellent and 34 euros retail.
Marques de Murrieta Reserva 2004: My favourite Rioja of the trip. This was exuberant but still soft and perfectly balanced. Exceptional fruit combined with restraint and a softer, more playful mouthfeel than many of the red wines I had in Spain. This wine is about sheer deliciousness more than anything else, but this is a deliciousness that derives from balance and aromatic expression rather than power and impact. Excellent and 35 euros on restaurant wine list (about 22 retail).