Extract: The wines of northern Spain by Sarah Jane Evans MW

16 May 2022 by in Classic Wine Library, Extracts, Wine and spirits

Rioja: a world within a world
What’s the best way to arrive in Rioja? For me, it’s coming from Bilbao, taking the road through the mountains and watching Rioja as it unfolds before you. The mountains are majestic, and in between is undulating countryside with rivers running through and hilltop towns spread about. There’s a lot to be said for arriving by rail, too. Take the train from Zaragoza. The last section, Logroño–Haro, meanders past the Ebro and vineyards. For the people who lived here in previous centuries Rioja must have seemed a blessed enclave. Any time is good to come: autumn is particularly beautiful; winter brings snow (and sometimes problems driving); in spring there’s blossom on the trees and in the summer it’s hot, but with plenty of cool places to enjoy wine in the evening. Too many wine regions can be flat monocultures of vines. Come to Rioja, it’s altogether more human.

Haro and the station quarter
When phylloxera came to France, the producers cast around for vine-growing land. Spain was conveniently close and with the opening of the railway line from Logroño to Bilbao via Haro in 1880, Rioja was an ideal source. Thus it was that Haro’s Barrio de la Estación came into being, with wineries clustered around the railway. The first to arrive was R. López de Heredía y Landeta in 1877, followed by CVNE in 1879, Duque de Montezuma and J. Gómez Cruzado in 1890, La Rioja Alta in 1890 and Bodegas Bilbaínas in 1901. (To complete the contemporary set, Muga moved from Haro town in 1970, and in 1987 came RODA.) In those early years the bodegas jostled with factories making brandies, soaps and fertilizers. While some of the Haro bodegas may seem today the epitome of classical wines, Haro was cutting-edge in its day – the first town in Spain to have electric street lighting.

Phylloxera came to Rioja, inevitably, in 1899. The first outbreak was in a vineyard in Sajazarra. The region recovered reasonably quickly as by then the wine world had discovered that the solution was to graft vines onto much more resistant American labrusca rootstocks.

For a number of years Rioja continued to define itself like so many parts of the world in terms of French wines, for instance by selling ‘cepa Borgoña’ (intended to mean ‘Burgundy style’) wines. The really significant change, after Spain’s entrance to Europe, was Rioja’s elevation to DOCa status, denominación de origen calificada, a first in Spain in 1991. While regulation can be criticized for too much policing and of the wrong kind, it has to be noted that a DOCa should never be about selling any wine at bargain basement prices. The very nature of being a DOCa should protect it from that unsustainable marketing. Yet when the DOCa was introduced it was a generic blanket for all Rioja wines to satisfy all interested parties: grower, small producer, cooperative and multinational. Hence Rioja can be sold too cheaply. Surely the wine world has changed? One size (or type of classification) need not fit all.

The naming of Rioja
Before we go any further, this is the place to run through the ever-growing list of possibilities behind the naming of the region. There is a River Oja, which surely must be the reason for Rioja’s name. But this is a little trickle compared to the grandeur of the Ebro, and its dominance in the landscape. Then there’s a possibility it refers to a local tribe called in Latin, Ruccones. Another source suggests that the source is Erriotxa or a similar spelling, which means ‘bread country’ in Basque. The US writer Ana Fabiano suggests that it might come from Rialia, describing a collection of small tributaries in Rioja Alta around the River Oja. She also speculates that it could come from the Basque Arrioixa, or ‘land of rocks’. And thus, the debate continues.

Defining the landscape
Those who like to define Rioja in terms of Burgundy, will note that in geographical terms there are similarities. Imagine Rioja turned upright, clockwise through 45 degrees, and there you have Burgundy. It is approximately 40 kilometres wide by 100 kilometres long, running from north-east to south-west, tucked in between mountain ranges. Administratively it is composed of three provinces: La Rioja (43,885 hectares of vineyards, 118 municipalities), Álava, the southern tip of the Basque country (12,934 hectares, 18 municipalities), and to the east, Navarra (6,774 hectares, 8 municipalities). There is also one bodega to the far west of Rioja that is in Castilla y León. Climatically there are strong differences. Nothing is straightforward about the soils, either, a complex blend of chalky clay, ferrous clay and alluvial types. Add to this the differing aspects and elevations – up to 700 metres, and in a few cases up to 900 metres. Blend in the grape varieties. To finish, there are the decisions of the producers, each serving diverse customer tastes.

The River Ebro, which decants to the Mediterranean, winds through Rioja and into it flow seven significant small rivers – significant in terroir terms, that is, each offering different aspects and soils. All of these come down from the Iberian system of mountains to the south. Starting in the west, the River Oja rises to the south of Rioja in the San Lorenzo mountains and flows down to Haro. The snows and cold of the Sierra Demanda above the river valley have a strong influence on the higher altitude vineyards. Next comes the Najerilla river valley. Again, it rises in the San Lorenzo mountains and comes down to the Ebro with many terraces of vineyards on both sides. The Iregua valley to the east of it flows down to Logroño, creating fertile conditions for plenty of market garden produce and olives. The River Leza joins the Jubera before arriving at Agoncillo by the Ebro, and is distinctive for its cliffs and canyons. Great for walkers, both rivers are distinctive for the difference from the elegant beauty of some of the Rioja Alta landscapes. Finally, the Cidacos valley winds at length down past the Monte Yerga, and the high Garnacha-dominant vineyards of Quel and Arnedo till it comes to the Ebro just after Calahorra.

