First published in the Irish Times 13th February, 2016
In the weeks before Christmas I spent a great deal of time standing in wine shops, inveigling customers into buying a copy of my wine book. One store I visited had two giant piles of rioja reserva on offer at a discounted price. There were other wines on promotion too, but it was the two riojas that flew out with the greatest speed. Both stacks were severely depleted by the time I departed a few hours later. Rioja, and rioja reserva in particular, has long been one of our favourite wine styles and shows no sign of losing popularity.
Most of us would be unaware that rioja has been going through a huge personality change over the last decade, redefining itself several times over. You could now argue that there are three categories of rioja, with some crossover, but generally very different in style. Yet despite this upheaval, rioja has managed to retain its position as Spain’s favourite quality wine.
Until the late 1990s every bottle of rioja was classified according to how long it had been aged in oak barrel and bottle prior to release. Under this system, there is a specified a minimum period of ageing in oak: six months for crianza, a year for reserva, and two years for gran reserva wines, At one stage the required period of ageing was even longer in each category. Some, such as López de Heredia, still age wines for 10 or more years in barrel.
Old barrels were generally used to avoid oak flavours while allowing the wine to soften and develop delicate mushroomy, leathery, earthy flavours. Nowadays, a portion of newer barrels is sometimes included to add vanilla and spice.
Classic examples of the traditional style (López de Heredia, Muga Prado Enea and La Rioja Alta 904 spring to mind) can be superb, complex wines that last forever. The only exception to ageing in oak was up north in Alava, the Basque part of Rioja, where the tradition has been to drink young, unoaked wines often made partly or completely by whole-berry fermentation. These light, acidic fruity wines went perfectly with those tapas the Basques love to eat in bars and restaurants.
Rioja expanded massively in the 1990s and at times the quality of the wine decreased. There was a downward pressure on price in Spain (where most rioja is sold) and elsewhere. It lead to some very cheap and uninspiring reservas and gran reservas. During the prolonged period of economic success in the years preceding the millennium and after, many producers started to produce a new, modern style of rioja: full-bodied wines with high levels of new oak, alcohol, ripeness and extraction. They were also very expensive.
These fruit bombs were rapturously received by much of the media and a sector of the public. They were generally categorised as simply cosecha (meaning vintage or harvest) and ignored the traditional system of classification.
More recently there has been a move among smaller, younger producers towards much lighter, more elegant wines with little or no oak ageing. Again these are simply labeled cosecha. They often come from a single vineyard, some are made by whole- berry fermentation, others simply fermented and matured for very short periods in stainless steel or cement.
While I enjoy rioja reserva, I have always been a fan of the less oaky style as well. Tempranillo has such wonderful clean, delicate fruit it is a pity to mask it with too much oak. Having said that, the best of the traditional style are unique wines.
I received a number of excellent samples from the trade for this tasting. Sadly I couldn’t find space for the wonderful LZ de Lanziego (about €20). I also tasted the fine GA2 Graciano from Curious Wines (€17.49), and the excellent Artuke Pies Negros 2014, a wine that features in my book. See wilsononwine.ie for full details of the tasting.
WINES OF THE WEEK
Seductive wine; supple easy sweet ripe strawberry and red cherry fruit, with surprising concentration and depth.
Stockists: Listons, Camden St; 64wine, Glasthule; Clontarf Wines
A lovely mature wine with ripe sweet strawberry and dark fruits laced with a soft, dusty earthiness, a little oak, and a fine minerality.
Stockists: Wines on the Green