The New Rioja

Andrew Polmear writes for the love of wine . . .

I’VE ALWAYS LOVED Rioja. It seems to me to be the best of both worlds: plenty of power, with its dark fruit, even liquorice flavour; but also capable of depth, complexity, even elegance. Not everyone thinks so highly of it, probably because there are lots of cheap bottles around. The average bottle of Rioja sold in the UK costs £6.82. With £3 tax and the profit for the shipper and the retailer that’s about a £1 a bottle for the winemaker. It’s amazing that it’s drinkable. But the glories of Rioja cost more, although far less than French, US or Australian
wines of the same quality.

The three major changes that brought Rioja to its present state of grace are as follows – I’ll confine myself to red wines although the whites deserve an essay of their own.

Firstly, in 1991 Rioja was made a ‘Denominación de Origen Calificada’ – a guarantee of high quality. The wine had to be bottled in the region. This ended the custom of selling cheap Rioja blends by the tanker-load, to be bottled elsewhere.

Secondly, once the standard improved, the wine makers realised they didn’t need to make wine tasting of oak. The vanilla flavour of American oak used to be overpowering. The best wines are still matured in oak barrels, but they are more French than American, and the wood is old rather than new; so you don’t taste the oak itself. You get a particular sort of maturation – leathery in flavour and velvety in texture – that only oak can give.

Thirdly, winemakers have started to make wine that is specific to their part of Rioja. La Rioja Alta produces the ‘biggest’ wines: structured, acidic, with the greatest complexity of flavour. The other two districts are La Rioja Alavesa, which tends to produce
a lighter wine, and La Rioja Oriental, which, being lower in altitude and hotter, produces richly flavoured wines but without the finesse of the higher areas. These differences used to be lost in the blends. Now, winemakers revel in pointing up the differences between regions.

How do you spot a good Rioja, apart from the price? The regulations make this easy.

  • Wines called ‘crianza’ have been aged for at least a year in oak.
  • Wines called ‘reserva’ are at least 3 years old and have been aged for at least a year in oak and a year in the bottle.
  • Wines called ‘gran reserva’ are at least 5 years old and have been aged for at least two years in oak and at least two years in bottle.

Ageing costs money, so only the better wines get into oak at all and only the best get more than a year. That is not to say that wines not aged in oak are bad. There’s a move to make a lighter style of Rioja with more fragrance and less ‘leather’ and some are very attractive wines. If the maker is particularly proud of them s/he might call them ‘joven’, meaning ‘young’, thereby making a virtue of the fresh style. Something for every taste!

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