Respect age and keep up with it
Sunny, fragrant, vibrant life scenes of the past
Time is money, we know and so do winemakers, that's why they are so careful with it. Thus, an average consumer can go through life knowing the concept of mature wines only from hearsay. And as long as it's only gossip, it’s taken with a pinch of salt. However, one of the greatest forms of magic that wine can offer is the wonderful metamorphosis it goes through over the course of years and decades. From the caterpillar to the cocoon to the butterfly, with the fortuitous alignment of the stars. Assuming that it was born to become a butterfly in the first place.
Rioja is about time on several levels. It’s a lesser known fact but it surpasses all other red wines in terms of ageing potential. Nowadays, there is at least one exclusive launch every year, whereby one of the big-name Rioja wineries pulls out 100-150-year-old bottles from its archives. Whether these are only seen as beautiful by the critics, overwhelmed by the honour, or they are indeed a pleasure to be consumed, we will never know. But if we read many of these accounts, it will become apparent that the delight caused by the wines made in the 1930s and 1940s cannot be fake. They are not hand-coloured black-and-white postcards, but sunny, fragrant, vibrant life scenes.
Rioja is the land of old vines, lengthily aged wines and traditional winemaking. To condense it all into one single formula, we could say that Rioja equals Tempranillo plus American oak multiplied by the ageing time. When one tastes a traditional Rioja, it's like a 19th-century Bordeaux has been poured into the glass, with the difference that it's not made from Cabernet, but from Tempranillo, and it's aged in American oak, instead of French.
Rioja and Bordeaux are like twin planets – their orbits move together. However, it might be more appropriate to speak of the Sun and the Moon, since for most of history Bordeaux has shone brighter, while Rioja only reflected the light back. After the ‘guest appearances’ of the Phoenicians, the Romans, the British, the Moors and the Dutch, 1863 was the time when the paths of the two wine regions became connected and the shared system became visible to everyone. This is when the phylloxera arrived in Bordeaux, and the railway to Rioja.
The Método Riojano began to develop from the 1830s and basically meant the adoption of Bordeaux methods. Destemming the berries, tank hygiene, racking, fining and long ageing in oak barrels – these were all revolutionary innovations at the time. When phylloxera reached France in the 1860s and together with powdery mildew practically halved the area of production in a decade and a half, the Método Riojano was already working smoothly. It was logical for French merchants to turn to Spain to compensate for the loss.
The meteoric growth in demand brought along dramatic development for Rioja. Most of the best-known bodegas were established during this period: Marqués de Murrieta (1852), Marqués de Riscal (1858), Montecillo (1872), Berberana and López de Heredia (1877), CVNE (1879), Bodegas Riojanas and La Rioja Alta (1890), Bodegas Palacio (1894), Paternina (1896) and Bodegas Bilbaínas (1901). With slight exaggeration, Rioja became part of French interests. The names of the wines were also dictated by the target market: Cuvée Médoc, Cepa Sauternes, Viña Gravonia, Cepa Borgoña, Viña Medokkia, Royal Claret, Château Ygay.
Although the absorptive capacity of the French market dropped significantly after the phylloxera epidemic, that of the British market increased all the more. Rioja remained a cheaper and more reliable alternative to Bordeaux. The dynamism and the insistence on quality lasted until the 1960s. In the following decade, Rioja was captivated by mass production and dragged down by the price spiral: increasingly unsatisfactory wines were distributed for cheaper and cheaper prices. They managed to get out of the discount trap only around the turn of the millennium. But a good Rioja is still cheaper than its French or Italian rivals.
There is no doubt: the Rioja name has restored its former glory. In 2013, the world's most read wine magazine, the American Wine Spectator chose a Rioja wine as the wine of the year (CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva 2004), and again in 2020: this time, Marqués de Murrieta's 2010 Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva reached the highest place in the TOP 100 list. Today, as the great Bordeaux wines have become investment vehicles, stored in unopened cases in air-conditioned bunkers, it is understandable that those who want age-worthy and mature wines that can be drunk on occasions turn to Rioja.
Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Oriental
Rioja is located in the northern part of Spain, just 100 kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean and 150 kilometres from the French border. It lies in the valley of the River Ebro, with a roughly east-west axis, in a rectangle that is 140 km long and 40 km wide. It is bordered by the Sierra Cantabria mountain range from the north, which protects it from the harsh weather coming from the Atlantic Ocean, while it receives the warmth from the southeast: the Mediterranean air currents come up to this point in the river valley.
Grapes are grown on more than 65,000 hectares – this equals the entire Hungarian production area and twice as much as that of New Zealand. The wine region is divided into three regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja (Oriental). The three districts are actually two: Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa are topographically and climatically connected – their division has ethnic and administrative reasons.
Rioja Alavesa, which belongs to the Basque province of Alava, is the smallest, northernmost and highest-sisuated district (the city of Laguardia is 635 metres above sea level). It’s cooler and wetter, thus, it’s more difficult to achieve ripeness here, however, the chances of making outstanding wines are better.
Rioja Alta lies west of Logroño and it’s the heart of Rioja. Although some of its vineyards are located at higher altitudes, its climate is warmer and drier than that of Rioja Alavesa and significantly cooler than Rioja Baja’s. It offers ideal conditions for Tempranillo: not too cold to jeopardize ripening and not too hot to burn the acids.
Rioja Baja lies to the east of Logroño and appears as something of an ‘attachment’. A few years ago, the demeaning ‘lower’ was changed to ‘eastern’, so now Rioja Oriental is its official name. It’s lower lying and receives more of the Mediterranean heat. This is the safety reserve of the wine region. The dominance of Tempranillo is less strong here, the heat-demanding Garnacha is catching up alongside it. Traditionally, the ripest grapes came from this area, which enriched and rounded out the Riojas.
Tableaus made of mosaics
Rioja is the home of small growers and large wineries. 16,000 owners tend the grapes in 120,000 vineyards on 65,000 hectares. In other words, the average estate size is around 4 hectares. From the many small mosaics, gigantic tableaus are born. At the larger wineries, several million bottles of estate wine made from the reservas can be produced each vintage. Nowadays, wineries where the proportion of self-cultivated grapes is higher can be found – in fact, Marques de Murrieta, for example, doesn’t buy in any grapes. In Rioja's heyday, viticulture and winemaking were completely separated: on the one side were the small farmers who grew the grapes, and on the other the large wineries that vinified the grapes.
This system caused the decline in quality in the 1970s: new areas were planted as demand rocketed, and since farmers were paid by the kilo, there was no incentive for them to pay attention to quality. Although today more and more winemakers would like to see the produce of their outstanding terroirs bottled independently, single-vineyard wines are still rarities. The reason for this, on the one hand, is the separated vineyard/winery functions already outlined, and on the other hand, the adoption of the Bordeaux model. In Bordeaux, the vulnerability given by the whimsicality of the vintages could be mitigated by working with several varieties. In Rioja, not only the different varieties, but also the different properties of the three sub-regions helped to equalize the quality.
This kind of legoing – the human role assumed in the shaping of the wine’s final character – is in stark contrast to the Burgundian approach, which considers the geographical and geological properties as a kind of God-given constant and allows neither the variation with the varieties nor the blending of the vineyards. In recent times, however, the opinion has become stronger that says that since Tempranillo is not a variety with a dominant character, but similarly to Pinot Noir reacts sensitively to changes in the soil, location and mesoclimate, they should open up to the Burgundy model instead, and the crop of the vineyards with outstanding characteristics should be bottled independently.
Space against time
As could be observed, an orthodox Rioja is in many ways similar to a 19th century Bordeaux, except that it’s not made from Cabernet, but from Tempranillo, and aged in American oak rather than French. For some people, this formula painfully lacks the recognition of the terroir, the unique qualities of the growing areas.
In Rioja, quality categories are based entirely on the length of ageing. A Crianza is aged for one year in barrels and one year in bottles. The Reserva has an extra year compared to the Crianza (it doesn't matter if it's a year spent in the barrels or the bottles). Finally, Gran Reservas must be aged for at least five years, of which at least two years should be spent in barrel. ‘At least’ is taken literally: the current Reserva vintage at Lopez de Heredia, representing the orthodox line, is that of 2010, and the Gran Reserva is the 2001 vintage.
