Will The Real Rioja Please Stand Up?

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Over the past 10 or 15 years, winemaking in Rioja has been quietly (and occasionally emphatically) transforming. “˜Â¿Qué?’ some may question. This was all brought to my attention about 4 years ago on a trip to Spain organised by the Wines of Rioja. John Radford, UK’s foremost expert in Spanish wine conducted a tasting with a group of about 30 experienced wine trade professions including yours truly. After about the 3rd wine, some frustrated palate from the back stood up and declared, “˜I’m sorry, but these wines do not taste like Rioja!’. Hence the start of a long debate on what is the “˜real’ Rioja.

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The traditional Rioja style is mostly known as a more gently styled wine, light tawny in colour, aged in American oak barrels for extended lengths of time (I had one the other day that spent 18 years in wood!) and then aged several years in bottle before being released. The popularity of American oak began in the 18th century. Though many say it was due to the lesser costs (American barrels are about 1/3 the price of French oak), I believe that it was also due to the fact that France spent most of existence at war over course of 2 centuries which no doubt threw a stick in the spokes of trade.

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American oak affects wine quite differently than French oak adding more notes of vanilla, spice and even occasionally dill. Its wines can be very aromatic in comparison (think Bourbon). French oak is much more subtle. Though there are several different French oak varieties which influence a wine differently, it tends to add subtle notes of cedar, tobacco and spice.

But these past few years have seen a change and many winemakers have wanted to keep with the times by making its wines more fruit-driven and friendly. American oak has been replaced at least in part with French, there has been less ageing through more reductive wine making, the colours have become deeper and the structures richer. In some ways, Rioja has grown up. But in others, it has maybe lost a bit of its tradition. Based on some older bottles that I have had where the only thing still intact was its acidity due to over-ageing, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

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As a result of this newer thinking, there are very few houses that still make wine “˜just like they used to’. Todonia and to a slightly lesser extent La Rioja Alta are in this league but they almost stand alone. Many wineries have merged old with new producing wines that embody a little of both or are making some more traditional cuvées as well as more fruit-driven ones. Wineries such as Muga and Contino fall into this camp, and some wineries are just simply modern – like Roda. 100% French oak in a 100% chic, state-of-the-art cellar.

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In my opinion, I’m grateful that this variety of wines exist in Rioja. These more updated styles have broken through well-worn and perhaps outdated moulds. Who says all Rioja should taste the same? That is like declaring all Bordeaux should be herbaceous and drying like much of it did 30 or 40 years ago when there was less known about viticultural and winemaking techniques, higher yields were used with little or no grape selection at harvest. Some may still like this earthier style, but I think on the whole we are quite grateful that the majority of Bordeaux is no longer like this.

When I was in Rioja, I even tasted a wine aged in Chinese oak – another beast entirely – with exotic notes of plum sauce and sassafras. Though that might be a step too far at least for the moment, this nonetheless shows us that Spain is not all about siestas.