Rioja’s story is all about diversity. As Ana Fabiano notes, Rioja contains 36 per cent of all the plant biodiversity in Spain. Furthermore when vineyard sites range from 300 to 700 metres, the climate really varies, and that’s before one takes in considerations of slope, aspect and soil. That’s why the vintage assessments beloved of fine wine retailers and auction houses are so difficult. Take the terrible frosts of April 2017. They wiped out 100 per cent of some vineyards, but others escaped completely. In terms of climatic influences, at the north-west end, Rioja is little more than 100 kilometres from the Atlantic, which gives the producers of Rioja Alta a good reason to describe their cooler vintages as Atlantic. The Sierra Cantabria is some protection from the Atlantic extremes. To the south the frequently snow-capped Sierra de la Demanda and the Sierra de Cameros protect the valleys of Rioja from strong winds from the south-west.

To blend or not to blend?
There are now so many styles of Rioja – modern, vino de autor, single vineyard, carbonic maceration and more – and so many strongly held opinions that it is easy to lose sight of one important quality in many fine Riojas. Namely, that they are blends. There are historical reasons for this. Many producers did not own their own vineyards, and there are commercial brands which still don’t. They rely on the growers for supply, growers from right across Rioja. Then there are also producers who wanted to make classical blends of two or more varieties, of Tempranillo with Graciano or Mazuelo, for instance, who own vineyards or buy their grapes from the best places, but not necessarily close to the winery. Rioja Alta producers sourced and still source their Garnacha grapes from Tudelilla in Rioja Baja. This was never an issue, until the debate promoting single vineyard wines became so excessively heated.

There are many kinds of Rioja. Which is better: a cross-DOCa blend of the best grapes, or a single vineyard where perhaps only one variety flourishes? This is the same debate over the merits of Penfold’s Grange and Henschke’s Hill of Grace in Australia. One is a multi-regional blend, the other a historic single vineyard. Different styles, different consumers, equal pleasure. Everyone has different views: my current notebook is filled with diagrams of Burgundian-style pyramids (Bierzo proposals), interlocking circles (neighbouring village proposals) and criss-crossing rectangles (the CRDOCa vision). Speaking at RODA, director general and all-round viticultural expert Agustín Santolaya pleaded: ‘Don’t Burgundify Rioja’. RODA is the newbie in the Barrio de la Estación, having only been founded in 1989. Santolaya’s mission is to make the best wine from a blend of the best vineyards; the traditional approach, though perhaps in a modern way. Look back at history, he says: ‘Traditionally Rioja blended its wines from great vineyards; there were practically no single vineyard wines made.’

White Rioja reborn
A decade ago, perhaps less, white Rioja had a really terrible reputation. The general view was that it was made from only one variety – Viura – and that Viura was flabby and boring. Yet in just a few years white Rioja has returned to favour. It may still only account for some 6–7 per cent of Rioja production but from that low base its market share has been increasing by some 20 per cent year on year. There are a number of reasons for this. They include: climate change, improved distribution, the requirements of export markets and the creativity of individual winemakers, while maintaining respect for the old ways and the classics. The launch of the latest Castillo Ygay 1986 white from Marqués de Murrieta with some 30 years of age hit the fine wine headlines and helped to bolster the profile of white Rioja as something exceptional. Of course, like the Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva white, it is a one-off, an original. In general, today’s white Riojas are – many of them – beautifully balanced, with subtle oak, and complex. They could not be further from the oxidized, tired wines of the past.

White Rioja is not just made from Viura – though it remains the dominant variety. Malvasía de Rioja (know in Catalunya as Subirat Parent), with its distinctive reddish, yellowish bunches, plays a small but significant part. Garnacha Blanca again amounts for a tiny percentage of the vineyard, but is making some finely textured wines. The Consejo Regulador wobbled a little when it permitted the introduction of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc to an already fine line-up of varieties. An understandable step, an attempt to give their wines an international appeal, but the future for a DOCa lies in making great terroir wines with local varieties.

New varieties are appearing. Tempranillo Blanco made the headlines first. This is a genetic mutation; a single plant with white grapes was found in 1988 in Rioja, in Murillo del Río Leza. It’s a late budding variety, but like the red Tempranillo it ripens early. It can show citrus and floral notes and has been popular because of its relationship to Tempranillo itself. Another of the ‘new’ varieties is in fact an old variety, rescued and revived. Maturana Blanca is the oldest known grape variety in Rioja, and may have been referred to in 1622. The fact that it is sensitive to botrytis will have helped it fall out of favour. In character it has bright acidity, a tendency to warm alcohol, and a hint of bitterness on the finish. Another ‘new’ variety is Turruntés de Rioja, no relative of the Galician Turruntés or the Argentine Torrontes. Instead it is similar to Albillo Mayor, found in Castilla y León. It is low in alcohol, with a welcome high acidity, offering crisp apple notes. For a taste of these traditional and new white varieties, look to Abel Mendoza, and to Juan Carlos Sancha, the university lecturer and bodeguero, who has also fostered these rarities.

Extract from The wines of northern Spain © Sarah Jane Evans (Infinite Ideas, 2018)
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