La Rioja's Wine Revolution

Rioja is in the midst of a twenty-five year revolution. To many this may seem like a long time to be engaged in a revolution. However, when taking into account the history of Rioja wine dates back to the Phoenician settlers in the 11th century, contextually it is not long at all. Many describe this revolution as shift from traditional style wine making to modern style wine making. Master of Wine Tim Atkin prefers to view it as a change from a Bordeaux style of buying grapes across the region, to more of a Burgundian style where individual vineyard sites are determining the style of the wine. This assessment lead Atkin to claim, "I believe that Rioja in the last 25 years has been through a revolution just as important and far reaching as any in the wine world."

"Rioja is a Burgundy style wine with a Bordeaux history." Miguel Angel de Gregoria, Finca Allende

Brief History

Rioja's long wine history began in the 11th century; however, the key to modern day understanding begins in mid-1850. It was during this time at the request of the Spanish government the French came to La Rioja and began teaching the Spanish the Bordeaux style of winemaking. The French brought Bordeaux vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc, and taught the Spanish how to age their wines in French oak barrels. Until this time the Spanish were using carbonic maceration techniques to produce young, fruitful wines. As a result of aging in oak barrels wine supply diminished and the financial constraints became problematic so the French were sent home.

Less than a decade later everything changed. A terrible louse was devastating the vineyards of Bordeaux. They quickly had to find another cuvee style wine that would quench the thirst of the world that sought Bordeaux. The answer lied in La Rioja. In order to survive the phylloxera epidemic, the French imported as much bulk Rioja wine into Bordeaux as they could export to the world. This resulted in a large influx of money into Rioja that allowed small producers to build large wineries across the region. To mimic the Bordeaux style with Tempranillo French oak barriques became common, as well as practices of de-stemming and the replacement of lagars with smaller fermentation tanks.

As the 19th century was coming to a close phylloxera struck the vineyards of Rioja. By this time the French were recuperating their vineyards by grafting onto American rootstock. Their need for Rioja had ended, but what remained was permanent. They taught the winemakers of Rioja how to make wine the Bordelaise way. Overtime Rioja winemakers replaced French oak with the less expensive American oak, creating a signature style of red fruit, spice, and pronounced oak; what is known today as the "traditional style" of Rioja wine.

Back to the Future

What is taking place in Rioja today is a step back to where Rioja began. After the French left, Rioja has remained a regionally produced wine. Grapes sourced throughout the region are blended into a wine simply labeled Rioja. Recently a shift is occurring with a call to return to sub-region and even vineyard specific labeling. Atkin explains in an article by The Drinks Business, "Rioja's vineyards are quite small – very few growers are over 30 hectares in size." He recognizes along with many that the limestone vineyards of Rioja Alavesa are among the best in the region. He argues this area is akin to Burgundy's Côte d'Or, "At the top end Rioja should be known for its villages. They should be just as marked as the difference between Gevrey Chambertin, Volnay and Pommard."

Rioja's Consejo has been stubbornly resistant to change. I experienced much of this first hand in 2016, when I spoke at an ABRA conference in Rioja Alavesa. At that time Alavesa wanted sub-region label distinction but the Consejo was refusing. It seems since 2016, the Consejo is opening up to the idea of embracing diversity within the region to signify different levels of quality and style. This is good news for La Rioja in general, the three specific sub-regions, and the consumer.

Rioja's Sub Regions

La Rioja is split between three distinct sub-regions, centered around the region's principle city of Logroño. To the west of Logroño, situated on the north bank of the Ebro River in the foothills of the Cantabrian Mountains lies Rioja Alavesa, the smallest sub-region. The chalky soil (limestone and clay) and higher elevations creates perhaps the lightest and often most finessed wines of La Rioja. Rioja Alta also lies to the west of Logroño but mainly south of the Ebro River. It shares some of the same elevations as Rioja Alavesa with wines equal to slightly less quality. Rioja Baja, the largest sub-region, is situated east of Logroño, mainly along the south bank of the Ebro River. The climate in this sub-region is less maritime, with hotter summers and more severe winters, resulting in a wines with different characteristics.

