Out with the old…

Rioja, Spain’s most famous wine region and poster child for the country’s viticultural revolution, hardly needs a lengthy introduction. Here, though, is a brief summary for the uninitiated. The Rioja DO (appellation) stretches into Pais Vasco (Basque Country) in the north, the administrative region of Navarra to the north-east and Castilla y Leon to the west. This vast wine producing region is split into three sub-zones: Rioja Alavesa, Alta, and Baja. The signature grape variety here is Tempranillo, an early ripening variety that takes its name from the Spanish temprano, appropriately enough meaning early! In the right conditions and under the stewardship of a skilled winemaker, Tempranillo can produce first class wine, although there is still too much dross in Rioja. At full ripeness it offers gorgeous cherry, blackberry and black plum aromas which take to oak with relish. Be careful, though; too much oak kills the fruit and the wines become dry and monotone.

Despite the often mixed track record of wine production in Rioja, I have a real soft spot for the region, dating back to my days as a student in Bilbao in 2004. Situated just under two hours’ drive away, I first became acquainted with the world of wine hiring battered old Seat Ibiza and spending weekends in Logrono, the regions’ capital. My passion for wine took hold of me in Rioja, the sights and smells and listening to winemakers argue about who wines were the best. The saying goes, three Spaniard, four opinions; pretty spot on if you ask me.

So as you can imagine, I was delighted to accept an invitation from the Merchant Berry Bros. and Rudd to revisit old haunts in Rioja in early October. BBR is London’s oldest wine merchant; they first opened their doors in 1698 and have supplied the Royal Family since the 18th century. Their Spanish wine buyer, Simon Field MW had organized a trip to four of Rioja’s star wineries: Artadi, Fina Allende, La Rioja Alta, and Lopez De Heredia. We also had the Spanish wine expert John Radford on board, I felt like the poor relation in terms of Rioja expertise!

We landed on Sunday night at our base for the next two days, Hotel Viura, courtesy of Vueling, Spain’s latest low-cost airline. They fly direct from Heathrow to Bilbao daily, great news for would be visitors to the region. Similar cost to Easy jet without that annoying 50 minute journey to London Gatwick or Luton!

Arriving at the Viura reminded me just how much the tourism infrastructure in Rioja had changed since my first visit in 2004. With the luxurious (and über expensive) hotel and spa, hotel Marques De Riscal opening in October 2006 and this latest addition of hotel Viura, upmarket travelers to the region are well catered for. The Viura instantly won me over with a warm welcome from the staff and general manager. We were quickly checked in and offered a selection of tapas and delicious wines before we hit the sack. It would be fair to say that three wine buffs on a Sunday night in Rioja do not make for the most exciting company.

Daylight gave me chance to take a proper look at this very modern and quirky, boutique hotel. There are just 33 rooms and suites in the charming space, located down a steep drive opposite a 14th century church, the ancient landmark that juxtaposed the ultra-modern in this quaint village, Villabuena de Alava. There is no pool but an inviting roof terrace and bar more than compensates, in addition to the fantastic restaurant on the ground floor, serving mouthwatering Riojan and Basque specialties. They even opened the restaurant on a Monday, just for us.

It’s rare for journalists to agree on anything, but at the very least we could agree that the Viura is a great base from which to explore the Rioja region. On several points it equals and actually beats the neighboring hotel at Marques De Riscal, at least in my opinion. For starters, the prices are far more reasonable, the service feels friendly, less corporate and more personalised. The restaurant is excellent and the staff will happily arrange winery visits for you, taking care of everything. What more could you want from a Riojan hotel?

After breakfast in the ample dining room we set off to our first destination–Bodegas Lopez De Heredia. We began with this “old- fashioned and proud of it” bodega, established in 1877 at the height of the Phylloxera epidemic. Entering the cellars was a journey back in time, with wooden fermentation vats, cavernous rooms black with mould, and more than a fair share of cobwebs. Arachnophobes should stay away!

We sampled a long list of Lopez De Heredia vintages over lunch, the highlights being the Vina Bosconia and Tondonia whites. The examples from the 1960s had aged gracefully, a subtle blend of oak and fruit. If you think that all aged white Riojas are flat and oxidized, be prepared to be pleasantly surprised. The reds I was less taken with, while undoubtedly possessing a soft, very fine texture, often the older wines had lost their fruit, tasting dry and monotone.

