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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.