Searching for the Real Rioja

Spain's leading wine region has never made better wines—or been so unsure about its future direction

Excerpted from the Oct. 15, 2012, issue

In April, Rioja is tranquil. Spring is hesitating; there’s no vegetation on the vines to obscure the soil, a wide palette ranging from chalky white to sandy brown to deep red. As clouds roll across the sky, shadows and sun modulate the colors into an ever-changing tapestry, playing off the red roofs and yellow stone of the villages that cling to the hilltops.

The landscape is austere but beautiful, as if unchanged for centuries. But within the region’s bodegas, a storm is brewing as vintners debate how best to express this terroir in their wines.

Rioja has a glorious past. Propelled by a wave of innovation and investment in the late 19th century, a wine style emerged that is now called traditional, producing supple, elegant reds with delicate flavors of dried fruits, tobacco and spices. But in the late 20th century, a modern revolution, mirroring trends in Napa Valley, Tuscany and Bordeaux, aimed for richer, more structured wines. Now a third wave rejects both schools, embracing an approach rooted even deeper in Rioja’s history, to make fresher wines with bright fruit and racy acidity.

All of these philosophies can produce brilliant wines. Each vintner claims to be the true heir to the authentic spirit of Rioja, but only one thing is certain: Their efforts, and their struggles, are redefining the identity of Spain’s most prestigious red-wine region.

Rekondo: Interlude
The glories of traditional Rioja are on display in the wine cellar at Rekondo restaurant in San Sebastián, where 19 bottles are being prepared for an extraordinary tasting. Owners and vintners from seven of the region’s most historic bodegas have brought these treasures, evidence of the achievements of the past and markers to help define and shape the future.

It’s an appropriate setting. Owner Txomin Rekondo has built one of the world’s greatest collections of Rioja since opening the restaurant in 1964. Examining the racks, winemaker Jorge Muga finds a bottle of his family’s 1962 red. “I’ve never seen this before,” he marvels. “I didn’t even know we bottled this vintage.”

“Txomin, why did you begin collecting these wines?” asks Maria José López de Heredia.

“I’m not a collector,” Rekondo replies. “I started buying, and I bought too much.”

“I know what you mean,” responds López de Heredia. “We never made our wines to age forever; we made them to drink. But we were not so good at selling them.”

That’s good news for the tasters around the table. The wines come from Cune, La Rioja Alta, R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, Marqués de Murrieta, Marqués de Riscal, Bodegas Muga and Viñedos del Contino. There are whites and reds; the vintages range from 1982 Contino Reserva to 1900 Marqués de Riscal. “We have only 14 bottles of the 1900 remaining in our cellars,” says Francisco Hurtado de Amézaga, Riscal’s technical director and a direct descendant of the founder. “I hope it shows well.”

Forging an Identity

The conventional version of Rioja’s wine history places its foundation—and its identity—in the late 19th century. In 1858, Guillermo Hurtado de Amézaga, later the Marqués de Riscal, whose family had expatriated to Bordeaux, returned to the village of Elciego, where they owned vineyards. Working with a consultant from Bordeaux, he revolutionized the existing wine culture by importing French technology and a vision of fine wine defined by Bordeaux.

Yet Riscal was not alone. The Marqués de Murrieta followed a similar path with his estate at Ygay, and a few years later, Rafael López de Heredia built his own version of a Bordeaux château in the town of Haro.

At the time, these were wrenching changes. “My great-grandfather [Rafael] was very modern,” says Maria José López de Heredia, who runs the bodega today. “He changed many of the historical and traditional practices of Rioja.”

These “modern” Riojas were made to taste like Bordeaux—many vineyards were even planted to Bordeaux grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec—and much of the wine was sold and shipped in barrel to Bordeaux merchants, who were then suffering from shortages caused by the phylloxera infestation. It was a thriving business. But in the early 20th century, when Bordeaux was recovering from phylloxera and Rioja was succumbing to the plague, the French market abandoned Rioja, and local bodegas had to find their own way forward.

Over the next decades, the two World Wars and the Spanish Civil War, along with other economic and political crises, all took their toll and hindered development. Rioja was firmly established in the national market as Spain’s premier red wine, but without money or manpower, an approach that had once been proudly innovative too often calcified into an impoverished and lackluster status quo.

Many bodegas were purchased by outside interests with little understanding of Rioja’s history or terroir. Overcropped wines were aged too long in barrels that were too old; too many “gran reservas” were thin and tired, becoming simply caricatures of Rioja’s elegant style.

“I recently drank a Viña Real from the 1950s,” says Álvaro Palacios, who is reshaping Palacios Remondo, his family’s bodega in Alfaro, in Rioja Baja. “It was beautiful. I believe much of its character came from Garnacha grown in Alfaro. But later the winery sold the land, so today’s wine can’t be the same. That’s the problem with all the classic Riojas—they never specified the source of the grapes and have since changed many of them, generally for the worse.”

