Tasting rich and luscious wines from Rioja is a great way to end a very rainy day! That is exactly how we ended last Tuesday’s monsoons - sipping 5, flavorful examples of Rioja reds. In this latest installment of our Global Passport Tasting Series, host Bob Barrett was joined by his special guest and colleague, Eric Lopez. Eric is a certified specialist of wine and - significant for our purposes - he is also an expert in Spanish wine. His Spanish expertise comes from those most enjoyable of study materials - personal experience living, traveling, and drinking in Spain.
La Rioja is a province in the north of Spain. Its name is derived from the Río Oja, a tributary of the Río Ebro, the major river that runs through the region. Wines from La Rioja are called “Rioja”. Tempranillo is the region’s predominant grape, though garnacha, viura and mazuela are also common. It is by no means the country’s largest wine region (see La Mancha), but Rioja wines are among the most popular both nationally and internationally.
It is certainly popular among American audiences - as attested by our sold-out class on the topic. Part of that popularity is name-recognition from successful marketing by the region, itself. This has included tastings, as well as modern and eye-catching graphics in advertising and merchandising, plus this great pairing chart! But, popularizing campaigns aside, the international re-known and celebration afforded wines from Rioja is a matter of the long history of grape cultivation and quality production that occurs there.
So, what makes La Rioja so special?
Many of the greatest wine regions in the world also have the longest histories. Rioja is no exception and, in this case, we have a long history of production and export.
It is generally believed that the basis for modern production in La Rioja began with Phoenician incursions into the region at the turn of the 1st millennium, B.C. Phoenician speakers generally inhabited coastal regions of the Mediterranean, from which they engaged in extensive trade in all manner of goods, including wine, traveling in manned galleys (right). La Rioja is not on the coast, but travel up the Ebro river to inland colonization was likely to source minerals and metals accessed by Phoenicians and, later, Romans. The presence of vinifera grapes - the ancestors to all wine-making grapes - date to Phoenician settlement; Tempranillo, Rioja’s most famous and most important grape thus stems at least indirectly from that time.
The next chapter in Rioja wines can be traced - as in so many cases of alcohol production - to Christian Monks in the Middle Ages. Beginning in the 9th century A.D., pious or penance-seeking Christians made pilgrimage to Santiago do Compostela to the shrine of St. James, purportedly built on the buried remains of the biblical Apostle, James. The route to Galicia from most points in Europe leads right though Rioja. Monks making the pilgrimage spread the word of the quality of wines in Rioja, which then led to their export to burgeoning markets in northern Europe.
With a few hiccups, Rioja continued to be a leading region for wine exportation; that was given a further boost ca. 1850 by an unlikely ally: the European phylloxera epidemic. While vineyards elsewhere were ravaged by the epidemic, Rioja’s exports increased. Rioja’s vineyards some of the last to be effected, by which time the cure (grafting of immune vines from North America) was known. Exports did stop for a time, but the impact on Rioja and its wine production was not as severe as elsewhere.
The popularity of Rioja took off once again in the 1970’s, following the so-called “Vintage of the Century” of 1964. This spurred the international attention, export, and reputation of Rioja that still exists. Rioja was the first region to achieve the premier designation, Denominación de Origen Calificada, an honor it now shares with Priorat.
Wines of La Rioja
La Rioja is divided into three sub-regions: Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta, and Rioja Baja. Each is crossed by the Rio Ebro and bordered by piedmont. Their variations in soil type, altitude, and micro-climate (generally, terroir) ensures that each yields a unique expression of the Tempranillo grape.
Rioja Alavesa is the smallest sub-zone. It lies in the northwestern corner of La Rioja, north of the Rio Ebro. Its altitude is the highest, resulting in the regions coolest and wettest micro-climate - influenced both by the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Its chalky soils are often sloped, helping drainage. As a result of these conditions, the Rioja Alavesa produces lighter-bodied, lighter-colored, and aromatic wines.
(vineyards at Viña Bujanda)
Rioja Alta lies in the western half of La Rioja, lying largely south of the Ebro, and home to Rio Oja. Its vineyards can be at relatively high elevations, but with low rainfall and a climate influenced by the Atlantic, rather than the Mediterranean. The soils here are enriched by nutrients from the Rio Ebro, as well as iron, limestone, and clay. Wine made here are known for their fuller bodies and good structure, with high acidity and medium-level alcohol.
Rioja Baja is the eastern-most part of La Rioja, south of the Rio Ebro. Relative to the other sub-regions, it has the lowest-lying vineyards and has a primarily Mediterranean climate. This makes it the hottest and driest of the three. Its soils are alluvial and gravelly. As a result of these conditions, Rioja Baja wines have richer, riper fruits and higher alcohol.
The resulting wines are affected by terroir, but also by the “rules” that designate different aging tiers: Joven, Crianza, Reserva, and Grand Reserva. Basically, these tiers are determined by the minimum amount of time the wine must be aged before it may be sold. The following are for red wines.
