Why Rioja is finally moving with the times

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

On a balmy November's day in the pretty Mediterranean town of Sitges I made a pig's ear of identifying as rioja the red wine my host had chosen for blind tasting. The mitigating circumstances: Finca Allende is one of the new wave of genuinely exciting riojas and this ultra-stylish modern tempranillo defied attempts to pigeonhole it. Rioja, or part of it at least, is in the throes of de-tarring itself from the brush of the old style based on expedient and outmoded concepts of blending and ageing.

On a balmy November's day in the pretty Mediterranean town of Sitges I made a pig's ear of identifying as rioja the red wine my host had chosen for blind tasting. The mitigating circumstances: Finca Allende is one of the new wave of genuinely exciting riojas and this ultra-stylish modern tempranillo defied attempts to pigeonhole it. Rioja, or part of it at least, is in the throes of de-tarring itself from the brush of the old style based on expedient and outmoded concepts of blending and ageing.

A week earlier, in London, the New Rioja was the working title of an autumn tasting of single estate wines. Effectively, single estates are a new phenomenon. The rioja most of us know, and have on occasions loved, is blended because by and large rioja has not been a region of individual estates like Bordeaux. Eighty-five per cent of the region's 60,000 hectares is controlled either by farmers belonging to co-operatives or independent growers, while only 15 per cent is under the direct control of the wineries themselves. The economies needed to make sense of the 110,000 tiny vineyard plots account for the time-honoured negociant blend that has seen so much cheap, mediocre and inconsistent stuff issuing from the region.

Rioja has been further handicapped by a now-outmoded system based on "the older the better". Producers are keen not to throw out the grandad entirely, so under the old system in which the bricky, leathery, gran reserva is supposedly the oldest and best wine, efforts are being made to make the gran reservas fruitier. In the long run, the system is being gradually abandoned in favour of a simpler system with just two wines, a simple rioja and a reserva at the top. To that end, time spent in barrel is being reduced and American oak barrels are making way for the extra polish and style of French, and even Russian, oak.

Quality today begins not in the barrel, but the vineyard. Significantly, good producers are prepared to pay more for quality grapes, and in many cases, growers are taking control by becoming producers. Freer spirits are challenging the status quo by making fresh, ripe fruit and expression of the terrunyo (the location) a priority. And it shows, in wines of greater concentration, stature and character. In line with the increasing emphasis on the single vineyard, a new law was approved last year which will give producers more incentive to highlight vineyard expression by labelling their wines with the names of single vineyards. Long term it will mean more prestige and money, but the stripes will still have to be earned.

2000 Viñas de Gain Artadi, Rioja, £8.99, Booths. The accent is on the fresh, berry fruit qualities of the tempranillo grape.

2000 Finca Allende, around £12, The Flying Corkscrew (01442 412311), Bacchanalia (01223 576292), Define Food & Wine (01606 882101). Sleek mulberryish tempranillo with plush tannins and spiky, fresh acidity.

1998 Vina Salceda Reserva, £10.95-£14, Lea & Sandeman (020-7244 0522), R S Wines, Bristol (0117 963 1780), Weavers of Nottingham (0115 958 0922). Perfumed, ripe, strawberry fruit tinged with liquorice spice.

2000 Palacios Remondo Propiedad, £15.50-£16.75, Uncorked (020-7638 5998), The Flying Corkscrew. Ripe and spicy modern style full of raspberry fruitiness.

1999 Señorio de San Vicente, Tempranillo, £18.50-£21, Gerrard Seel (01925 819695), Justerini & Brooks (020-7484 6400). Uniquely characterful, scented red laden with plump, sour-cherry fruitiness.

Comments