Rioja’s historical importance, greatness, vinicultural uniqueness and fundamental quality have never been disputed but smaller, quality driven producers in Rioja have not been as effective as their counterparts from regions like Barolo or Burgundy in developing strong reputations in the United States. Our Rioja portfolio balances styles, ideas, price points, grape varietals, terroirs and are unified under the ‘Rioja’ umbrella instead of the ‘Spanish Red’ umbrella. Rioja is a classic wine region that is regaining market share in recent years as an affordable alternative to her French and New World contemporaries. Now, after a full two years of tasting, travelling to, selling, and working with Rioja in the market, we can say that many American wine professionals have a love/omit relationship with Rioja. Everyone seems to truly love the wines, and see intrinsic value in them, but many just omit Rioja as a category from lists and shelves or relegate them to ignominy in the ‘other red’ category. American wine professionals operate on some basic premises that are true for most every other wine region, but that are not true in Rioja. Here are a few of those counterintuitive aspects of Rioja: The Alta and Alavesa sub regions on the official DOCA map were delineated by politics, not viticulture. Smaller producers are not necessarily better than large producers. ‘Modern’ winemaking means old & traditional, not new and current. Searching for ‘terroir driven’ wines means looking for a wine with lessor virtue. In Rioja ‘estate bottled’ and single vineyard wines are and will likely remain, anomalies.
The Champagne Analogy
A small number of REALLY BIG producers dominate the Rioja market. There is a reason you have seen the same set of Rioja producers in every grocery store and every wine shop for your entire wine career, no matter how old you are. That reason: big producers, making millions of cases. Marques de Riscal’s publically stated, annual goal for the production of Rioja Reserva is one million cases! There are 18,000 growers in Rioja, 391 producers. Sound Familiar? It’s Champagne B.T. (Before Theise3 ). Like Champagne and the Grand Marques twenty five years ago, there are roughly 10 colossal producers and you can generally count on seeing any 3-5 of them in any Rioja set. Unlike the old Grand Marques scam, the large Rioja producers actually make pretty good wine. There is no analogy to any other wine region. There is not a single Bordeaux property that even approaches 1 million cases in volume at that quality level and speaking about Napa, Barolo or Burgundy in the million case context would be absurd. The combination of Rioja’s pedigree, classicism, quality, quantity, longevity and value does not exist anywhere except in Rioja!
The move towards ‘Garagiste’ can be measured, but only in geologic time. Those18,000 growers must all be wanting to become ‘Garagiste’ producers, right? Wrong. Remember that part about counterintuitive and misunderestimating? 18,000 growers is, more or less, a flat line number for the past 100 years. Why? The Consejo Regulador requires that if you make Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva, you must age the wine at a winemaking facility that you own. Think about it. 5 years worth of production in barrels and a facility (no leased space is allowed) to store it all! The economics are staggering. So you could pour yourself into a tiny Garagiste type project and produce a couple hundred cases of amazing wine, try for a great score and be the new star of Rioja. Unfortunately, you can only label the wine ‘Cosecha’ and therefore you probably cannot get a review, a big score or enough money to make the project worthwhile. A humble family’s 1.3 hectares (the average) is just not going to kick off a venture into a new winery/label. They sell the grapes to Bodegas Marques de Grande Misconcepcion and move on. The Bordeaux Analogy – ‘Modern’ winemaking and ‘post-modern’ winemaking Of the world’s great wine regions, Rioja is second only to Bordeaux in size5 and the winemaking culture came from Bordeaux in the late 19th century as the Bordelaise took a respite from Phylloxera. But when the French went home, their ‘modern’ methods stayed. For whatever cultural reasons, Rioja is still using mostly the same methods. Sure, they now pick using satellite information, some have temperature controlled stainless steel...but the old process is both regulated and preserved by the Consejo Regulador for what we (borrowed from John Radford6 ) call ‘modern Rioja’. Almost all traditional producers fall somewhere on the ‘modern’ scale but that is a pretty broad scale, some are very traditional, some less traditional. We think of the word ‘Modern’ as the art world uses it. Interestingly, ‘modern’ winemaking in Rioja and the ‘modern’ art movement happened at about the same time. People tie themselves in knots assigning terminology like ‘traditional’ or ‘classic’ and ‘modern’ but we think Rioja winemaking falls into two broad categories; ‘modern’ and ‘post modern’. The post modern wines generally ignore the Consejo Regulador, have higher proportions of Garnacha, and frankly taste as if they could be from anywhere. There is also a category called colloquially ‘Vinos de Autor’ (high wines) – which are international style, big alcohol and extract. In our opinion, while there is room for everyone at the table, the best Rioja, modern Rioja, is about extended barrel ageing of Tempranillo dominated wines. Here are the DOCa categories, which are strictly adhered to, most producers doing so voluntarily. We happen to know that there is zealous prosecution from the Consejo Regulador when necessary. These are some of the most honest and reliable wine laws on the planet
- Cosecha: Wines that spend less than 1 year in oak and less than 1 year in bottle prior to release. A defacto, catch-all category for many post modern and Autor wines also.
