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The reds of Rioja, Spain
 

Hotel Marques de Riscal, Rioja, SpainDrawn by the allure of world-class tempranillo, Andrew Jefford heads to northern Spain, to the heartland of Rioja, where old and new worlds collide with such creativity that the rustic landscape and terroir never cease to inspire.

It was up on a hillside, and invisible: a seamless part of the landscape. Had I been wandering through these vineyards near Villalba de Rioja on my own, I’d never have noticed. There was an outcrop of grey, weathered limestone fringed by thyme plants and a few stunted oaks; as we climbed to the top of it, it slowly became apparent that the stone had been cut into a series of connected, square chambers. “This,” said Rodolfo Bastida of Rioja producer Ramón Bilbao, jumping down onto the rock, “was where they put the grapes to tread them. The juice ran out here,” – he pointed at a runnel – “and the wine would have fermented in here.”


We were, in fact, in a 12th-century, open-air winery, carved into the landscape itself. Peel back all that time, un-invent the car and the aeroplane, un-imagine the work of Bach and Shakespeare, unmake the catastrophes wrought by a Frenchman called Napoleon, a German called Hitler, and a Russian called Stalin, cease to know penicillin and morphine, unravel all of that – and vines were growing here over a summer in this terraced valley, just as they do today, and their farmers were bringing those grapes up to a rock on the hillside, treading them, and making wine from them. It was hard not to feel a little awe at such continuity, over so much time.


It also underlined for me just what a propitious place this is for those two activities. It’s easy to assume that Rioja is more about method than place, big companies contracting grapes from a wide area, then turning them into soft, well-aged reds via lots of snoozing in a tall stack of American oak barrels. There’s some truth to that picture – but there’s a more important story, too.
Rioja matters because it’s the greatest spot on earth humans have yet found to grow the tempranillo grape. And that in turn matters because red wines based on tempranillo grown here can, in terms of weight, structure and balance, come closer to duplicating Bordeaux’s cabernet-merlot blends than any other grape-and-place combination in Europe. In my opinion, anyway. As Rioja’s producers find their ambition, create single estates, seek out the best single vineyards in the region and begin to risk selling their best wines in youth, this is becoming a little clearer to see than in the past.


The first ones to notice this, to be fair, were the canny Bordelais themselves, back at the time of the phylloxera catastrophe in the late 19th century. Who did they turn to in order to replace their own missing stocks? Why, to the Riojanos. The 300-kilometre rail link which ran from Logroño and Haro to Bordeaux became a wine artery until Rioja itself was afflicted by phylloxera two decades later. Bordeaux, in sum, was the making of Rioja as an export wine. Even today, many of the key bodegas in Haro cluster around the railhead. Happily for us: it makes for easy cellar-door visiting.


Let’s, though, get a fix on the region. Northern Spain is rimmed by the Cantabrian Mountains; these split a strip of moist, green Atlantic coastline from the high, dry tablelands of Central Spain. The river Ebro rises in those mountains, then heads southeast, swelling as dozens of smaller tributaries join it; it finally reaches the Mediterranean in sunny Tarragona. The Ebro is in fact the longest river within the country’s own borders (the Tagus is longer, but it finishes its journey in Portugal). Rioja is, quite simply, the wine of the Upper Ebro Valley.


Even though Rioja occupies only the upper part of the valley, it is still a vast wine region: its 36,600 planted hectares easily dwarf, for example, the 35,000 hectares of the Côtes du Rhône, and even the 51,000 hectares of AOC Bordeaux. It’s a wicked generalisation, but the higher you go in Rioja, the better the wines get. Greater Rioja begins on the river between Logroño and Haro, and hugs the chaos of terraces and hillsides which occupy the steadily rising north (or left) bank of the river. The river at this point is almost 500 metres above sea level, and the highest vineyards reach 800 metres or more. This is far higher than any vineyard in New Zealand, and almost as high as Orange in Australia, though at a very different latitude (42.27 N compared to 33.28 S).