- Joven wines have no aging or wood requirements.
- Crianza wines require 2 years of aging: at least 12 months in oak.
- Reserva wines require 3 years of aging: at least 12 months in oak.
- Grand Reserva wines require 5 years of aging: at least 24 months in oak.
What did we Taste?
Viña Bujanda is one of five wineries that compose the Familia Martínez-Bujanda, which was founded in 1889. Brother and sister Carlos and Pilar Martínez-Bujanda Irribarriais established the Viña Bujanda estate in 2009 in Oyon, near Logroño. Despite the young age of the estate, its 14 vineyards are old-vine; each is between 20 and 60 years old. These are located in both Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa, and thus have varying micro-climates and soil types. The vineyards, all of which employ “natural” farming practices, are cultivated separately to enhance their natural differences.
Viña Bujanda Joven
100% Tempranillo. The Joven, as the name suggests, is the youngest of the wines; it is bottled mere months after the grape harvest - without seeing wood. This wine is a bright, pretty, lighter red with some cranberry color. Cranberry is also in the nose, along with raspberry and faint cherry. It is an elegant wine with relatively-low alcohol, at 12.5%. This wine drinks very much like a Pinot Noir.
Viña Bujanda Crianza
100% Tempranillo. The Crianza is from the estates older vines, and also is aged longer (as the name requires), including 12 months in American and French Oak barrels, and 24 more in the bottle. The resulting wine is riper, firmer, and fuller. Cherry replaces the Joven’s raspberry and cranberry, while the wood adds clove, licorice, and root notes, as well as the dill that is common to American Oak. It would pair excellently with food - and tasted wonderful with our cheeses. This wine also has 12.5% ABV. It no longer bears resemblance to pinot noir.
Labastida was founded in 1964 in the foothills of the Sierra Cantabria in the Rioja Alavesa. It is owned by a group of 152 independent growers called the Union de Cosecheros de Labastida. In total, 1they farm 1,400 acres planted with Tempranillo and Viura vines averaging over 30 years of age. Winemaker Manuel Ruiz, like his father before him, is one of Rioja’s eminent enologists. The estates terroir and higher altitude, along with the skills of the winemaker have resulted in wines of great power and intensity.
Castillo Labastida Crianza
100% Tempranillo. This wine was aged for 12 months in French and American oak barriques. This wine is full of red berries, especially cherries. It has a bit of cocoa and plenty of zing. While the wood flavors are not pronounced in this wine, everyone noticed the alcohol. At 14%, it is much higher than those from Viña Bujanda. This wine screams, “FOOD!”, and hearty food, at that. Eric posits it would go well with “any meat with a bone”.
Castillo Labastida Reserva
100% Tempranillo from the 2005 vintage, which was considered to be one of Rioja’s best. The Reserva was aged for 24 months in French and American oak barriques. The resulting flavors are very ripe with dark fruits - even some jamminess. One can definitely taste the wood in this one, with a lot of cedar and root, and more licorice. The Reserva has the same amount of alcohol as the Crianza (14%), though the extra aging mellows the “zing”.
Finca Valpiedra, like Viña Bujanda, is part of the Familia Martínez-Bujanda. This estate, opened in 1999, is dedicated to making wine that is the expression of a single vineyard. That vineyard is located in Rioja Alta, near the Rio Ebro, at an altitude of ca. 1400 feet. The vineyard’s situation in the lee of the Sierra de Cantabria Mountains affords plentiful sunshine and rain, hot summer days and cool nights, and protection from cold, northern winds. The estate’s name, Finca Valpiedra, means “Stone Valley” and comes from the composition of the soil; it is composed of fertile soil with copious river pebbles that help trap heat and accelerate grape ripening. Together, this unique terroir and micro-climate create ideal conditions for ripe fruits with fresh mineral notes.
Such commitment to- and investment in- the grapes and terroir of a single vineyard lends an artisanal quality to the wines for which it is recognized as one of only 25 estates in Spain by the Grandes Pagos de España. This group’s mission is to promote and support wine that reflects the personality of its specific, unique terroir, and that surpasses the group’s strict quality standards.
Finca Valpiedra Cantos de Valpiedra
100%, single-vineyard Tempranillo. The wine was aged for 12 months in American and French Oak barriques, plus another 9 months in the bottle. This wine has absolutely intense aromatics of juicy, ripe blackberries. Ripe fruits and leather are found in the wine’s “big” mouth, while the mineral from all those rocks adds great freshness on the long finish.
Eric was very excited for us to try this wine, and we were suitably impressed. It is a special wine, whose uniqueness is evident.
While there is often consensus at our tastings for a favorite wine of the evening, this was not the case for Rioja. All of the wines were enjoyed, and favorites spanned the list. I will be drinking more Rioja!