Rioja: Four Exciting Trends to look out for

If you ask any wine professional or enthusiast about the Spanish region they know most about, 9 out of 10 would probably mention Rioja, historically considered the gold standard of Spanish red wine.

The relatively small (66,000 hectares or 160,000 acres) region of Rioja has a long tradition of quality winemaking – which started with the arrival of Bordelais producers fleeing the phylloxera epidemic in the late 1800s – and continues to this day.

There are several factors that have contributed to the uniquess of Rioja: Its privileged location between the Cantabric mountains and Sierra de la Demanda which create a special microclimate, the use of Tempranillo– arguably Spain’s noblest grape variety in its red blends; and the tradition of long aging in oak casks following the Bordeaux model, aimed at producing long-lived, ageworthy wines.  

Despite all the success Rioja has achieved in the last century, a new generation of producers are injecting new energy into the region and are in the process of revolutionizing the wine styles of the region.

Here are the 4 exciting trends to look for in the near future:

1.A deeper focus on terroir
In a place that has defined a wine’s quality by the time it spends in oak, there’s a marked trend towards returning to the land and highlighting the character of specific villages and parcels, following the model that has made Burgundy famous.  For many producers, this means returning to the old style where the focus was more on the vineyard as opposed to the winery.

As in many other parts of Spain, Rioja producers are realizing the tremendous potential of their ancient vines (accounting for 15% of total plantings) and are on a path to rescue many long-forgotten vineyards throughout the appellation. As part of this greater focus on terroir, many growers are shifting to little or no use of chemicals in their farming and implementing a “natural,” low-intervention style of winemaking, just as it was a few generations ago.

In the quest to deliver a deeper sense of place, the Consejo Regulador (Rioja’s Regulatory Council) has also taken major steps to promote the local identities of specific villages and sub-regions by allowing new designations of Vinos de Zona (sub-regional wines), Vinos de Pueblo (village wines) and Vinedos Singulares (single vineyards or “crus”).

Wines to try:

Telmo Rodriguez/Lanzaga, Las Beatas. In partnership with Pablo Eguzkiza, the wine comes from a tiny 1.9-ha vineyard in the northwest part of Rioja Alavesa – around the towns of Lanciego and Labastida, where they have spent the last 15 years reviving the old vineyards by grafting on to old vines in mixed plantings. Vibrant, very mineral, and energetic – an unofficial Grand Cru of Rioja.

2. The rediscovery of lesser-known grape varieties

Up until a few years ago, Rioja always meant Tempranillo, with other grapes playing small secondary roles in blending.  For example, Garnacha (Grenache) was used primarily to make affordable reds or pink “claretes” by blending it with the white Viura. Today, Garnacha is the second most planted grape in Rioja (primarily in Rioja Oriental), and it’s prized for its delicate floral aromas, sweet red fruit flavors, and mid-palate succulence. All these factors, coupled with its drought-resistant capacity, are elevating its standing not only in Rioja but in the rest of Spain.  With the right care in the vineyards: lower yields, better farming and plantings in the right sites, Garnacha is able produce world-class wines in Rioja.

Graciano is the fourth most-planted grape in Rioja and contributes bright acidity, color, and dark fruit notes to Rioja blends. Though still rarely seen in single varietal bottlings, a few producers are making juicy, age worthy 100% Graciano wines.

Wines to try:

Exopto La Mimbrera. 100% single-vineyard Graciano grown on limestone soils at 450m elevation near the town of Abalos. Fermented and aged in French oak barrels for 15 months. A pure, lively style of Graciano. Spicy, peppery, and herbal.  Very aromatic with vibrant acidity, power, and freshness.

Contino Garnacha.  From the family who also owns CVNE, Contino focuses on single-vineyard, Riojas made in a traditional style. Sourced from old bush vines and aged in large 500-litre French oak barrels. Pale ruby, with aromas of stewed raspberries, dusty graphite, and a touch of spice. Ripe and round, with an interesting crushed-rock flavor in the finish.

3. A move away from new oak and towards neutral vessels

Rioja is closely linked to long maturation in oak vessels, particularly American oak. As the global market evolves towards lighter-style reds, many Rioja producers are making fresher wines with a smaller presence of upfront oak flavors as it was in the recent past. Many wineries have embraced the use of alternative neutral vessels such as large foudres, concrete vats, and even clay amphorae for aging their wines.  The current quality pyramid still emphasizes time spent in oak (and only 350L barrels are allowed), so many of these new wines are labeled under the “generico” category that does not have to comply with minimum standards of aging in barriques.

Members of the Rioja ‘n’ Roll group

Wine to try:

Artuke “Pies Negros” Tinto. A great example of this new style is Artuke, a project of brothers Arturo and Kike de Miguel based in the town of Baños del Ebro and founding members of “Rioja’n’Roll,” a group of small wineries making terroir-driven wines.
Pies Negros (“black feet” referring to the traditional foot-treading of the grapes) is their village wine – a blend of 90% Tempranillo and 10% Graciano grown on clay and limestone soils. Smoky nose with notes of sweet red berries, balsamic herbs, spice, and a touch of reduction. Medium, firm tannins and very refreshing acidity.

4. A greater diversity of styles
Red wines still account for the large majority of Rioja production; however, the stylistic range of the region is growing more diverse as more and more producers are making quality whites, rosés, and even sparkling wines.

Local white varieties like Maturana Blanca and Tempranillo Blanco (a mutation of Tempranillo), plus the traditional Viura and Malvasia are contributing to the renaissance of Rioja whites – made in styles that range from fresh and fruity to mature and complex, as in the out-of-this-world Vina Tondonia Blanco from Lopez de Heredia.

New styles also include complex, age worthy roses (primarily Grenache-based) as well as sparkling wines, labeled under the multi-regional Cava appellation or the Vino Espumoso de Calidad (Quality Sparkling Wine) under the Rioja appellation.

Wines to try:

Palacios Remondo Placet. 100% Viura from Rioja Oriental, near Alfaro. Fermented in foudres and aged in barrel. Green fruits and quite a rich texture. Great value.

Lalomba / Ramon Bilbao, Finca Lalinde Rosado.  A blend of 90% Garnacha and 10% Viura grapes from the 5.4-ha Finca Lalinde vineyard in Monte Yerga, Rioja Oriental. Aged on fine lees for five months for creamy character, volume and complexity. Very pale pink with intense floral aromas and mandarin citrus notes. Precise, fine-grained acidity that fills the mouth on the finish.

Bodegas Bilbaínas, Viña Pomal Blanc de Noirs, Cava. A Garnacha Blanc de Noirs Cava from Rioja Alta.  Aromas of red strawberry fruit with a touch of toast complexity from the 18 months on the lees.  

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