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  ABC Wine Issue 18, April 2004   
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Rioja

Considered among the most important wine regions of Spain, Rioja has played for many years the role of the most authoritative representative of Iberian wines, in particular red wines

 The history of Rioja wines, the most renowned wine area of Spain, is pretty ancient and, for a certain period, is interlaced to the wine history of France, or to be more precise, with the history of many Bordeaux vintners and enologists. Today Rioja is the only wine area of Spain to be recognized with the highest level of the quality system, DOC (Denominación de Origen Calificada, Appellation of Qualified Origin), recognized in 1991. The region is named after the Oja river - in Spanish Río Oja - a tributary of Ebro river and that flows near Haro, considered by many as the most representative city - according to an enological point of view - of Rioja Alta. The region of Rioja is the homeland of the most renowned Spanish grape - Tempranillo - which is found in the red wines of this region in the highest percentage.

 Rioja is located in the northern part of Spain, north from Madrid and south from Bilbao. The influence of French enology on the one of Rioja is pretty strong and the bonds this area had with France, and in particular with Bordeaux, were fundamental for the development of their wines. Historical and archaeological evidences prove that production of wine in Rioja was made since ancient Roman times in the valley north from Ebro river. During the time of the domination of Moors, the production and trade of wine did not develop significantly, indeed they faced a rest period, without recessions, and the impulse for the production took place at the end of the fifteenth century. Like in other parts of Europe, even in Rioja the contribution of the activity done by Christian monks in their monasteries was fundamental for local enology. The region of Rioja became, at those times, a fundamental halting place of the camino Frances, the route which led millions of pilgrims from European countries to the shrine of apostle James at Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia.

 The first and significative event which marked the development and notoriety of Rioja wines happened in the eighteenth century with the improvement of the communication routes and, in particular, towards the important trade city of Bilbao. The first sign of Bordelais influence in Rioja wines took place around 1780, when enologist Manuel Quintano adopted the Bordelais method for aging wines in cask, with the difference of using large casks. In 1850 Luciano de Murrieta, who then became Marquis de Murrieta, established the first commercial winery in the cellar belonged to Duca de Vitoria and started to export wines in Spanish colonies. As much as paradoxical this can be, the success of Rioja was in consequence of flagella which destroyed French vineyards, in particular oidium and phylloxera. Around the middle of 1800's, when French vineyards were affected by oidium first and by phylloxera then, Bordelais producers moved to Spain, and in particular in Rioja, in search of fortune and new vineyards.


Rioja
Rioja

 This period was fundamental for the future development of Rioja wines and the influence of French methodologies practically became a distinctive sign for the wines of this region. The first winery ran according French methods was established in 1868 by Marquis de Riscal who hired, in that occasion, French enologist Jean Pineau. Four years later also Marquis de Murrieta established a winery according to the French methods. The success of Rioja wines lasted for about 40 years and during this period were established countless wineries based on the French style and on which the presence of French enologists and technicians was pretty common. There were introduced Bordelais barriques for the aging of wine, a practice which is still in use today in Rioja, while continuing to make use of local grape varieties, in particular the renowned Tempranillo.

 The decay of Rioja began when phylloxera spread in the region and by the consequent discovery of the remedy for this parasite - by using immune rootstocks - and French enologists decided to come back to their homeland and to restore the production of wine in their places of origin. During the first half of the 1900's, both because of the two world wars and of internal political facts, enology of Rioja - and of Spain - faced a period of rest without remarkable developments, however the mark left by French practices continued to influence the production of wine. The new impulse for Rioja enology took place in the 1960's and 1970's, and despite the stop because of the raising of prices in 1980's, the region continues to be now the reference model of Spanish enology. Rioja is currently the only wine region to which was recognized the rank of DOC, the highest level in the Spanish quality system.

 A distinctive mark of the enological production of Rioja is the long aging - very long, if compared to the average of other countries - of the wine in oak casks. The tradition of aging wines in small casks was introduced by French and it is still and widely used in the region. During the economic difficulties of the nineteenth century, many wineries was forced to import American oak in the country instead of expensive French barriques. This fact signed the beginning of a strong development in the cooperage industry while still using the traditional French system. American oak was then split and assembled in order to make casks for the aging of wine. Today the cooperage industry in Spain is among the most vast of the world and it mainly makes use of American oak no matter many producers are beginning to make use of French oak again, like it was in the past.

 The long aging times in cask for Rioja red wines represent, as a matter of fact, a rather particular and unique case. Whereas in other wine producing countries of the world the average time is from two to four years, in Rioja the period is usually from four to ten years, and it is not uncommon to have times twice than that. Despite these long periods are a traditional characteristic of Rioja, recently there has been a change and some wineries make red wines aged for two or three years in cask. This new course originated two different styles of wines, the traditional ones, aged for a long time in cask, with vanilla aromas and tastes, earthy and round, and the modern ones with fresher flavors and aromas of fruits.