- Crianza: Minimum 1 year in oak (all barrels must be 225liter casks) prior to release. In practice it is often longer and there is often extensive time in bottle before release as well, but that is not regulated.
- Reserva: Requires 3 years age, a minimum of 1 in oak. Most Reservas at better producers spend 18 months to 2 years in oak and another 2 years in bottle before they are released.
- Gran Reserva: 2 years in oak and 3 years in bottle before release. Probably the most serious requirement of any wine labeled ‘Reserve’ or ‘Reserva’ in the world!
The Burgundy/Barolo Analogy
Long chain tannins hold the secret to the meaning of life, but is ‘terroir’ involved or not?
If you had to pick four intrinsically great, truly classic red wines, most would put Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo/Barbaresco and Rioja 1-4 in whatever subjective order. Whoever #5 is, is not even close. As with the other three regions, the primary character of Rioja is derived from a grape whose home and undisputed pinnacle, is the region. And as with the other four grapes, long chain tannins form or re-form during fermentation and maturation. Hurray! We like long chain tannins and if you like great wine, so do you. Again, after almost two years of studying Rioja (and my wife thought I was just getting drunk all the time!), I am beginning to understand Tempranillo. It will be a great day for Americans when sommeliers figure out that young Rioja is not, in any way, a light or even medium bodied wine. The confusion is confusing but the misunderstandings are understandable. On prominent MW on Tempranillo ©1986: “maybe related to Pinot, undistinguished, medium bodied”. The same MW on Tempranillo ©2006: “Not related to Pinot, very distinguished (even ‘great’), full bodied wine”. Imagine what the MW’s will know in 20 more years! Tempranillo has a thick skin (which is good for all the insults and abuse it takes from under informed MW’s) and like Rioja in general, Tempranillo is a dichotomous study in temperament. Thick skinned, tannic, high in phenolic acids, but low in other acids as the roots absorbs potassium at a greater rate than most vines. The vines can handle warm or cool climates and big diurnal shifts are no big deal, but minor changes in humidity wreak havoc (swelling, rot). Sandy soil, high in potassium produces dismal, almost unrecognizable, characterless Tempranillo. Clay, limestone, chalk and even fertile loam soil can produce excellent Tempranillo. Like anything worthwhile, it’s not always easy to understand Tempranillo. Young Tempranillo, drinks like young Nebbiolo and has excessive tannin, but it’s even finer ‘grained’ than Nebbiolo. The brilliance of the DOCa rules is that the wine ages at the winery prior to release. With some age, those tannins bond to themselves (instead of to other things, like the proteins stuck between your taste buds) and start to form a more supple palate. At this stage, the wine tastes like Rioja but it feels and drinks more like Claret (Bordeaux); lower alcohol, square shouldered, delineated, precise, persistent, balanced, complex. If there is a more versatile red wine on the planet than 5-10 year old Rioja, we do not know it 8 . And then some sort of alchemy happens to Rioja at around 10-12 years of age. It gets super mischievous and lies to you… it convinces your palate to tell your brain; “hey, you must be drinking old Burgundy!”, even the American oak fades into the background and the wines can become supernal. Advice on what to drink now from winemakers in Rioja: Drink Crianza and Reservas from the 1970’s and 1980’s. Gran Reserva’s from the 1960’s and 1950’s. And they are serious! A 1970 Vina Ardanza Crianza (probably $2/bottle back then), is one of the best Rioja’s we had on our trip. This is where the 21st century, American Sommelier Dictionary definition of ‘terroir’ goes right out the window. Burgundy and Barolo benefit from being made from single grapes planted on single sites and Bordeaux from long established estate vineyard sources and formulaic winemaking. Those ‘terroirs’ are measurable, understandable and definable vintage after vintage. Yet, great, classic Rioja might be blended from over 50 different vineyards. It likely has at least one of; Graciano, Garnacha, Mazuelo, or Maturana Tinto in it. It spent so much time in oak and bottle prior to release that any primary aromas and flavors (the ones most usually linked to ‘terroir’) are long gone. When we taste Cannubi, Clos St Jacques or Cos d’Estournal we get it… the individual terroirs of these sites made these wines great. But when we taste La Rioja Alta’s 904, RODA I or Tahon and we experience equally great, complex wine, we have to question our assumptions about individual terroir’s influence on great wine. In any of these cases the Rioja is the only wine NOT from a specific terroir. That’s not to say that the vineyard sources are not great in and of themselves, but clearly the sum of their parts, plus a far more complex ‘elaboration’ (winemaking process) creates a jigsaw puzzle of terroir at best. Sommeliers and wine professionals everywhere, on a blissfully unaware quest seeking ‘terroir driven’ wines are pretty much out of luck in Rioja. That’s not going to help our sales, but it’s the truth. Here is some more truth: Great Rioja, with or without perceived ‘terrior’ is the equal of any great wine from anywhere else in the world. Who in their right mind would limit themselves and miss these great wines? We certainly acknowledge an over-all character