Although I haven't had a chance to return to this inspiring wine region since 1998, I've been enjoying the fruits of their labors since my retailer days in St. Louis, and continue to follow the wines closely. There have been of course great additions to the Rioja wine scene, too numerous to mention, since the late 70's. I felt blessed, nevertheless, to be able to
begin with many of the best estates in those days: e.g. La Rioja Alta, Muga, Lopez de Heredia etc. The classic bottlings from these producers opened my eyes to the reality that wines of elegance & finesse can indeed be produced in Europe's southerly climes when the vines are situated in the right terroir (in this case, higher elevation & maritime influence). The traditional styled Riojas remain close to my heart.
A little Rioja primer before continuing: La Rioja is divided into 3 separate subregions, primarily based on the terrain (soil types) and altitude. Rioja Alta is the furthest upstream on the Ebro River and thus a bit stronger maritime influence, bringing slightly higher precipitation, but actually marginally warmer than Alavesa, due to more vineyards on the south side of the Ebro at a lower elevation. Soils here are a mixture of chalky clay with iron. The neighboring Rioja Alavesa lies just to the east & north (Basque country), and its vineyards are yet higher elevation than Rioja Alta, but with less influence from the Atlantic, and more alkaline soils. Finally, Rioja Baja, being the furthest down river (and "lowest" as the name indicates), is the warmest and most "Mediterranean" of the subregions, with vineyards planted exclusively south of the Ebro in heavier alluvial soils. It is also the only region to cultivate predominantly garnacha (grenache) versus tempranillo. It's the ripe, higher alcohol garnacha that gives a Rioja blend its fullness/depth on the palate. As to the typical characteristics of Rioja's wines: It should first be stressed that, although the noble tempranillo is the principal grape in Rioja blends (usually 70% +), providing beautiful cinnamon and strawberry aromatics, Rioja's "supporting role" grape varieties are essential in the final results. Garnacha usually makes up the next highest percentage in the mix, adding roundness/strength and spicy, bright fruit. The indigenous, low-yielding graciano grape adds structure and aging ability, while mazuelo (carignan) contributes color and acidity.
As for wine style designations: the more fruit-forward reds produced using no barrel aging, and released the following year after harvest, are known as "jovenes". The style with which Rioja drinkers are probably most familiar are the "crianza" bottlings. These wines must be aged at least 6 months in oak barrel and one year in bottle prior to release for sale. "Reserva" wines require one year in barrel and one in bottle, while the uncommon "gran reservas" must be aged for at least 2 years in barrel and 3 years in bottle. It's worth noting that in the 1870's, Bordeaux vignerons left an important legacy in winemaking style with their temporary migration to Rioja during Bordeaux' devastating phylloxera infestation.
(Rioja in green just south of Bilbao) *map courtesy of cellartours.com
Unfortunately, with a squirmy 1 year old along for the 1998 trip, more than 2-3 winery visits was not an option for us. So we had to be selective. Even with only a 3-day stay in Haro, Rioja Alta's little capitol, we were able to get a good feel for the wine, food & people culture - with productive visits to Bodegas Muga, in the heart of Haro, and to the newer Remelluri estate, in nearby Labastida. When surrounded by the idyllic setting of vineyards on the slopes above the Ebro River, and the stark Sierra Cantabria range in the background, it's not hard to imagine how La Rioja became the first "Denominación de Origen" among Spanish wine-growing regions back in 1926. The south and southeastern exposure of the majority of vineyards in the region, together with the cooling effects of the Atlantic provide ideal conditions for a more finesseful style of red using predominantly tempranillo, Spain's most indigenous (and beloved) of grape varieties.
Our first wine stop in Haro was the venerable Bodegas Muga. We were graciously received there by Jorge Muga (and later by cousin, and winemaker, Manuel). Although since our visit, Muga has evidently done a major renovation with a beautiful wine bar/shop and dining room, we were still amply impressed with the charming rustic decor, and were offered an extensive personal tour and tasting by the Muga family. Of course my highlight was a sampling of the latest release of Prado Enea, but it was "educational" to taste one of their early relases of Torre Muga, a luxus cuvée with 75% tempranillo, 15% mazuelo & 10% graciano. Although vinified in a traditional reserva style, the heavier dose of new oak gave the wine a less typical "international" feel - an impressive wine that would likely garner high scores in "the Spectator", but still not quite my concept of classic Rioja. Needless to say we didn't leave disappointed though.