 

The Classification of Rioja Wines

 Rioja is the only region that has been recognized with the appellation of qualified origin (DOC), the highest rank of the Spanish quality system. Besides the norms set and required for DOC wines, Rioja wines are also classified according to the quality of grapes and the aging time. The categories used for Rioja wines are: Joven, Sin Crianza, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. Joven wines are young wines usually aged for about one year and they are not usually exported. The same is also true for Sin Crianza, both whites and reds, for which the aging time is pretty short. Wines belonging to these two categories are generally produced with lower quality grapes and are intended for an immediate consumption. Crianza red wines are aged for at least two years of which one in cask, whereas for whites and roses it is required a minimum time of six months in cask. Red Crianzas are characterized by fresh and fruity aromas as well as pleasing aromas of vanilla and are generally produced with good quality grapes even though not exceptional.

 Reserva wines are usually produced in particularly favorable years with grapes harvested in quality areas, they usually are more concentrated than Crianza even though they do not always have a higher structure. Because of the prolonged aging time, aromas and flavors of Reservas are more complex. Red Reservas are aged for three years of which at least one in cask, whereas for whites and roses the aging time is of at least two years of which at least six months in cask. Gran Reserva are produced in exceptional years only and represent the best of Rioja wines. These wines, produced with grapes harvested in the best vineyards only, are however pretty rare and represent less than 10% of total production.Gran Reserva red wines must age for at least five years of which at least two in cask, whereas for white and rose wines the minimum aging period is of at least four years of which at least six months in cask. It must however be observed, because of the Rioja tradition of aging wines for long times, producers usually decide to age their wines for pretty longer periods than the ones set as a minimum requirement by the disciplinary production.

 

The Production of Rioja Wines

 The region of Rioja, which is located about 100 kilometers south from the Atlantic ocean coast (about 62 miles), is divided into three areas: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. The best wines are from Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa thanks to a higher altitude and to more cool climate conditions because of the vicinity of the Atlantic ocean. Rioja Baja is located in an inner area, at a lower altitude and with a warmer and drier climate. Wines from Rioja Baja usually are more alcoholic, have a lower acidity and a more “ordinary” character as opposed to the ones produced in Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. Even the composition of soil plays an important role. The best vineyards are planted in clay, calcareous and sandy soils typical in Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. The climate of the area is also regulated by the natural shield offered by the Cantabrian Mountains, not far to the north of the region, which provides an efficient protection against the cold northern winds.


 

 Rioja is mainly identified with the production of red wine, however in this region is also produced white wine with Garnacha Blanca and Viura grapes, the latter known in other areas of Spain as Macabeo. The main red berried grape of Rioja is Tempranillo, which together with Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo make the blend for red wines of the region. Despite this is the classic composition of Rioja reds, today an increasing number of wineries choose to make wines with Tempranillo only. Moreover, even though this represents a pretty rare phenomenon, some wineries make wines produced with Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon. This blend, which produces pretty different wines than typical Rioja, however offer an interesting result. Red wines produced in Rioja Alta usually are full bodied, concentrated and with pronounced aromas of fruit and can also have an appreciable roundness. Wines of Rioja Alavesa probably are the most full bodied of the region, with robust structures and a higher acidity. Reds from Rioja Baja are characterized by high alcoholic percentages, intense colors and a lesser acidity, finesse and aromas: for this reason they are usually used for blends.

 A characteristic of the production for Rioja wines is represented by the long aging times in cask, probably like in no other country in the world. Although long aging times represent the enological tradition of the region, today many producers tend to diminish these times according to the average periods adopted in other countries. The goal is to favor the production of fresher wines with fruity aromas, in order to satisfy the taste of modern consumers, including the local ones, and which is opposed to the wines aged for long times with complex aromas. The kind of oak traditionally used in Rioja is American, however many producers are using French oak. Both aging time and the type of oak used, gave origin to two different classes of producers and consumers: modernists and traditionalists, something similar already happened in Piedmont for Barolo. The practice of long aging in cask is also typical for the modest quantity of white wines produced in the region and that, in some cases, can be as long as five years followed by many other years in bottle. Whereas for reds the tendency of the long aging in cask is still strong and well established, for white wines things are changing in a drastic way. Mainly because of the modern taste that everyone would expect to find in a white wine, many producers have lowered aging times in cask for whites and others even avoid the aging in wood. The result is a fresher and more immediate wine, similar to the majority of the worldwide production, however for many producers the traditional aspect is still very important and continue to make whites aged for long times in cask and in bottle.

 




 Editorial  Share this article   Share on Google+   Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 18, April 2004   
RiojaRioja  Contents 
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