It’s cool-climate wine producing, in other words. “The coldest area of cold Rioja,” says Jorge Muga of the Haro bodega Muga, “probably has Europe’s latest harvest for dry reds. These are the vineyards we use for our Prado Enea wine, the wine of ours which has the most elegance and complexity. We always harvest in November, and in the last 30 years we harvested twice in the snow. If we get an early frost, we can lose everything here, which is just one reason why we don’t produce the wine every year.” It’s a total contrast to the popular image of Rioja as warm, ripe and dozy. That image is based on the cheaper wines of the region, which in turn are based on the lower parts of the valley, where the harvest will be a month and a half earlier. The tendency of the large companies to produce blended wines blurs these fundamental altitude and climate distinctions, as does the strangely crenellated boundary between the two provinces of La Rioja and Alava which fissures great, high Rioja. To reflect terroir accurately, Rioja producers would need to produce wines based on individual vineyards or individual villages. This is beginning to happen – all of Allende’s wines come from the village of Briones, for example, and some of them are single-vineyard wines – but the movement is in its infancy.


Not to worry: there is still plenty of delicious wine here produced by blending, which is as great a Riojan skill as it is an Australian one. What you tend to pay for when you buy a bottle of Rioja at present is not so much vineyard origin as time. Crianza wines (the word literally means ‘upbringing’) are youngest and least expensive, though they will always have had one year in barrel and one in bottle. Reserva wines share the year in barrel, but must have had two in bottle before release, while gran reserva wines have two in barrel and three in bottle.


Barrels, needless to say, are also an intricate part of Riojan culture – there are 1.3 million of them in the region’s bodegas. Once again, Riojan practices are much subtler than they are often given credit for, with extensive use of older wood or complicated successive spells in younger wood then older wood; local thinking, in fact, is that it is not the aroma and flavour of the barrel which matters so much as the ‘noble oxidation’ which the barrels provide. American-oak barrels once dominated production of Rioja, and there does seem to be a strangely happy marriage between tempranillo grown here and the use of older, well-seasoned American oak: traditionalists like La Rioja Alta and López de Heredia, for example, continue to use only American oak. The use of French oak, though, is much more widespread today than it was in the past, with many companies using a majority of French oak. Some of the avant-garde (like Roda or Allende) use only French oak. The use of Eastern European oak is on the rise, too.


Try to visit Rioja if you can. Not only is the quality of the region’s food and drink products outstanding, but this is an example of authentic Spain, too, a long way from the standard holiday beat of the Mediterranean coastline, with its tower-block hotels and over-weight, over-tattooed Brits and Germans lobstering the afternoon away on sun-loungers. When you’ve had enough wine, the mountains, the green Atlantic and cultured Bilbao beckon. And, of course, Bordeaux’s a modest drive away.


Wineries To Visit


Visits in Rioja are easier than in most classic European regions – not least because many of the greatest bodegas are clustered together around the historic railhead in Haro, and well-geared up for visitors as a consequence. Don’t forget to venture into the countryside, too, though – to visit vineyards, to taste and to see some of the world’s most astonishing modern winery architecture.


ALLENDE


Palacio Ibarra, 1 Plaza Ibarra, 26330 Briones, +34 941 322 301, info@finca-allende.com.
Miguel Ángel de Gregorio is an outspoken former professor of enology at Madrid University. Teaching winemaking was boring, he decided, so he remedied matters by marching on Rioja and leading something of a terroir revolution there. All of the Allende wines come from the village of Briones (with its 14 soil types); the core cuvée is simply labelled Rioja, with no age statement (“we sell wines, not calendars”), and there are two single-vineyard wines in the range, too (Calvario and Martyres) as well as a skilled blend (Aurus). The revolution has been such a success that he has now bought and restored the Palacio which dominates the village. This assured range is a calling card for contemp-orary Rioja. Visits and tastings are possible, but it’s essential to make an appointment first.


