Few wine regions are as diverse in their landscape as Rioja. A relatively small area of only 70 miles east to west and 30 miles north to south, it boasts 150 square miles of interlocking mountain ranges shielding the land from both warm and cold winds, influencing the climate, the terrain, the exposure to sun and water, and therefore as a consequence, the very wine we drink. The vineyards are planted in the alluvial soils of the valleys of the Ebro River and its tributaries, or in the iron-rich or limestone soils of the mountain heights.
The wine area is split into three sub-regions – Baja, Alta and Alavesa – each with its own particular topography and terroir influenced either by the Mediterranean Sea or the Atlantic Ocean; each with its own geography suitable for growing particular grape varieties with identifiable local characteristics.
Tempranillo is by far and away the most important of the permitted varieties accounting for 80% of the red grapes planted. Regarded as producing wines with elegance, finesse and longevity and, though planted all over Spain, Tempranillo finds its finest expression in this region. Rioja has railed against growing the classic grapes so along with Tempranillo are other local varieties usually included in a blend to provide colour, tannin, alcohol and structure to the wines but are nowadays sometimes made as single varietal wines and very exciting they are, too. Garnacha and Graciano may be Tempranillo’s understudies waiting in the wings to prove their talents but their moment of fame is imminent. Things are changing in this part of Spain.
120,000 registered vineyard parcels are dispersed between 18,000 owners with the average vineyard holding being no more than 0.5hectare – if that doesn’t suggest a land of wide diversity I don’t know what does! Traditionally the grapes are sourced and blended from around the region but increasingly winemakers are looking to produce single vineyard estate wines. Only a few have always worked this way, such as Contino which produces single Garnacha and Graciano wines from individual plots, but others are following suit.
Garnacha was much more significant even a mere 25 years ago than it is now, but is currently seen as having greater potential due to the noticeable effect of climate change, because it suffers less from lack of rain. Campo Viejo makes an inexpensive fruit-driven style while the top class Roda adds significant proportions to its blend. It can also make lovely delicate fruity rosés. Ramón Bilbao’s Lalomba 2015 is worth looking out for when it reaches these shores. Graciano though is, for me, even more exciting with its freshness, minerality and ability to age – it’s a shame it is a meagre 2% of the Rioja vineyard and a pain in the neck to grow! But several brave winegrowers see in it great potential and are prepared to take the risk.
Whites may not immediately spring to mind when thinking of Rioja but they can be tremendous. Either zingy and refreshing or creamy and barrel-fermented these are wines which reflect and suit today’s current wine-drinking trends. Ontañón’s Vetiver made from the region’s top white grape, Viura, is lively and energetic when drunk young and with age is arguably even more vibrant with added complex nutty aromas and developed flavours.
There is no doubt that Rioja produces some of the best value oak-aged wine styles from anywhere in the world. Crianzas are well-priced, and Reservas and Gran Reservas are mature wines ready to drink, with neat classy oak alongside the ripe fruit and silky tannins – I urge you to keep buying them. But look out too for all the new, innovative Rioja wines we are now seeing on the shelves. There is a simmering undercurrent of pioneering spirit in the area right now and I’d put money on a surge in diversity and even higher level of wine being produced with the word Rioja on the label in the coming years.