May 2009 issue


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PAGES (42-49) May 2009

Rioja: Still the Benchmark for Spanish Wine Doug Krenik, MS, CWE

No other region in Spain embodies both the history and the essence of the country’s wine the way Rioja does. As early as 1560, Rioja producers recognized the importance of the area, banning the inclusion of grapes from outside the region and marking their brand on the goat skins in which the wine was transported to guarantee its authenticity. Ribera del Duero may have its Vega Sicilia, Toro its new investors, and Priorat its power and premium pricing, but Rioja still stands as the quintessential Spanish wine.

The Rioja wine district extends about 75 miles along both sides of the Ebro River—the name "Rioja" is a contraction of Río Oja, a tributary of the Ebro. The Cantabria Mountains on the north and the Demanda Mountains on the south shelter the region, protecting it from wet Atlantic and cold southerly winds, respectively. The climate is continental, with snow often coming in January, and the hot, dry summers create an arid landscape. The region has a beauty that is slow to reveal itself, but is most often found in the ancient hilltop villages.

Although wine was produced here as early as the 2nd century B.C., Rioja’s commercial popularity didn’t begin until the 1700s, with the establishment of Bilbao as a major trade center. Rioja’s modern history started in the 1850s, when Luciano Murrieta (the Marqués de Murrieta) and Camilo Hurtado de Amazaga (the Marqués de Riscal) studied the way wines were made in Bordeaux and brought back that expertise and equipment. Murrieta is credited with establishing the first commercial bodega and shipping wine as far as Cuba in barricas bordelasas (225-liter French barriques). To the surprise of his customers, the wine actually improved during the journey. The Marqués de Riscal founded his own bodega and planted a vineyard incorporating about 25% French varieties, making Cabernet Sauvignon an essential part of the estate’s blend.

At the same time, France’s vineyards were being ravaged by oidium—and later phylloxera—and many of the Bordeaux merchants and producers came to Rioja in search of wine to buy and land to farm. French duties were relaxed, and trade boomed. Unfortunately, phylloxera hit Rioja in 1901, just as Bordeaux was recovering from the devastation of its vineyards, causing the Spanish to lose a lucrative export market. More than half the Rioja vineyards were destroyed, and much of the land was replanted to grains. Two world wars and a civil war then intervened; it was not until the late 20th century that the region rebuilt its industry and regained its reputation, and international trade flourished once again.

A major impact of the Bordelais influence on the style of Rioja wine has been the use of oak in the wine’s aging, with all the vanilla and spice flavors that such treatment imparts. Today, the typical bodega owns anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 French or American oak barrels—a substantial investment by any standard. Extended aging in the cellar has long been a tradition as well; in the past, it was not uncommon for many bodegas to age their wines for 15 years or longer prior to release. An oft-cited example is Marqués de Murrieta’s release of its 1942 vintage Gran Reserva in 1983—after 41 years of aging. Today, modern vintners are experimenting with less extreme aging regimens and oak usage, with many producing tank versions of Tempranillo to highlight the grape’s fresh berry and spice characteristics.

The public face of Rioja is evolving as well. Wine tourism, generally ignored by most bodegas until recently, is rapidly becoming fashionable, as indicated by investments in both architecture and accommodations. New projects such as the ultramodern, Frank Gehry-designed Hotel Marqués de Riscal in Elciego and the undulating, Santiago Calatrava-designed Ysios winery in Laguardia are both modernizing the facilities and raising the marketing stakes in this once staunchly traditional region.


In 1926, Spain’s first Consejo Regulador, a governing body that oversees a specific wine region, was established in Rioja. The Consejo determined which wines were entitled to use the name "Rioja," controlled what land could be planted, and decided what actions would be taken against those who broke the rules. Enforcement proved difficult, however, and in the good years of 1964, 1968, and 1970, more young wines were sold than grapes were grown—a Spanish version of the "new math" that was popular at the time? In 1976, both regulations and enforcement were tightened; the Consejo now supervises the registration of all vineyards and bodegas and maintains the laboratories where tests are carried out on all wines before they are approved for export. It also ensures that the region’s grape prices are at least 200% above the national average, a law peculiar to Rioja. In 1991, Rioja became the first Spanish region to be elevated from Denominación de Orígen (DO) to Denominación de Orígen Calificada (DOC); in 1992, the Consejo passed a requirement that mandated bottling within the DOC.

Rioja is divided into three subregions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja. The Alta is located in the northwest portion of the region, in the province of La Rioja. As its name implies, it has the highest elevation of the subappellations—at its highest point, it is an average 39.2ºF cooler than in the Alavesa, but overall, it is marginally hotter. Harvest is typically in mid-to-late November, and the wines tend to be more structured and concentrated than other Riojas, requiring time in bottle to develop. Composed primarily of alluvial soil, calcareous clay, and ferruginous clay, the area covers approximately 45,000 acres. Bodegas Muga wines and the Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España (CUNE) Imperial line are solid examples of pure Alta fruit.