and definition in Rioja that we DO ascribe to a broad terroir, but increasingly, we think, sommeliers and wine buyers mean ‘site specific’ when they say ‘terroir’. There is, no question, virtue in site specific viticulture, but for Rioja (and other regions like Champagne, Madeira, Port, Tokaji…) it cannot and should not be held up as the ultimate arbiter of quality because it is not. Just review the winemaking processes in those regions and case is made. There are some REALLY funky producers who stretch the boundaries of soundness (sanity, really) and it would be popular to credit ‘terroir’ for their funky flavors… but the fact is their funk is 100% winemaking/mold/ spider webs and whatever else is in their cellars and other maladies like volatile acidity. The wines can be amazing – but it’s not because of what somms call ‘terroir’, as vineyard characteristics were obliterated by winemaking. The majority of true ‘terroir driven’ Riojas are un-oaked, cheap wines from Rioja Baja. Many are Garnacha based ‘Cosecha’ wines. They are cheap, but ironically they probably are a more accurate reflection of their terroir as they are made in a more straightforward manner. And that brings us to the map, which is a perfect illustration of anti-terroir in itself. Three official regions, but only one makes any sense as a unified terroir, Baja. Baja looks, feels, smells and tastes different – a lot different than the rest of Rioja. Don’t get caught up on elevation, Baja means lower as in ‘further downstream’ not necessarily lower in elevation, and there are several Baja vineyards that are planted almost as high as Alta and Alavesa. All of Alavesa and the best part of Alta constitute the foothills of the Sierra Cantabria mountains, the northern boundary of Rioja. These foothills are defined on the south by the winding Ebro. Although it’s a large area with several microclimates, it is, more or less, the heart and soul of Rioja. It’s a good bet that any bottles of great Rioja you have ever had originated primarily in this area. It should all just be called Alavesa, and everyone knows it, but a wide swath is part of (yet completely different from the rest of), Alta. When asked why Alavesa was split as it is, one winemaker said “…oh, that’s just political” while yet another said in disgust, “…politics!”. Still another winemaker offered his opinion that it was a result of “…stupid politics”. Who knows the real story9 ? No doubt it involves some 17.5% roto-vinified Garnacha, an illicit affair between the wife of a winery owner and a cartographer, a high speed car chase, black helicopters and lots of explosions. I’m pretty sure I saw something about it on wikileakage, too. It’s messed up. And then there is the rest of Alta. ‘Alta’ might as well mean ‘all over the damn place’. Some vineyards are lower in elevation than Baja, some higher than Alavesa. Every type of soil known in Rioja is found in Alta, as is every microclimate and every grape. Not only is Alta diverse, it represents 42% of Rioja’s production. Baja, flatter and more compatible to mechanical work, produces only 37%. The area south of the river will one day be divided into 7 distinct river valley/tributary based sub-regions. Our friend Ana Fabiano broke them down in her terrific book last year and we have yet to explore them all, but adventure awaits.
The Napa Valley Analogy
In the 1980’s the buzzword in California was ‘estate bottled’ and in the 1990’s ‘vineyard designate’. These are formulas for quality, and that may have been true for Napa, Burgundy, Barolo and virtually every other region in the world…but…in Rioja…dude, like, what were you thinking? 319 producers, 18,000 growers. We were told in clear terms by every producer we have (except the humble co-op) that the co-ops have the very best vineyards in Rioja. Be that jealousy or damnation by way of faint praise, it’s not much of a stretch to assume many great vineyards are in the hands of families who will not let them go. For reasons already discussed, few growers are able to become winemakers. Estate bottled in Rioja is rare. It is a tiny percentage of producers who do so and the results are not uniformly superior to those producers who do not. Single vineyard bottlings are statistically irrelevant in Rioja, there are so few of them. A few new producers make single vineyard wines in an international, big, alcoholic, post-modern style. A few old guard producers use what were once vineyard designations to define a style within their house. Now, the namesake vineyards no longer have Cabernet or Pinot Noir planted and the winery blends multiple vineyard sources to achieve those ‘styles’. We asked Tobelos to label their estate, single vineyard white wine with a single vineyard designation and they looked at us like we were from another planet. Frankly, it’s refreshing. When 75% of the vineyard designations in California are, yahknowlike, totallybitchin’ bulike, compleeeetely bogus… the need for single vineyard Rioja seems not as great. We support vineyard designations for great sites anywhere in the world and we suspect there are many of these in Rioja, but they are likely only known to a few winemakers, because for a century and more they have been blended with other vineyards, every vintage. We would not endorse a move towards single vineyard wines if overall quality suffered and unscrupulous vignerons took the opportunity to abuse the system. We do represent some single vineyard and estate wines, but they are here because their quality, not their pedigree.