Rioja Old and New – a visit to the bodegas

While the ancient citadels of French wine remain in mesmerising disarray, further south in Europe, they are addressing the requirements of the modern wine world. There is hardly anywhere more attuned to the debates about old and new methods of grape-growing and winemaking than Spain.
The latest evidence of this has been the establishment of the Fundación para la Cultura del Vino (the Foundation for Wine Culture), a loose assemblage of five old family bodegas with several centuries of winemaking experience between them.

xIts members are: the widely renowned Vega Sicilia in Ribera del Duero, cava specialists Codorníu, Julian Chivite in Navarra, and the old, respected Rioja houses of Marqués de Riscal and La Rioja Alta. While half the effort is obviously promotional (and is backed by some government money), it is a non-profit organisation, and as well as educating a new generation of domestic wine consumers in what to expect from a bottle of quality modern wine, it also finds time (and who wouldn’t?) to carry out comparative tastings of pedigree wines from elsewhere. Thus do the members find themselves deliberating over different vintages of Romanée-Conti, or comparing the relative merits of Pétrus and Latour. Would that French producers themselves could be so outward-looking.

They are certainly not short of a bob or two. Visiting the two Rioja producers in July, I was struck throughout by the metaphorical aroma of new paint there is in this region just now. Brand-new installations (some still half-finished); state-of-the-art equipment; barrel-stores so uniformly neat and eerily clean you would might have thought you were in California; visitor centres open at a healthy 10am for public tastings.

xIt’s all a far cry from the viticultural Spain of old. At Riscal, they are in the throes of installing a spanking new hotel in the centre of the estate. Designed by Frank Gehry (of the Bilbao Guggenheim), and opening in 2006, it will feature a design of varicoloured giant titanium streamers rippling out over the façade.

The mood of expansive innovation is particularly infectious at Riscal. It is making crisp varietal Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo from 175 hectares of vineyard in Rueda, as well as simple, sweet-fruited Tempranillo under the regional designation of Castilla y León. These are largely well-crafted wines, made with an eye to modern consumer tastes. One bottling of the Verdejo, confusingly named Limousin, is fermented and then aged for eleven months in Allier oak. The wood influence is reasonably light, and yet the overall balance isn’t quite convincing.

xAt La Rioja Alta, founded like Riscal in the latter half of the nineteenth century, they are also scanning the vinous horizons. They now own 75 hectares each in Rias Baixas and Ribera del Duero, the former producing the exotically scented, substantial Lagar de Cervera Albariño (the 2004 vintage of which shows what voluptuous complexity a partial malolactic can bestow on this often sullen variety).

The first vintage of the Ribera, Aster Reserva 2000, made from unblended Tinto Fino, is for me an example of exactly what I don’t want Spanish red wine to do. Its fruit is intensely sweet on entry, made the more so by two years in a mixture of French and American oak, some of it new. A little gentle savoury tannin adds depth, and may help it to age, but that unctuous quality on the palate seems just a little too eager to please.

One doesn’t want to be churlish. These wines are after all being made within pre-existing denominaciónes, albeit by bodegas from elsewhere with money to invest. It is when one turns back to the wines that they are after all noted for that the picture comes sharply back into focus. La Rioja Alta’s famous Viña Ardanza bottling is a case in point. The Reserva 1998 is faintly reductive, but full of appealing mocha coffee scents, the palate sinuous and gentle, with dry but soft tannins and a finishing note of discreet liquorice. Oenologist Julio Sáenz told me that tannin management takes place these days in the vineyard more than in the winery, through controlled exposure of the bunches to sunlight, an impeccably contemporary approach, but one that works with the grain of the wine rather than against it.

The estate’s Marqués de Haro is a premium wine, made only in exceptional vintages, and given two years in new and used barrels. A blend of 85% Tempranillo and 15% Graciano, the 2001 is still pretty closed, but offers up tantalising hints of complex blackberry fruit, supported by softly contoured oak. There is 13.2% alcohol, yet the wine isn’t a boring blockbuster like so many modern reds, but retains subtlety, allure and exemplary balance.

xThe equivalent wine at Riscal, Barón de Chirel, is a Rioja Reserva again made in occasional vintages. Its 2001 is a deep rich ruby colour, with strong raspberry compote fruit, and a wonderful, rounded, succulent palate. Whatever sweetness the wine contains is derived from the physiological ripeness of the grapes (85% Tempranillo, backed up by the some of the estate’s ancestral entitlement of Cabernet Sauvignon), and there is a wholly persuasive balance of fruit, oak and tannin.Estates whose principal business has always been Reserva and Gran Reserva Rioja have undoubtedly had to look to their laurels in recent times.

Some within the industry argue that the days may be coming when the authorities ought to abandon these old terms, and all the baggage of restrictive regulations that comes with them.

The not unreasonable point is made that less conscientious estates than these two can get away with oenological murder – not to mention healthily inflated prices – as long as those magic designations appear on the labels.

That may be regrettably true, but the corner-cutting of others is a pretty poor reason for you to give up on your own commitment to quality. The hoary old myth that the regulations stop you from producing quality-conscious, forward-thinking wine is exploded by the evidence of wines like Barón de Chirel and Marqués de Haro, not to mention their less exalted stablemates. Much would be risked in dismantling the structures that make them possible.