CONTINO


Finca San Rafael, 01321 Laserna, +34 945 600 201.
This 62-hectare estate in Rioja Álavesa is owned by CVNE (see below), but run as an entirely separate entity, overtly modelling itself on the great châteaux of Bordeaux (but trying to be more welcoming than many of them are). The vineyards are situated in a generous loop of the river Ebro, and all the wines are made on site in a modernised but historic building crouching under the flat-topped hill which backs the property. For many years, Contino made only a reserva, but there is now a range which includes the sumptuous single-vineyard Viña del Olivo and the challengingly acidic single-variety Graciano. Visits (Monday – Sunday, by reservation) either include a tasting of the Reserva for €8 (A$11) or a Premium Visit where you can taste all four wines with appetisers for €25 (A$34); the winery is closed in August.


CVNE


Barrio de la Estación, 26200 Haro, +34 941 304 800.
Along with La Rioja Alta, CVNE (the Comp-añía Vinícola del Norte de España) is one of the grandfathers of the region, and both can be visited in the Station District of Haro. There are differences: Rioja Alta uses American oak only, whereas even 50 years ago CVNE was using a high percentage of French oak for its best wines, as it still does today. The company has 300 hectares of vineyards which provides about 60 per cent of the grapes it needs, but those vineyards provide over 95 per cent of the fruit for its magnificent Imperial series of reservas and gran reservas, all of which are made in a special winery within a winery. You can take a guided tour every day of the week (on Sunday between 10am and 2pm only) by reservation via the website; and there’s an activity area for children, too.
LÓPEZ DE HEREDIA
3 Avenida de Vizcaya, 26200 Haro, +34 941 310 244.
Tradition reigns serenely at López de Heredia, which means that nothing is hurried; even the rosé is aged for 10 years before release, and there are gran reservas (given at least eight years in barrel here, and often decades in bottle) available from vintages back to 1942. The company uses only fruit from its own vineyards, and both its Viña Tondonia and its Viña Bosconia ranges are in effect all single-vineyard wines, which put this traditional company among the region’s avant-garde, too. Visitors to the intricate and ingeniously designed bodega are welcome for €10 (A$13) per person, redeemable against purchase, provided you make a reservation first; the bodega is open from Monday to Saturday. The striking shop (a recent addition, created by architect Zaha Hadid) is worth a visit too.


MUGA


Barrio de la Estación, 26200 Haro, +34 941 306 060.
This company is another of the pillars of Rioja, and its extensive, pristine bodegas (whose cathedral-like qualities are emphasised by extensive use of stained glass) are also found in the historic Station District of Haro. It has 220 hectares of its own vineyards, providing up to 60 per cent of its needs. All its wines are oak-fermented (the reds in vat) before being barrel-aged in an array of small casks of different origins and ages. The range of wines has both a traditional side to it (peaking with the subtle and refined Prado Enea, made in the best years only from fruit from some of the region’s highest-sited vineyards) as well as a modernist side (the complex, deeply textured Torre Muga and the sumptuous, plush Aro, the latter based on the fruit of individually tagged old vines; both wines are aged for 18 months in new French oak). Not only can you book a winery tour on Mondays to Saturdays with a tasting of two wines for €6 (A$8) each, but the bodega also offers vineyard tours and group tasting courses, and you can book a meal there, too, by prior arrangement

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REMELLURI


Ctra. De Rivas s/n, 01330 Labastida, +34 945 331 801.
Rioja doesn’t yet have an estate system which in any way resembles that of Bordeaux, but if it did, Remulluri would surely be one of its first growths. From a patchwork of often tiny parcels (192 of them altogether), planted at between 600 and 800 metres up the foothills of the Cantabrian Mountains, Telmo Rodriguez crafts a superb range of estate-grown wines which impress within the Riojan tradition. Yet, at the same time, they have a depth, a density and a mineral character, and are saturated with a sense of site. No visitor to the region should fail to make their way to this beautiful country property, and spend a little time walking the paths which link its vineyards; Remelluri even has some of the ancient wine-treading tanks I describe in the introduction cut into its rocks. There is a museum here, too, and visits and tastings are free. You can make a reservation via the contact page of the website or by phone.