The effusive owner, Maria Jose, is a staunch proponent of using all four classic variety in the blend. Despite many of her competitors only focusing on bring Tempranillo to perfection, she incorporates Garnacha (Grenache), Graciano, and Mazuelo (Carignan) into all her reds. Garnacha suits the heavier clay soils of Rioja Baja while Tempranillo reaches its pinna in the limestone soils of Rioja Alavesa. While generally, winemakers agree that the fruit from Alavesa is the finest, there are, to be fair, outposts of quality in all three sub-regions.

The reds of our next destination, La Rioja Alta, were more structured and fruit driven. After a brief tour we tasted their range, including a recent Ribera Del Duero addition. For quality and consistency, they are hard to beat. The 1973 Vina Ardanza has to be tasted to be believed. Another bastion of Rioja tradition, Alta still follow the three tier aging system of Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva, a practice which is slowly dying as varietal labeling and brand recognition become the norm. “What matters is my brand, not the Rioja name,” one owner remarked.

Out with the old and in with the new, our next ports of call, Artadi and Finca Allende, are the poster boys of Rioja’s increasing preference for French oak and less barrel aging before release. We were privileged to visit the Legendary El Pison, perhaps Rioja’s most famous vineyard, and Artadi’s prize possession. Even in its youth, the potential of the 2009 was evident for all to see. Pagos Viejos Reserva 1995 disproved the notion that modern Rioja doesn’t age gracefully, in fact the entire Artadi range are rich, ripe and concentrated reds that develop gorgeous cheddar and cigar box characteristics with age. One of the very best producer in Rioja, you just need quite deep pockets.

The same could be said of Fina Allende’s offerings, another so-called new wave producer (the first wine was actually only made here in 1995). We sample the entire portfolio and the Rioja Blanco surprisingly stole the show, blended from Viura and Malvasia is fermented and aged for a year in French Oak. The top wine, Aurus from 60 year old vines, mainly Tempranillo with a touch of Graciano was good, but concentration and weight alone do not justify its exorbitant price tag.

Both estates obviously placed high value on Tempranillo, and significantly less importance on the once “essential” blending partners of Garnacha and the like. Miguel Angel remarked that he would never use Mazuelo. He also put me straight, when I described his wines as ‘modern’. Tut tut, he replied, French oak was used in Rioja long before winemakers started experimenting with American oak barrels. So there we have it: “Traditional” Rioja aged in American oak is actually the newcomer. Estates are just returning to form.

An atmosphere of change could be felt in Rioja, certainly since my first visit over seven years ago. Having gazed enviously at their counterpart balances sheets in Bordeaux, many wineries are releasing their wines in the second or third year, long before their ideal drink age. Romantic notion about all Rioja wines being approachable on release may soon fade into history.

Not to mention the fact that any pre-conceptions of Riojan wines being subject to lengthy periods of American oak aging should be banished now. The region brims with super-concentrated, (often super expensive) premium wines and Cuvees, which are generally vinified with French, rather than American, oak. Producers continue to abandon the Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva hierarchy–who knows what counts as traditional anymore?

But then, there is more good wine emanating from this fascinating region than ever before – so who needs tradition anyway? Thanks to all involved for a fantastic and enlightening Riojan adventure. Next time, I won’t leave it so long to come back!

Hotel Viura
Calle Mayor, Villabuena de Alava
0034 945 60 90 00

Vueling Airlines

James Lawrence

James Lawrence is a self confessed wine obsessive, passionate about discovering and promoting the lesser known wines and wine regions of the world. He is a frequent contributor to decanter.com and runs an interactive, community led wine forum, thewineremedy.com In 2004, he went to study in Bilbao, Northern Spain. Luckily for him, the famous wine region of Rioja was just over an hour away by car. He began to spend a great deal of time there, visiting the wineries in Rioja and speaking to local wine makers. Their passion for the subject and their pride in the wines was infectious. He began to realise what an amazing subject wine is and how wide and complex the world of wine could be. Subsequently James moved into wine retail while finishing his degree, and was hooked. James also enjoys food and travel writing - he lives for Italian and Thai cuisine!

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