Wine: Viva Rioja

A fresh face for Spanish wine. By Anthony Rose

Overheard at Bilbao Airport: "Which is the best wine?" asks a UK businessman eyeing up the duty free. "Rioja Gran Reserva," replies another. Anyone who knows a bit about wine knows that the quality of Rioja is based on the length of time it spends maturing in oak. Or at least, that used to be the case

Today, the younger Reserva and, to an extent, Crianza, are the standard- bearers of the new Rioja. In contrast to Gran Reserva's minimum of three years in cask and two in bottle, Reservas and Crianzas need only a year in cask (then two years and one, respectively, in bottle). Modern Rioja is about deep colour, rich flavour and abundant fruit. Witness some of the fine 1994 Reservas, notably Barn de Ley, Torre Muga, Roda 1, Palacios Remondo's Reserva Especial, La Rioja Alta's Vina Alberdi and Marques de Riscal's Barn de Chirel, to mention just a few.

How has such a sea change occurred in one of Europe's most staunchly traditional regions? According to Bernard Robin of Ijalba: "A younger generation of consumers is looking at something not as heavy, something fruitier and fresher." A trend towards longer fermentation has brought extra colour and fruit extract, while less Garnacha and more Tempranillo has improved overall quality. At the same time, the practice of blending in white wine to soften the red has been more or less phased out.

Above all, modern Rioja spends less time in oak barrels. "Tastes are changing," says Elena Esteban of Bodega Alejos, "and it's right to bring out a wine with less time spent maturing in oak casks. If you leave a wine too long in the barrel, the barrel will eat the wine." Traditionally, Rioja is based on the aromatic but more aggressive American oak. Today, French oak is increasingly employed to add refinement and complexity.

Change was inevitable. Pallid, old-style Rioja may still have its supporters, but wine drinkers have become accustomed to the freshness and immediate fruit flavours of the New World. Even within Spain, where Rioja accounts for roughly 40 per cent of all quality wine sold, younger consumers want fruit, fruit and more fruit.

Rioja is understandably wary of alienating its most loyal customers. But change there is, even at the likes of Marques de Riscal, Marques de Murrieta, Lopez de Heredia and La Rioja Alta. La Rioja Alta's new stainless- steel winery, for instance, is located some way from the bodega, while its recently acquired modern brand, Barn de Ona, has kept a separate identity. Murrieta, too, has invested in a stainless-steel tank farm. Even the archly traditional Lopez de Heredia is to be paid a visit by Australia's viticultural whiz-kid, Richard Smart.

Rioja's newest wineries are totally focused on modern styles. Roda, a modern winery owned by Coca-Cola's Spanish distributor, is aiming for a classy Rioja based on French oak. Meanwhile, Barn de Ley's impressive pounds 10m investment on the banks of the Ebro River in Rioja Baja, combines Cabernet Sauvignon with Tempranillo to give its stylishly fruity Riojas an international dimension.

The use of Cabernet Sauvignon remains controversial. Marques de Riscal has had it for more than a century. Elsewhere, it has been tolerated on an experimental basis. But, following a five-year official trial, the Rioja Wine Board is now dragging its feet on the question of whether or not to allow it generally. On my last day in Rioja this month, I met up with a group of wine-makers fresh from a tasting of "experimental" French grapes and Rioja's home- grown Graciano. The verdict? The French grapes were highly regarded, but the winemakers were concerned that even a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon can dominate the less assertive Tempranillo. And many producers, especially those who don't have Cabernet planted, would prefer to see more of the local Graciano used as a blending component.

Meanwhile, expansion is palpable. The streets of Rioja's picturesque villages may not be paved with gold, but there have been bumper crops, big profits and the euphoria of demand fuelled by excellent vintages in 1994 and 1995. There are, however, problems on the horizon. Since the early Nineties drought, watering the vineyards has been permitted, and yields have soared to an alarmingly high level of 7,500 kilos per hectare. For quality-conscious producers, this may not be a problem, but with a ceiling on new planting reached, and high investment costs to cover, there could be a temptation to water the grapes. Dilution would be the inevitable consequence, and with it an own-goal Rioja could happily do without

White of the week

1992 Marques de Murrieta Ygay Blanco Reserva, pounds 8.49, Oddbins. This is an ultra-traditional Rioja blend of Viura, Malvasia and white Garnacha which spends three years in oak. It's remarkably fresh, with a giveaway, delicate sherry-like whiff, rich, dried-apricot fruit and a cleansing bone-dry aftertaste. Not for faint hearts or neophyte palates.

Red of the week

1994 Barn de Ley Reserva Rioja, pounds 6.99, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up, Thresher Wine Shops, Asda, selected Co-op stores. One of the classier Reservas from the 1994 vintage, this is a sweetly ripe, subtly oaked red, with the blackcurranty undertones of Cabernet Sauvignon adding an extra dimension to the succulent Tempranillo fruit.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
football
Life and Style
Jack Cooksey goes for the grand unveiling - moments before dropping his new iPhone 6 on the floor
iphone launch
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Life and Style
Customers look at the new iPhones on display at the launch of the new Apple iPhone 6 and iphone 6 plus at the Apple IFC store in Hong Kong
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Sport
Andros Townsend is challenged by Vladimir Volkov
football
Arts and Entertainment
Rapper Jay Z performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2008
musicSinger sued over use of the single-syllable sample in 'Run This Town'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Nursery assistants required across Cambridgeshire

    £21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

    SEN 1:1 Teacher

    £120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a qualified teache...

    SEN Teachers and Support Staff

    £50 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an SEN Teacher or L...

    English and Media Teacher

    £100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: English & Media Teacher - ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week