Surely the most dramatic way to enter Rioja is by road. Travelling from the direction of Bilbao, you rise up to the Sierra de Cantabria, which peaks at 1,221m. Coming down, the view towards the Ebro river is sensational. Great wines await... and fine foods too. The mouth waters as much as the eye is charmed.
Unlike so many wine regions, the landscape is not machine-made. Masses of small vineyards intersect with larger ones, a blend of bush vines and canopies. It is a mix of altitudes and aspects, with the mighty Ebro running through.
In fact, the river is not as mighty here as it will become by the time it decants into the Mediterranean. The only one of Spain’s great rivers to flow east (the rest flow west into the Atlantic), it receives tributaries running down from the two sierras that enclose Rioja.
Rioja was the first DOC in Spain and the first DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada). According to official sources, it’s also the denomination with the most hectares of ‘old and centenary’ vineyards. The region’s success at wine marketing has given the world (or most of it) a certain image of Rioja. The problem is that this established image is rather one-dimensional. As with Champagne or Burgundy, the word ‘Rioja’ encapsulates a mosaic of wines and styles, tradition and innovation.
Now, at the start of the third decade of the 21st century, Rioja is, more than ever, proving itself as a place to explore. Across the latter half of the 20th century, this region (like the rest of Spain) developed wines that were clean and consistent but not especially individual. Rioja producers also sold far too many wines at bargain-basement prices – and they still do. Yet change is in the air.
The transformation isn’t easy: there have been bitter arguments. But the bonus is that consumers can benefit from this diversity and debate. The choice is wider as the wines become a more subtle expression of the different faces of Rioja. As our features and panel tastings in the following pages show, there are now so many ways into the enjoyment of this apparently ‘one-dimensional’ wine region. Take another look at Rioja – it is moving on...
RIOJA: JUST RED WINE?
Although other significant regions of Spain might argue the point, Rioja is the country’s preeminent red wine producer, with 90% of its vineyard planted to red grapes. Yet, contrary to the wine textbooks you may have read, those vineyards are not just a monoculture of Tempranillo. While Tempranillo does currently account for 87% of red plantings, other red varieties are now starting to get more attention. Looking back to pre-phylloxera vineyards, with their field blends of red and white grapes, is also a trend in Rioja, as elsewhere in Spain.
Graciano, with wines from Contino and Ijalba, has been holding its own as a single variety, while Garnacha is the variety currently coming through (see p16). Historically, Rioja Oriental was – and remains – a source of Garnacha for some of the great Rioja Alta blends. Today, though, Garnacha is the hero in Rioja Oriental, revived and made as a single variety by producers such as Alvaro Palacios and Ramón Bilbao.
Juan Carlos Sancha (see ‘Who’s who’, p31) has also been important in the revival of Rioja’s historic grape varieties, especially in the recuperation of Maturana Tinta. It may only account for 0.38% of red plantings (in 2020), but what is being made so far shows real promise.
Similarly, plantings of Mazuelo hover at about 2%. Known as Cariñena in Priorat – where centenarian vines are proving themselves sensational – this grape is mostly used as a ‘seasoning’ variety in Rioja, adding structure to blends. But Mazuelo is now stepping into the spotlight. Marqués de Murrieta’s Primer Rosé received considerable attention on its launch, with the 2015 vintage, because it was 100% Mazuelo. It is also an example of the new breed of top-quality rosados that are diverging from the image of ‘red Rioja’.
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