And so begins a series on this site called “Then and Now” where I’ll look at what was trending in the wine world seven years ago and how things really turned out. First up, is the region of Rioja!
Rioja is one of the premiere wine regions in Spain [I’ll take a moment to say briefly that, coincidentally, as I wrote this, the Spanish National Football team was beginning its match against Chile in the World Cup. Perfect timing or what?]. It is the first of only two regions classified as DOCa, or Denominación de Origen Calificada, the highest level of quality control for Spanish wine. Thus, it has a long history of producing high quality red wine. In fact, as early as the late 1850s, Rioja was so well-known that when a pest infestation took over the vineyards of France, Bordeaux winemakers flocked to Rioja so they could continue making wine while their home vineyards were being replanted. This shaped the future of Rioja both in international notoriety and in the implementation of new winemaking techniques.
Rioja producers release their wines in stages and label them according to how old they are. Here are the four types of Rioja wines. With the exception of joven, these descriptions must be on the label:
Joven -- These wines are young, one to two years old, fruity and should be drunk young.
Crianza -- These wines must be at least two years old and must have spent at least one of those years in oak casks.
Reserva -- These wines must be at least three years old and must have spent one of those in cask.
Gran Reserva -- These wines are at least five years old. Two of those years must be spent in oak casks and the other three in bottle. Many producers age these wines for much longer with some current releases being as old as 2001.
The article we’re discussing today appeared in the September 2007 issue of Wine Enthusiast and was titled, “Rioja Revitalized.” To begin with, the opening page of the article featured five different wines, none of which I was familiar with. I did recognize a couple of the producers but had never seen the specific wines pictured. The tagline of the article spoke of “wines of power, wines of distinction, wines that inspire awe.” And it became clear in the first few lines that this article was focusing on rising stars, not traditional powerhouses. It used the phrase “new classics” to describe this category of wine. What defines a “new classic?” It is a wine that contains “big fruit from mature vines, structure, freshness and elegance. But most of all they must have balance.” These are interesting criteria for me primarily because they say nothing of preserving the character of Rioja. This description could be used of any wine region in any part of the world. New or not, this doesn’t feel very classic to me.
The article goes on to describe several of the wines the author feels exemplify this category and talks with their producers. There’s the Martinez Bujanda Finca Valpiedra Reserva (least expensive at $30), the Bodegas Roda Cirsion (most expensive at $273), and the Marques de Riscal Baron de Chirel (considered to be the forerunner of the “new classics” movement).
In the past two years, Rioja has in fact been a very popular wine region. And to my knowledge, the above wines are still around and are sought after, but from my experience, not as much as the more traditional Rioja producers. When I think of new style wines from Spain I don’t think of Rioja, but instead Jumilla or Monsant or Campo de Borja. And there are some very highly sought after wines from those regions (Alto Moncayo Aquilon from Campo de Borja and El Nido from Jumilla come to mind). What’s more, the wines from Rioja that are most popular, are in the under $30 category. This category has been very popular among wine critics, which I’m sure has helped propel it forward. There have been several wines that are not only inexpensive, but have scored well--the perfect scenario for many consumers (and the retailers who get to sell to them). Some top contenders that come to mind for me are: Lopez de Haro Rioja Crianza, Viña Ardanza Rioja Reserva, Sierra Cantabria Reserva Única and Cerro Añon Rioja Reserva. All in all, I prefer the more traditional style of Rioja, a style that I think typifies what Rioja should taste like. The problem I have with the newer style of Rioja is that it could almost be made anywhere. There’s nothing about it that makes me think Rioja. I would much prefer to drink something that when I taste it, makes me think of the place from where it comes.
What about you? Have you drank anything from Rioja recently? What comes to mind when you think of Rioja? Or perhaps, better yet, do you think of Rioja? Share your comments below.
Want to learn more about Rioja? Check out riojawine.com for lots of great information.