Whatever happened to the “Old School” Riojas?
One of my favorite wines of the world is traditional “old school” Rioja. Coming from a region in North Spain named “La Rioja” just south of the Basque province and east of Navarra, this region with a long tradition in wine making is ideal for Tempranillo grapes. Sometimes La Rioja wines are also blended with Garnacha (Grenache), Graciano and Mazuelo grapes. The region Splits in to the areas: La Rioja Alta, La Rioja Alavesa and La Rioja Baja.
Alta and Alavesa are slightly more elevated areas, producing a lighter style of wine with higher acidity levels. Baja is a dry and hot area, producing big and juicy wines with a higher level of alcohol. These wines are used to blend with grapes from other regions.
In the 1990 Rioja DOC was granted a permission to irrigate and this marked a turning point in the wine making styles of Rioja. Traditional Rioja comes in 4 different styles: Rioja (a.k.a. Joven) is the youngest, it is made either un-oaked or it spends less than 1 year in an oak barrel. Rioja Crianza is more complex, minimum aging is 2 years, with a one year minimum in a barrel. Rioja Riserva is wine with amazing complexity and pronounced oak characteristics from a minimum 3 years aging, with at least 1 year in an oak barrel. And finally, Rioja Grand Riserva which is only made in the best years, offers a wine with amazing age-ability and the most complex flavors. It is aged for a minimum of 5 years, with a minimum 2 years in an oak barrel. Traditionally Riojas spend more than their minimum time in oak and in the bottles before they get released to the market.
Some of the last vestiges of this style of wine are Bodega Lopez de Heredia and Bodegas Muga. These are wines with extreme depth of flavor thanks to their long aging practices. In some cases, the Grand Riservas are aged up to 9 years in oak barrels and 9 years in the bottle before the wine actually leaves the winery. Sadly enough, these styles of wine are long forgotten and have been replaced by new, fruit forward wines that cater to a wider consumer population.
Today, ambitious guys like Telmo Rodriguez are taking up the challenge to compete with the new world wine regions and capture the attention of young wine drinkers with low priced, value wines that exhibit a “New world like” fruit forward characteristic. Many bodegas have adapted to this trend and have begun to use some not so traditional techniques to produce their wines. For Example, some wine makers now use micro-oxygenation (pumping minuscule air bubbles into the wine tanks) which softens the wines and enhances its’ full fruit characteristics. Some also employ Carbonic Maceration (in which whole clusters are placed in large open vats and allowed to ferment inside the individual grape berries without the addition of yeasts) to help create wine with more vibrant fruit flavors.
So for all of you who prefer your wine to smell like burned leather, animal fur, dusty road and dry aged meat, you will have to focus your attention on private sales, winery private orders and auctions. But for all the rest of you who prefer wine to be juicy, big, rich and vibrant there is a whole new world of wine coming from Spain. Today this also includes the new Rioja wines. I like them but I do miss the “old school” Riojas.