Boutique Region InFocus
Featured: Rioja, Spain
Rioja is Spain’s most famous and popular wine region, as well as its most significant producer of quality wines
Rioja in Spain is a valley located between the peaks of Sierra Cantabria (to the north) and the Sierra de la Demanda to the south. The river Ebro is dividing the region at its core, just as the Gironde estuary in Bordeaux. Often-time producers on its north bank talk about the vineyards on the south bank as they where of a lesser pedigree. There is probably some truth in that, few wine-lovers of today support the idea that all of Rioja’s vineyards belong under the same quality umbrella. An outdated idea that originated from theDOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada) and that was starting to damage the region’s reputation. The result of this anti-terroir approach is that very few, even in Spain, appreciate the scope of its many climate zones, altitudes, type of soils and geology. Yet Rioja is Spain’s most famous and popular wine region, as well as its most significant producer of quality wines. The DOCa is one of the most complex and varied on the Iberian peninnsula without a doubt.
What’s new in Rioja?
At a time where many regions in Spain are uprooting vineyards it’s worth noting that Rioja is expanding. These are not necessarily great news for quality wine drinkers, as new plantations are commonly found in less than ideal locations. The 2017 statistics are up 306 hectares on 2016. In terms of ownership structure one can compare with Galicia with way more grape growers than producers.
This results in that expansive “New World-style” vineyards are rare, only 0.4 percent of Rioja’s vineyards are larger than 5 hectares. Below we list the three most prominent trends in the region.
1. Young winemakers creating new styles Prices of vineyard land in Rioja is still reasonably priced at about €90,000 per hectare. The barrier of entry for young winemakers is thus low enough for young winemakers to create their own projects. Young producers are challenging the way we think about Rioja at the moment, the most obvious example is the Rioja n’ Roll group including Sandra Bravo (Sierra de Toloño), Tom Puyaubert (Exopto), Barbara Palacios (Barbarot) and similar. These producers have all understood that Tempranillo is over-planted in the the DOCa with 79.7% of the vines. Producers like Sandra Bravo argue that we have lost many grapes in the last 100 years. A textbook from 1912 confirms this; it mentions 44 varieties, to be compared with the 16 of today. Grapes like Agawam, Anavés, Cirujal and Morisca are all being rediscovered by young talented winemakers.
2. Climate change makes producers plant higher Due to the increasing temperatures, growers are picking their grapes earlier than ever. Old growers remember that in the 1980s alcohol levels of 12 percent was common in high altitude vineyards. Many seem to be convinced of that the future of Rioja will lie with vineyards on an altitude, therefore quality producers are commonly found planting vineyards in cooler and higher sites to achieve the fresh wines that keep for ageing. These areas include the higher parts of Sonsierra, Baños de Rioja, Cuzcurrita, Sajazarra, Ventosa and more.
3. Viñedos Singulares / Vinos de Pueblo During the summer of 2017 the DOC presented their new system of single vineyard wines. For the first time in history producers could now use the name of their village or sub-region on labels. Although not confirmed by officials, the wine trade suspect the new rules to be connected to Artadi’s famed exit from the Consejo in January 2016.
Rioja – Facts and Figures
The 10 most expensive wines in 2018: Sierra Cantabria CVC (€675), Marqués de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial Blanco (€650), Sierra Cantabria Mágico (€450), Palacios Remondo Quiñón de Valmira (€290), Contador (€250), Marqués de Riscal Gehry Selection (€200), Roda Cirsion (€160), Bodega Lanzaga Las Beatas (€150), Finca Allende Aurus (€150), Pujanza Cisma (€140).
Important producers of “fine wine” Abel Mendoza, Artuke, Bodegas Lanzaga, Contador, Contino, Finca Allende, Juan Carlos Sancha, La Rioja Alta, Lopez de Heredia, Marques de Murrieta, Muga, Remelluri, Roda, Sierra Cantabria, Viñedos de Páganos and more.
Up and coming producers: Bodega Akutain, Bodegas Bilhar, Sierra de Toloño, Tentenublio, Exopto, Oliviere Riviere, Barbara Palacios and more.
Rioja’s current vineyard: Cover a total of 65,326 hectares divided between 144 municipalities in four different provinces: La Rioja, Álava, Navarra and Burgos.
Vintage variations: Vintage ratings can be misleading in Rioja. The region is too big and diverse for accurate ratings. What’s good in Alfaro, the DOCa’s eastern extremity, isn’t necessarily good in Haro at the western border. The best recent years has been 2011, 2010 and 2009. The only recent vintages that probably should be avoided are 2013, 2002 and 2000.
Los Nuevos Viñadores by Luis Gutiérrez (Planeta Gastro, 2017)
Rioja Alavesa en la encrucijada by Miguel Larreina González (self-published)
The Finest Wines of Rioja by Jesús Barquín, Luis Gutiérrez and Víctor de la Serna (Fine Wine Editions, 2011)
The Wines of Rioja by Hubrecht Duijker (Mitchell Beazley, 1985)