LA RIOJA ALTA


8 Avenida di Vizcaya, 26200 Haro, +34 941 310 346.
With 450 hectares of its own vineyards (enough to supply all the winery’s needs) and nine million bottles in stock, La Rioja Alta is one of the regional giants. The style of its wines, which are aged only in American oak and then given long bottle-ageing, belong very much within the gentle and expansive traditions of the region, though there are subtle differences in varietal blends and vineyard origins between the three main reserva brands (Viña Alberdi, Viña Arana and Viña Ardanza). The two gran reservas, 904 and the older 890, are both enduring regional references for gracious, amply aged reds. This is another splendid bodega (and shop) which you can visit in the Station District of Haro: for details and to make a reservation, fill out the form on the website.


RODA


5 Avenida Vizcaya, 26200 Haro, +34 941 303 001.
Of all the bodegas gathered together in the Station District of Haro, Roda (founded in 1987, with the winery completed in 1991) is the most avowedly modern in history, scope and style. The aim, though, is to reveal the essence of the region, via the use of 17 parcels of very old bush vines, by gentle harvesting, sorting and handling, and by using only French oak (both large vats for fermentation and smaller barrels for malolactic and for maturation). A cluster of research projects is always underway at the furiously inquisitive Roda. Instead of single-vineyard wines, though, Roda produces three blends: Roda Reserva puts the emphasis on red fruits, and Roda I Reserva on black fruits. Cirsion, meanwhile, is an intermittently produced blend based on the fruit of individually selected vines whose grapes, tasted in the vineyard, seem more vinous than their peers. Fill in the contact form on the website to book a visit.

 

SIERRA CANTABRIA

 

3 Amorebieta, 26338 San Vincente de la Sonsierra, +34 945 600 590, info@eguren.com.
The energetic and ambitious Eguren family produces some of Rioja’s finest contemporary wines under three different names: Sierra Cantabria (for blends as well as single-vineyard wines based on the Amancio and El Bosque vineyards); Señorio de San Vicente (a single-vineyard wine from San Vicente de la Sonsierra planted exclusively with the local hairy variant of tempranillo: tempranillo peludo); and Viñedos de Páganos (two single vineyards from the village of Páganos: the high-sited El Puntido and slightly lower and warmer La Nieta). The Eguren properties offer an expensive but rewarding two-and-a-half-hour guided tour to both wineries, with an extensive tasting of all of the family’s finest wines, and with a magnum of San Vicente or El Puntido to take away or have delivered afterwards for €40 (A$54) per person. This is the first wine producer I have ever visited that doesn’t buy any of its new barrels but leases them all from barrel suppliers, a scheme that I suspect we will see more of in future.


YSIOS


Camino de la Hoya, 01300 Laguardia, +34 945 600 640, visitas@ysios.com.
Fans of modern architecture shouldn’t leave Rioja without visiting Ysios, the Pernod-Ricard-owned winery whose undulating, scallop-edged roof, set against the breathtaking backdrop of the Cantabrian Mountains, has become Spanish wine’s answer to Paris’s Eiffel Tower or India’s Taj Mahal. It’s every bit as impressive at close range as at a distance – though the winery team tells me that Santiago Calatrava’s unforgettable design requires a high-maintenance budget. The range peaks with the dense, essence-like Edicíon Limitada, based on fruit from 80-year-old vines in the El Noval y Las Navas vineyard. There are tours at this much-visited winery at 11am and 1pm every day of the week, with a 4pm tour on Mondays to Fridays: to book a place, fill out the form on the website.
 

 

TEXT ANDREW JEFFORD PHOTOGRAPHY HOTEL MARQUES DE RISCAL
This article is from the October/November 2011 issue of Gourmet Traveller WINE.

 

 


 

 
 







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