Revolution and Backlash

By the 1980s, Rioja was at a crossroads. In Napa Valley, Tuscany and Bordeaux, red wines were becoming richer and more structured, made from riper grapes aged in new French oak barrels. In Rioja, even staunch traditionalists realized that tradition had become a trap. “I think that 20 years ago our wines were too evolved, too mature when they were released,” reflects Guillermo de Aranzabal, chairman of La Rioja Alta. “Now we’re trying to avoid that.”

The revolution’s first fruit came in 1986, when Marqués de Riscal debuted a new wine, Baron de Chirel. It contained 10 percent to 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and spent only two years in mostly new French oak. “We aimed for more extraction, firm but smooth tannins, with cassis and tobacco notes, not herbaceous,” explains Luis Hurtado de Amézaga, the bodega’s young winemaker and scion of the founding family.

Soon there was a wave of richer, more structured reds emerging from Rioja’s bodegas. In 1991, the Eguren family, which had made traditional wines at its Bodegas Sierra Cantabria for four generations, debuted Señorio de San Vicente. Everything about it went against the grain of the traditional approach, which advocated wines blended from various grapes (Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano), grown in vineyards across the region and aged in old American oak.

San Vicente carried the philosophy “one grape, one vineyard, one wine.” It was 100 percent Tempranillo (a distinctive clone it called Peludo), sourced from the 44-acre La Canoca vineyard in San Vicente de la Sonsierra in Rioja Alavesa. Aged two years in mainly new French oak, the wine was powerful yet balanced. It pointed toward a new direction for the region’s wines.

Ripe harvests from hot growing seasons in 1994 and 1995 helped propel the movement, as did a change in regulations that allowed smaller bodegas to bottle their own wines as crianza and reserva. Established bodegas added “vinos de alta expresión,” as the new-wave wines came to be called, to their lineup of more traditional bottlings. For example, Bodegas Muga, known for the traditional Prado Enea gran reserva, debuted Torre Muga with the 1991 vintage, and Aro in 2000.

The new-style wines sold well in Spain, and many vintners seemed content to follow both paths and see where they led. “We make our rosado the same way our grandfather did,” says marketing manager Juan Muga. “We used to make our whites the traditional way, too, until my father decided he didn’t like them. So in the 1980s we began barrel-fermenting them. We’re always open to new ideas. With the reds it’s the same. We know that Prado Enea will age well. We don’t have enough experience with Torre Muga to know yet. But there’s no reason it shouldn’t.”

But then came a fierce backlash. Traditionalists, notably wine critics and journalists, decried the powerful new wines as globalized and soulless, mere copies of Bordeaux or Napa Valley. They called this move away from the gran reserva style a betrayal of Rioja’s true identity.

Riscal refuted the criticism. In its view, the bodega was only returning to its historical roots. “Baron de Chirel was not a new concept or a copy of Bordeaux,” says Francisco Hurtado de Amézaga, adding that the bodega planted and used Cabernet Sauvignon back in the 19th century in a cuvée it called Reserve Médoc. “It was an attempt to recapture the identity of the original Riscal.”

Rekondo: Interlude
As the Rekondo tasting moves into red wines, the diversity of styles becomes clear. Though they tend to share similar approaches to winemaking, the wines demolish the notion that all “traditional” Riojas share a taste profile.

Tondonia’s wines are the lightest-bodied, yet racy and full of life, with excellent acidity. The 1954 offers an elegant mix of tobacco and spice, with cherry, vanilla and orange peel notes.

La Rioja Alta’s 904 Gran Reserva 1970 is supple, juicy and energetic, full of sweet tobacco and vanilla. “This spent 12 years in barrel,” notes winemaker Julio Sáenz. “It never came from a specific vineyard. It has always been a selection made in the cellar.”

Cune, whose bodega in Haro neighbors both Tondonia and La Rioja Alta, offers weight and balance with Imperial, its flagship bottling. A 1968 gran reserva is still quite young, with richer plum and licorice notes mingling with cherry and orange peel. Sáenz applauds. “This Imperial, to me, is the ideal of what I look for in classic Rioja.” Many of the tasters agree.

But Lourdes Rekondo, Txomin’s daughter, shakes her head. “Most of our customers don’t appreciate these wines,” she says. “They want more color, more fruit, more structure. It’s the foreigners who come and fall in love with them.”

“The bodegas offered fruit, and the people liked it,” López de Heredia responds; it’s hard to tell if she’s resigned or offended.

“I am a conservative. I have no interest in revolution. When my father felt economic pressure and wanted to make wine with more fruit, I said no!”

Continue reading “Searching for the Real Rioja” in our online archives and learn more about the vintners seeking a third way.