By: Yellymary Montalvo, WSET Diploma Candidate, SWS
The Rioja wine region stands as a beacon of tradition, resilience, and evolution in the world of winemaking. Steeped in a rich history that spans centuries, this renowned Spanish region has not only preserved its vinicultural heritage but has also strategically embraced transformative changes during the last decade. The region (established in 1923) boasts over 500 wineries (more than 200 open to visitors) welcoming over 750,000 people per year (29% international visitors) and is home to 14 grape varieties that are allowed by the zone. (Rioja Consejo Regulador Statistics)
As a wine educator, the recent immersion into Rioja's vineyards, wineries, and cellars offered a panoramic view of a region navigating the delicate balance between honoring its roots and embracing the future.
Tradition and Terroir
At the core of Rioja's winemaking ethos lies a deep respect for tradition. The region's winemakers have upheld time-honored methods, from meticulous grape selection to extended aging in oak barrels. This commitment to tradition, combined with the unique terroir of Rioja, forms the foundation of wines that are globally celebrated for their elegance and complexity. One of the most eye-opening during a recent trip to the region was a fantastic presentation at Bodegas Muga showcasing the different expressions of Tempranillo based on the different soils and elevations of the vineyard. This Bodega, known for its tradition and pure expression of the varietal has been producing wines showcasing the intricacies of all the soils presented in their vineyards. Prado Enea (Calcareous clay and alluvial.) and Torre Muga are just some of those wonderful examples (Chalky-clay and alluvial.) These wines were a great way to understand the diversity of the varietal and how beautifully it can be present in different soils. From the more acidic tones to the soft tannins to the higher elevation sites.
Biodiversity and Sustainability
Rioja has embarked on a journey towards sustainability, intertwining the principles of biodiversity with winemaking practices. The region's vineyards have become havens of biodiversity, fostering a delicate balance between flora and fauna. This ecological approach not only contributes to environmental preservation but also imparts a distinctive character to Rioja's wines, showcasing the symbiotic relationship between the vineyards and the land. In a winemaking region with such a strong tradition, one might wonder about the role of sustainability within that picture. It was pleasantly surprising to find the great passion and dedication from upcoming wineries along with traditional Bodegas to make a mark in those fields. For instance, at Viñedos Ruiz Jimenez they have made it a commitment to organically farm and grow all their vines. To this day, they are the only organized and Demeter Certified winery in Rioja.
The vineyard boasts outstanding views in a peaceful scenery surrounded by a whole ecosystem that helps to nurture the land and the vines. Great attention to detail has been invested in the development of the vineyard site to include the so-called “insect hotels” to promote cross-pollination and aid vineyard management. This is one of the few vineyards in which one can note animals surrounding the land in a dynamic and harmonious symphony. From birds to farm animals, each one represents a key component to their vineyards. This approach translates into rich and outstanding wines showcasing a pure varietal expression while showing winemaking excellence. With a wonderful background to the mountainous zones we were able to enjoy a wonderful tradition of “jamón y vino” including the outstanding Osoti Gran Añada 2018 Brut Nature.
An exciting facet of Rioja's evolution is the introduction of new grape varietals. Maturana Blanca, a grape with a long history in the region, has made a resurgence, adding a novel dimension to Rioja's vinicultural landscape. Maturana Blanca is a rare Spanish white grape varietal known for its unique characteristics in winemaking. It typically produces wines with vibrant acidity, floral aromas, and notes of citrus and green apple, contributing to its distinct profile in the world of Spanish wines. Of all the new varietals tasted during our trip, it was Maturana Blanca the one that awoke the spirits and the enthusiasm of everybody by showcasing the purity of varietal and regionality.
The exploration of different varietals demonstrates Rioja's openness to experimentation, providing winemakers with a diverse palette to craft wines that express the region's dynamic personality. The region has found new life in these forgotten varietals and brought them back to the consumer. Some of those other varietals that are also being embraced as single varietals are Mazuelo Blanco and the elusive red varietal Graciano.
Single Vineyard Embrace
`The trend towards single vineyard expressions has gained momentum in Rioja, offering wine enthusiasts a deeper understanding of the region's terroir. Winemakers are meticulously crafting wines that reflect the unique characteristics of individual vineyard plots, allowing consumers to embark on a sensorial journey through Rioja's diverse landscapes. One of the best experiences of our trip to the region was finding so many young winemakers betting on the systems, blending but always respecting the tradition of the land and viticulture. At the same time, it was eye-opening to understand the vast amount of single vineyard producers willing to invest in this more intensive and risky practice.