In Rioja Alavesa, just east of Rioja Alta in the province of Álava—part of Basque country—the vineyards are often terraced. The Alavesa’s 25,000 acres consist mostly of limestone and clay soils. Here, the Tempranillo ripens with a thinner skin, and the resulting wines are more elegant, with higher acidity, than in the Alta. Contino, Primicia, and Remelluri are estates that typify the style of pure Alavesa fruit, which is usually the most expensive in Rioja.

Unlike the Alta and Alavesa, which feature hilly terrain and a rustic, bucolic beauty, Rioja Baja is flat and dull. Divided between the provinces of La Rioja and Navarra, the Baja’s 37,000 acres contain alluvial clay with large areas of calcareous and ferruginous clay. The vineyards here are dominated by Garnacha (Grenache), and the resulting wines tend to be higher in alcohol and fuller-bodied than elsewhere in the region. Because this is one of the warmest and driest areas of Rioja, drought can be a major problem in the summer months.


Even considering the diversity of its terroir, Rioja is red-wine country. Some 85% of the wine produced here is red, with white wine accounting for another 9% and the usually Garnacha-based rosado, or rosé, making up the rest. Although single-varietal wines—especially Tempranillo, and occasionally Graciano or Mazuelo (Carignan)—are on the rise in the region, most Rioja wine is still made by purchasing grapes from any of the three subzones and blending them together to create a consistent house style.

Allowable red grapes include Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano, and Mazuelo. If a label indicates "other grapes," that often refers to Cabernet Sauvignon, which is permitted in bodegas that have historically used the varietal or have made experimental plantings. Technically, it is not an authorized grape in the region. The typical Rioja red blend consists of 60-70% Tempranillo, as a base for flavor, aroma, acidity, and longevity; 10-20% Garnacha, for body and alcohol; 5-10% Graciano, for aroma and structure; and 5-10% Mazuelo, for color, tannin, and aging ability.

White Rioja is generally a blend of Viura, also known as Macabeo, which adds fruitiness, aroma, and acidity; Malvasia, for aroma; and Garnacha Blanca, for body. Producers have shifted from the old, oxidized style of white to a fresher, less oaky version, and many are now making pure varietal wines from Viura.

In 2007, the Consejo Regulador approved the use of six new white and three new red varieties. The new white grapes are the non-native Chardonnay, Verdejo, and Sauvignon Blanc and the native Maturana Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, and Torrontés. The non-native varietals may not constitute the majority of any blend, nor may they be prominently listed on the front label. Newly allowed native red grapes are Maturana Tinta, Maturano, and Monastel. Many vintners believe the new law will have little if any impact, although it may slightly increase the production of white wines. Some feel it will make way for more new, non-traditional bottlings and further blur the area’s increasingly fuzzy identity. As in most of the world’s wine regions, the battle between traditionalists and modernists continues, with no resolution in sight.


In Spain, aging is referred to as crianza, a generic term meaning "brought up." Each region has its own specific requirements; in Rioja, the designations established by the Consejo to indicate the minimum amount of time spent in oak and bottle are as follows (maximum cask size is 330 liters):

Joven: Literally, "young," indicating a style intended for immediate consumption. Such wines, including most Rioja whites and rosados, have seen little or no oak.

Roble, Meses en Barrica, Corta-Crianza, Semi-Crianza: These are all terms used to describe wines that have spent time in oak (roble), but less than the required minimum for other categories.

Crianza: Red wines aged for two years, with a minimum of 12 months in oak, may use this designation. Whites and rosados carrying the classification must age for 12 months, with a minimum of six months in cask.

Reserva: Red wines must be aged for a minimum of three years, with at least 12 months of that in oak. Whites and rosados must age for a minimum of 24 months, including at least six months in oak.

Gran Reserva: Reds aged for five years, with a minimum of 24 months in oak, may use this classification, although many Gran Reservas are aged much longer before release. Whites and rosados must be aged for a minimum of four years before release, with at least six months in oak. Gran Reservas are produced only in exceptional vintages.


Rioja’s diversity is its strength when it comes to food affinity. From crisp and clean to barrel-fermented whites, from fresh rosados to sublime Gran Reservas, there is something for almost any drinker to enjoy. But within this diversity runs the common thread of symmetry and elegance. Rioja is rarely a wine of great weight or power; its balance is its greatest asset at the table.

Sommeliers would do well to explore the classic pairings, from patatas a la Riojana (potatoes with chorizo and smoked paprika) with a chilled rosado to lamb grilled over vine prunings with a vibrant Reserva. And while some Riojas can be a lesson in revisionist history—this is modern Spain, after all—the region definitely deserves a place in every restaurant wine program.