ASK A FRENCHMAN where the best red wines in France are made and you might get two different answers, depending on whether he lived closer to Bordeaux or Burgundy. Ask a Spaniard where the best red wines in Spain are made and he will certainly tell you Rioja. This is exemplified by wine lists throughout Spain. They containe a few wines from the region and invariably the rest of the list is filled with wines from Rioja.
How has Rioja attained this preeminence among Spanish wines, both in Spain and throughout the world? It has excellent climatic and soil conditions and it also has a long winemaking tradition aided by an influx of Bordelais who came to Rioja in the 1880s after a louse called phyloxera destroyed many of the Bordeaux vineyards.
Rioja encompasses a large region, embodying most of the present day province of Logrono, which is part of the ancient kingdom of Castille. It is only 250 miles south of Bordeaux. The region stretches 75 miles southeastward from the wine center of Haro to Alfaro at the eastern top and is divided into three areas, Alavesa, Alta and Baja. Each has a particular climate and produces wines of different characters.
Rioja Alavesa is the smallest of the three. It is bounded on the north by a beautiful mountain range, the Sierra de Cantabria. The mountains and the Pyrenees farther north protect Rioja from the cold winds of Northern Europe and allow Atlantic winds to influence the climate of the Alavesa and Rioja Alta, while the Mediterranean exerts its influence on the climate of Rioja Baja.
Rioja Alta is just below the Alavesa. It contains the majority of Rioja's bodegas in its famous wine towns of Haro, Cenicero and Fuenmayor. Rio Iregua, which passes throug the city of Logrono, is the dividing line between Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja. This river is one of the many tributes of Rio Ebro. Another, Rio Oja, gave the region its name.
Rioja Baja makes up more than half of the Rioja, but produces only a third of its wine. It is much warmer and drier than the other two areas, receiving only half as much rain. The wines of Rioja Baja have low acidity and high alcohol, often 15 or 16 degrees. Rioja Alta produces wines of better character and fruitiness, with high acidity and alcohol of only 10 to 11 degrees. The highest prices, however, are paid for grapes from the highland vineyards of Alavesa. They make wines similar to those from Alta, but more full bodied with more character and elegance.
Most Rioja bodegas wineries blend wines from the three areas to produce their wines, though some use only the wines of a particular area. The winemaker's task is complicated further by the presence of four different grape varieties that can be used for red wines; tempranillo, garnacho, mazuelo, and graciano. All except garnacho, related to the grenache of France, are native to the region.
Thus the blender is confronted with almost endless variables. There are 42 bodegas in the Rioja wine exporters group and no two wines are alike. The one characteristic they all have in common is the taste of wood, imparted by the many years spent aging in oak barrels.
The vinification methods used in Rioja reflect the influence of the Bordelais on the region. French winemakers who moved south in the 1870s brought with them their winemaking expertise and small oak casks (225 liters), never before used in Rioja. Even today, these barrels are still called Bordelesas in Spanish.
The newcomers employed the same methods of vinification they used in Bordeaux. They introduced the practice of fermenting various grape types separately before blending them.At some point they discovered that Rioja wines profited from longer aging in wood than their Bordeaux counterparts. The wines became softer, rounder and acquired an almost vanilla flavor from the old oak.
Today red Riojas must spend a minimum of two years in oak in order to receive the Denomenacion de Origen of Rioja. In reality, most reds spend three or four years aging in casks, and reservas may be aged as long as eight to 10 years. A recent trend, however, is to reduce the time in cask, preserving more of the fruitiness of the wine, lessening the oak flavor and making the wines ready to drink at an earlier age.
Though there are more than 100,000 acres of vineyards in Rioja, the countryside is really a patchwork of many crops. Adjacent to choice vineyards peppers and asparagus grow, or orchards of peaches and almonds. A vast majority of land is farmed in small parcels only two to three acres. Those who raise grapes sell them, or the wine they ferment themselves, to the bodegas for blending.
The three largest producers and shippers are Berberanas, Age, and Bilbainas. Their bodegas are immense and production combines traditional methods with the most modern technical advancements such as sophisticated laboratories with spectroscopes and chromatography, as well as computerized transfer of wine from fermentation to blending vats and on to modern bottling lines.
In response to the large demand for younger, fruitier reds, both Berberanas (located outside Cenicero) and Age (in Fuenmayor) produce a wine with the bare minimum of oak aging reqsuired. Berberanas' is Carte de Plata, Age's is Siglo. The wines spend most of their aging time in big oak cuvas (vats) and may be put in the small oak casks for only six months. This also cuts production costs. Berberanas also produces a Carta de Oro
Bilbanians is one of the few bodegas that owns large holdings of vineyards. Among the 15 wines they produce are two tintos (reds) from large vineyards in the Alavesa, Vina Pomal and Vina Zaco. They are both well made and good values.
In the 1970s Rioja has experienced a wine boom. Exports to the two largest markets, the United States and Canada, have risen dramatically. Half a million cases will be sold to the U.S. this year. With the boom Rioja has attracted investments and American corporations such as Pepsico and Seagram, Spanish corporations such as Rumasa and Domeca. Wealthy Spanish industralists began investing millions of dollars to build new bodegas (Lan, Olarra, and Sogevinos), or to buy interests in existing bodegas (Federico Paternina, Franco-Espanolas, and Palacia).
Among the newcomers, one of the most interesting stories is that of Henri Forner, the owner of Chataux Camensac and Larose-Trintadon in Bordeax. He was born and grew up in Castille before his family fled Spain at the end of the Civil War. In the late 1960s, with advice from Emile Peynaud, the famed Bordeaux University oenologist, Forner settled on Cenicero, located on the borders of the Alta and Alavesa. There he founded Marquis de Caceres in conjunction with the existing wine cooperative in town. mAll of their grapes come from vineyards around Cenicero. With them Forner has succeeded in producing a quality red wine through the Brodeaux method.
The most unusual innovation at Caceres, however, is the production of fresh, fruity whites and roses under Peynaud's supervision. The 1978 Caceres Blanco is already on the market. It underwent a slow, cold fermantation for two months to capture the fruitiness of the biura and garnacho grapes. This white is distinct from other Riogas, which are remarkable because of their noticeable lack of fruitiness.
Rioja whites which are made from three grape varieties -- viura, garnacho, and malvasia -- often spend as much time in oak casks as their red counterparts. The result is a wine that is very smooth, but has lost its freshness and often is oxidized and very oaky to taste. While the great reds of Rioja can be compared to other great red wines, the same is simply not true of the whites. It should be pointed out, however, that many bodegas are catching up with modern tastes and probably will begin producing and marketing lighter and fruitier wines.
Another new bodega of special interest is Bodega Sogevinas in El Ciego. There the Domecq family of Jerez not only has built a multi-million dollar winery, but also embarked on an equally expensive campaign of acquiring over 2,500 acres. Of these, 1,500 already are planted with grapes, mostly tempranillo. The bodega produces wine only from these vineyards.
Of the smaller, older bodegas of Rioja, two of the best known are Marquis de Riscal and Marquis de Murrieta. Both are capable of producing wines of high quality. There ar others as well. The best advice is to experiment by tasting wines of various bodegas until you find the style of Rioja that appeals to you.