In November 2015, representatives of the younger generation, led by Telmo Rodriguez, drafted a manifesto. Among the main objectives was the one that aims to make the place of growth the measure of quality instead of the length of maturation, to create a vineyard-based classification system and to adopt the three-level Burgundy product pyramid. Despite the politeness of the wording, it was obvious that this would mean a complete paradigm shift: the brand identity made up by countless items would be replaced by an undistorted image of the place of growth character.
After some scratching of heads, the wine regulatory board reacted surprisingly quickly: starting with the 2017 vintage, three new, geographically defined categories were introduced. At the top of the pyramid are the Viñedo Singular wines. For these vineyard-selected wines, the hand-harvested grapes must come from vines that are at least 35 years old, while the yield must not exceed 50 hectolitres per hectare, and the wines must pass a sensory test.
Time will decide whether the wine region will be enriched by this new direction, but it can already be said that Rioja is a bastion of tradition, but it is not a living fossil.
Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Reserva 2010
The Tondonia vineyard, planted 110 years ago, is located on the right bank of the Ebro and the entire area belongs to Lopez de Heredia. Viña Tondonia wines are always complex, spicy and lively, but this outstanding vintage is fuller and deeper than usual. Tertiary notes are already emerging on the nose, but the fruit is still alive. Beside the orange peel, truffles, tobacco and hummus, it reveals aromas of plums and blueberries. The palate is concentrated, but not at all full-bodied or heavy. The bright acids are accompanied by polished tannins on the finish. It’s a serious, thought-provoking wine with an original style. It wouldn’t be a mistake to open it now, but it's good to know that each Tondonia Reserva has at least 30-40 years of ageing potential.
Marques de Murrieta Rioja Gran Reserva 2015
Even from the first sniff, one can tell that this is a festive wine. Not intense, not fruity, not oaky, but deep and focused, calm and noble. The components move in the same direction, with the promise of complete harmony. Aromas of raspberry, orange, dark chocolate, tobacco and soy sauce appear on the nose. It is medium-plus bodied, ripe, with round acidity and nicely integrated tannins. A finish that lasts for minutes. No Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial was made this year, so the grapes of the best plots also ended up in this wine. It’s a masterpiece. (James Suckling: 98 points)
Pazo Barrantes Albariño 2019
One of the best Albariños of all time. The winery skipped two years in order to release the first vintage of Pazo Barrantes, produced in a completely reconsidered way, with perfect bottle agedness. The 35-year-old vines grow on soil with a sandy top layer and granite subsoil. It was given two months of ageing on lees in steel tanks, then 85% of the wine was aged for another 7 months in tanks, while the remaining 15% was aged in acacia barrels.
It's an elegant, sophisticated and interesting wine. Aromas of peach compote mix with salted lemons, and the interplay of sweeter notes with distinct saltiness makes it an unforgettable experience. The texture of the wine is thick and velvety, completely seamless. An endless finish. A great wine.
It was included in Wine Spectator's current TOP 100 list, and Robert Parker's Wine Advocate gave it 94 points.
Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial 2011
It’s as if we had Count István Széchenyi as a dinner guest. Castillo Ygay is a founding father, a legend and an active academic all in one. The beginning of modern Rioja is marked by the vines planted on the Ygay estate in 1825. The first commercial vintage of Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial was 1877 (with the same label as now!), and the previous vintage of it, the 2010, was named Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator.
The 2011 Gran Reserva Especial is made from 84% Tempranillo and 16% Mazuelo (Cariñena). The grapes were harvested from 70-year-old vines grown on the La Plana plot, at an altitude of 485 metres. The Tempranillo was aged for 28 months in American oak barrels, while the Mazuelo was aged for the same amount of time in French barriques. It’s characterized by immaculate harmony and elegance, while it also seems very young and lively (it’s hard to believe it has already spent six years in the bottle). It’s an intoxicatingly aromatic, complex wine. Pipe tobacco, antique furniture and sweet spicy notes are mixed with aromas reminiscent of Black Forest gateaux, orange peel, raspberries and juniper berries. It’s very long, rich in different tones, with a tasty finish and velvety tannins.