Anthony Rose puts in a good word for Rioja
"The major Rioja bodegas are enjoying their richest trading period," wrote John Arlott, the versatile cricket commentator and wine writer, back in 1979. This reminded me that, even before I discovered France in the early 1980s, my own wine "education" started with Rioja in general and Paternina's Banda Azul in particular. It was a smooth red with a characteristic streak of vanilla. You could snap it up, and I did, for next to nothing at Victoria Wine.

Rioja succeeded by filling the vacuum left by rising French wine prices. But the boom, as booms do, led to increased yields and a downturn in quality. After two big price hikes, exports plummeted in the late 1980s. Then the New World took off, and Rioja was left to stew in its own juice.

It has taken a decade for Rioja to adapt to modern tastes, but two excellent vintages in 1994 and 1995 have given it a welcome boost. Improved quality, investment, and a willingness to listen to customers have done much for its self-confidence and helped to remould Rioja into an approachable wine for the 1990s.

Immediately south of the Basque country, Rioja is bisected by the winding Ebro River and sandwiched between the jagged mountain ranges of the Sierra de Cantabria to the north and the Sierra de la Demanda in the south. It is a dramatic region, but, being on the road to nowhere in particular, it is visited only by the most devoted wine tourists, and by pilgrims on their footsore way to Santiago de Compostella with higher things on their mind than such traditional Rioja fare as roast lamb and grilled hake.

Suspect quality was not the only problem Rioja had to address: there was also the question of style. The Rioja hierarchy was classically based on the premise that oldest is by definition best. The image of a venerable, brick-brown gran reserva aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years and then in bottle for another two may still appeal to the fiftysomething drinker, but is less of a turn-on for a new generation of consumers hooked on the colour, succulence and exhilarating fruit flavours of New World reds. As Buenaventura Lasanta, technical director of Campo Viejo, points out: "Young people are not keen on traditional styles. They're looking for wine that's alive."

If we associate Rioja with oak, it is thanks to the French, who introduced the Bordeaux technique of maturing wine in oak in the last century when Rioja was made in the youthful, quaffing style. Today, the basic unoaked and oaked styles still co-exist, albeit modified to satisfy the growing thirst, particularly overseas, for fruitier reds. In the unoaked style, refreshingly fruity wines like Campo Viejo's Albor, pounds 3.99, Martinez Bujanda's Valdemar Tinto, pounds 4.69, Thresher and Paterna's Vina Lur, have been submitted to ultra-modern, Beaujolais styles of winemaking to produce vibrancy and fruitiness.

There's no official category for wines which have spent less than a year in oak barrels. And in order to produce fruitier wines to their own recipe, Rioja's more outgoing producers have turned a blind eye to the outmoded rules requiring ageing in oak barrels for a minimum of one year for crianza status (it's two years in oak plus time in bottle for reserva and three for gran reserva). Jean Gervais, for instance, whose superb 1995 Cosme Palacio, pounds 5.75-pounds 5.99, Waitrose, Safeway, Oddbins, Wine Cellar, has been a runaway hit this year, employs the skills of Michel Rolland, the ubiquitous Bordeaux consultant, to extract colour and tannin from the grapes, maturing the wine in new French oak barrels for 10 months.

Maturation in American oak has long been one of Rioja's features. The introduction of French oak is not yet widely accepted (it is twice the price, after all), but a number of bodegas now use it either exclusively or with American oak to add finesse and polish. With whites, too, the modern trend is to use oak to barrel-ferment the somewhat downtrodden Viura grape. Thanks to newer barrels and less time in wood, Rioja's venerable reserva and even gran reservas have evolved towards a fruiter style.

In the vineyard, estates such as Martinez Bujanda, Campillo and Remelluri are putting new emphasis on Rioja's unique resource of local grape varieties, notably the versatile Tempranillo, made either on its own or blended with Garnacha, and, in smaller quantities, Mazuelo and Graciano. Vineyard-designated wines such as Campo Viejo's Vina Alcorta, Artadi's El Pison and Breton's Dominio de Conte have sharpened the vineyard focus. Even the most traditional of bodegas, Marques de Riscal, actively encourages growers of older, less productive vines, by offering incentives based on quality rather than quantity.

In recognition of its potential as a blending partner for Tempranillo, the reintroduction of the perfumed Graciano grape has been a small but significant quality step forward. Just as it did a century ago when it was introduced from Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, technically classified as an experimental variety, still raises xenophobic hackles, but in small quantities, as the Tuscans have shown, it can have a dramatic effect. And when it's good, it's very good, as in Camillo's 1990 Reserva Especial, Campo Viejo's 1989 Vina Alcorta Martinez Bujanda's 1990 Gran Reserva and Marques de Riscal's 1994 Baron de Chirel.

In 1979, John Arlott wrote that "Rioja produces (apart from Vega Sicilia) all the best red wine in Spain: indeed, with the exception of the finest of Bordeaux and Burgundy, they are as good as any reds in the world." By gradually redefining itself as a wine of today, possibly even of tomorrow, Rioja is at last on track to meeting Arlott's bold assertion

White of the week 1994 Dominio de Montalvo, Limited Edition, Rioja Campo Viejo, pounds 5.99, Victoria Wine. The delicately smoky fragrance of Campo Viejo's modern white Rioja is due to barrel-fermentation of the Viura grape. The wine has remained in cask for seven months on the residue of the grapeskins, or lees, to add a refreshingly crisp, lemony, uplift.

Red of the week 1994 Rioja Crianza, Vinas de Gain. Artadi, pounds 6.99 Majestic From one of Rioja's most exciting new-wave producers, this richly flavoured, all Tempranillo tinto from the exceptional 1994 vintage is powerfully built with the classic undertone of vanilla and underlying black fruit flavours.