Bodegas Muga with (a younger, 1998) Jorge Muga on the left
Muga's large cask storage area
The following day we were afforded a great opportunity to taste, tour and lunch with Telmo Rodriguez & his cellar master at his family's estate, Remelluri. At least in physical appearance (if not in wine style), Remelluri is quite far-removed from Muga, with its location on the slopes below the Sierra Cantabria, and surrounded by the estate's organically farmed vineyards. We tasted through their whole range there, including a very impressive grenache blanc-based white (Telmo is not a fan of the standard Rioja white varietal, Viura). In terms of style, Remelluri's reds tend to be a bit more structured in youth than typical Riojas, with slightly more new oak even in the crianza bottlings, this despite using a higher (90%) proportion of tempranillo. Not surprisingly, their wines have a good reputation for aging well. Telmo later (2000) moved on to found his own very successful wine company, sourcing grapes from a variety of locations in Spain - becoming quite the winemaking celebrity in and outside of Spain. In 2010 though, he returned to the estate to join his sister, Amaia, in managing the vineyards & winery, with a renewed enthusiasm to develop public recognition for Riojas best vineyard sites, and artisanal winemaking.
Remelluri (with Telmo's mountain-climbing SUV on left)
Lunch at Remelluri
One trend in Rioja that had already begun before our '98 trip, was the move towards somewhat shorter aging of their reds in oak prior to bottling, while incorporating more French oak in the process (with the long-established use of American oak) for their reserva bottlings - and for the purists like myself, it was more than a bit disconcerting to see some estates using a percentage of cabernet sauvignon in their top cuvées. On the other hand, I was impressed to discover that larger producers there have their own cooperage facilities on site, allowing them to obtain oak barrel staves much more economically than a finished barrel. With the right varietal blend, and for the majority of vintages, one could argue that the shorter aging regime generally represents an improvement, as only the most profound wines can stand up to a 2-3 year period in barrel without losing some depth of fruit. Thankfully though, I found that lovers of the classic style of Rioja Reservas can still find good examples - especially from the older houses like Muga & Lopez de Heredia. This comes at a price though: whereas I remember paying an humble $10 for the lovely, ethereal 1970 Muga "Prado Enea" back in 1980, the same wine in the most recent vintage fetches around $55. Relatively speaking though, this is probably a very reasonable price when considered with its peers in Burgundy or Bordeaux. Once one has experienced a well-made Rioja gran reserva (or even reserva), the silky texture, and vanilla, spice, jammy-fruit flavors become the unique symbols of typically classic Rioja.
May Wine Reviews (Rioja with a few 'Interlopers')
2008 Martinez Alesanco Rioja Crianza $13.50
This was the lightest bodied of the wines in our Rioja tasting. On the other hand, it displayed nice regional character and balance. Light oak in the nose, with a hint of reduction & clove spice. The lean structure indicates that the wine would benefit from bottle age.
2004 Bodegas Faustino Rioja Reserva $19.00
A classic-style Rioja with a slightly tawny edge in the color. Very nice aged Rioja character of leather, barnyard & tobacco aromas. On the palate, medium bodied with solid fruit acid, yet with a supple texture. Interesting iron notes in the finish.
2007 C.V.N.E Rioja Crianza $13.00
This wine brought back memories for me - and happily, the producers' style has not changed dramatically over the years. A very typical young bright-fruited Rioja with pleasant light oak, vanilla & meat on the nose. Not a profound wine, yet with nice texture, balance & a lovely finish.
2005 Viña Olabarri Rioja Reserva $18.00
Lovely nose of spicy oak (American), coconut and cologne. A fairly structured wine with good extract and dark fruit character, and a touch more alcohol. Long finish. Another wine that should age nicely.
2006 Heredad Ugarte Rioja Crianza $16.00
Interesting "wet hay" & earthy herbs on the nose. On the palate, medium-bodied and soft textured. Plenty of "jammy" fruit in the middle. One almost senses a sweetness (glycerol) in the finish,
2009 Ugarte Rioja "Cosecha 2009" $11.00
Judging from the label designation, this is likely meant to be in the "joven" style. surprisingly though, it is stylistically close to its sibling above. Perhaps only differing in its slightly brighter cherryish fruit and less complexity - still a nice quaffer and good value.
2003 Lopez de Heredia Rioja Reserva "Viña Bosconia" $37
Aromas of spicy nutmeg, anise and light vanilla from barrel aging. Considering the bottle age, quite youthful on the palate. Somewhat lean, but intense bright strawberry/rhubarb-like fruit, with good fruit acid, structure and balance. A classically elegant Rioja.
2008 Fabla Garnacha Calatayud $11.00
This old vines grenache comes from the Calatayud region of Spain, slightly southwest of Rioja,
and decidedly warmer/more Mediterranean than Rioja. It exhibits pretty & bright raspberry-toned fruit, medium body (no flab here) and balanced acidity, with a lingering finish.
2010 Bodegas Arzuaga Navarro, Ribera del Duero "La Planta" $16.00
This 100% tempranillo cuvée from the warm, high & dry Ribera del Duero, shows a distinctive earthy, smoky oak in the nose (it probably could have done with a bit less oak contact). Nevertheless it has nice overall appeal, with attractive coconut, cedar and raw meat flavors on the palate. Nice acidity (esp. for the region), and medium length in the finish.