Spanish Wine Classifications

Before I share a few Rioja wines with you I want to highlight Spain's wine classification categories. This knowledge will aid in purchasing all Spanish wines. The assigned classification will be clearly indicated on the label.

Rioja (aka Joven): These wines are designed for early drinking and may have undergone semi-carbonic maceration to produce a wine that has vibrant fruit flavors and smooth low to medium tannins. It will have spent little (a few months) to no time in oak. Inexpensive wines sold for under $15.

Crianza: These wines typically spend one year in oak (often used) and one year in bottle before being released. These wines are inexpensive $20 or less and highly approachable.

Reserva: These wines made from the best grapes in the best vintages. They are aged a minimum of three years, at least one in oak casks, before release. Many winemakers exceed these minimums for maximum quality wines. These wines are sold for $25 and above.

Gran Reserva: Best of the best. Selected grapes from the most exceptional vintages. Aged a minimum of 2 years in oak casks and 3 years in bottle before release. Highly cellar worthy. Because of their high tannins it is common for winemakers to hold these wines for as long as they feel the wine needs then release them when they are ready for consumption.

Compania Vinicola del Norte de España

CVNE, aka Cune, was established back in 1879 during the French presence in La Rioja by two brothers. Today this winery is still family owned and operated. CVNE owns vineyards in both Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Alta. Both regions's climate is moderated by the Atlantic Ocean, with the Cantabrian Mountains providing shelter from the worst of the Atlantic weather. CVNE has a wide portfolio of wines. In the late 1980's they built a new winery and now produce all their wines in a modern style. Let's compare and contrast two of their labels to explore the diversity found within La Rioja.

2014 Cune Crianza Rioja Rioja Alta DOCa ($13): Crafted of 85% Tempranillo, 15% Garnacha and Mazuello from Rioja Alta; red fruit, plums, balsamic, raisin, baking spice, dark chocolate, mushroom, vanilla, oak; medium body, medium+ acidity and tannins, rustic on the palate with prominent oak notes, lively, elegant, and balanced.

2013 Viña Real Crianza Rioja DOCa ($15): Crafted of 90% Tempranillo, 10% Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuello from Rioja Alavesa; ripe red fruit notes of cherries, currants, plums, baking spice, dried red floral notes, roasted walnuts, vanilla; great structure, modern style, approachable, fruity with balanced earthiness, medium+ tannins and acidity, medium body, long spicy finish.

2013 Cune Reserva Rioja DOCa ($28): Crafted of 85% Tempranillo, 15% Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuello from Rioja Alta; inviting aromas of baked black and red berries, medicinal, baking spice, leather, black licorice, herbal; medium body, medium+ tannins and acidity, tannins integrating, American and French oak notes present, classic Rioja style; time will make this wine shine.

2013 Viña Real Reserva Rioja DOCa ($32): Crafted of 90% Tempranillo, 10% Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuello from Rioja Alavesa; intense aromas of stewed black fruit, baking spice, licorice, balsamic, dried tobacco, kirsch; medium+ body, pronounced tannins that feel silky on the palate, balanced medium+ acidity, round on the palate, modern and approachable; long finish, this wine will also be brilliant after a few years of proper cellaring.

2011 Cune Gran Reserva Rioja DOCa ($47): Crafted of 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, 5% Mazuello from Rioja Alta; inviting aromas of baked black fruit, dried roses, licorice, baking spice, tobacco, toffee, medicinal, dark chocolate, vanilla; full-body, pronounced tannins and acidity, good concentration, balanced fruit and earth, classic Rioja style, elegant and refined; proper cellaring will serve it well.

2010 Viña Real Gran Reserva Rioja DOCa ($47): Crafted of 95% Tempranillo, 5% Graciano from Rioja Alavesa: concentrated aromas of baked black and red fruit, cassis, black licorice, tobacco, roasted espresso beans, baking spice, menthol, vanilla; dark and brooding, modern in style yet still so young; full body, pronounced silky tannins, balanced pronounced acidity, great structure for long aging.