At Bodegas Altún, the new generation has embraced this blend of new and old respecting the land while integrating new approaches and winemaking processes that might be different to the region. The two brothers, and the third generation in the vineyard, have taken a step afront and used their experience with a more global and expansive mentality and implemented it in their vineyards and winemaking. Alberto Martinez has traveled the world (from New Zealand to California) studying wine and learning at different sites the profession while his brother Iker brings the tradition to the brand.
All their wines are a true manifestation of single vineyard terroir showing the beauty of the vines and the land. They also include different winemaking techniques to make their line of wines approachable to all markets. For instance, Albiker is a wonderful expression of a fresher Tempranillo via carbonic maceration while Everest is an elegant expression of Tempranillo that simply showcases the diversity of the sites in their vineyards. The winery is also known for introducing the terms “Grand Cru” and “Premier Cru” to their elite wines which easily can serve as rivals in the category. They also craft a show-stopping 100% Graciano that is simply delightful showcasing the beauty of the varietal when properly managed and crafted while bringing back a varietal that has been usually used simply as a supporting actor in the Rioja wines. Some other fantastic single vineyards discovered during our trip were Bideoan, Luis Canas, Bodega 202 , and Ysios.
Small Producers' Resurgence
In recent years, Rioja has witnessed a resurgence of small, independent wine producers. These boutique wineries, driven by passion and a commitment to quality, are challenging the traditional narrative of large-scale production. Their endeavors contribute to a more dynamic and diversified Rioja wine scene, where each bottle narrates a unique story of craftsmanship. It is reassuring and wonderful to find a new generation of small producers also launching their brands and trying to pave the way without necessarily adhering to the local regulations and rather following their heart and passion for the land and craft.
The wines from Elena Corzana are a fantastic representation of this new generation of winemakers concentrating on the purity of the land and the wine while working with some obscure varietals to make a perfect and elegant treat. Her Maturana Tinta was a fantastic example of sophisticated grace with nuances. Elena Corzana Matura Tinta 2019 offers a rich and well-balanced tasting experience with pronounced flavors of dark berries, plum, and a subtle hint of spice. The wine's velvety tannins and medium to full body contribute to a harmonious palate, making it an enjoyable choice for those who appreciate red wines with depth and complexity. It is worth mentioning other outstanding examples such as Ojuel Carrosjuela Blanco or Tentenublo Custero.
Rioja's foray into sparkling wines, or vinos espumosos, showcases the region's adaptability to evolving consumer preferences. The introduction of effervescence adds a new chapter to Rioja's narrative, providing consumers with a diverse array of choices and further solidifying the region's position as a trailblazer in the world of wine. The new classification opens the door to a wide variety of new possibilities in a market that is in constant growth and evolution.
The Timeless Elegance of White Rioja Blends
White Rioja wines, skillfully crafted from a blend of Viura (Macabeo), Malvasía, and Garnacha Blanca, exhibit an impressive aging potential. Over time, the primary Viura grape evolves, transitioning from vibrant citrus and green apple notes to a complex bouquet that includes nuances of honey, nuts, and dried fruits. The judicious use of oak aging, a common practice in white crafting Riojas, imparts a subtle vanilla and toasty essence that integrates harmoniously with age. The inclusion of Malvasía and Garnacha Blanca in the blend further contributes to the wine's depth and complexity.
As these varietals mature alongside Viura, they enhance the overall flavor profile, creating a well-rounded and nuanced white Rioja. The inherent acidity of these grape varieties plays a pivotal role in preserving the freshness of the wine throughout its aging journey. This results in a mature white Rioja that, while showcasing the rich evolution of flavors, retains a lively and vibrant quality. In essence, the aging potential of white Rioja, with its blend of Viura, Malvasía, and Garnacha Blanca, offers a rewarding exploration of nuanced and well-developed white wines for enthusiasts seeking a unique tasting experience. One of the showstoppers of our experience was the 2016 Remirez de Ganuza Olagar (100% Viura) which was still showing vibrant acidity and fruit notes and in a blind tasting could be easily mistaken for French sophistication.
Education has become a focal point of Rioja's strategy for the future. The region is actively investing in programs to train wine educators, recognizing the pivotal role they play in disseminating knowledge about Rioja wines. This commitment extends beyond the borders of Spain, aiming to enrich the global understanding of Rioja's vinicultural heritage. A great example of this commitment to excellence and education is the creation of the Rioja Wine Educator Certification (geared towards industry professionals) championed by the Consejo Regulador and the Rioja Academy (targeted to a more consumer-friendly base).
These are excellent programs to bring to light this blend of tradition and innovation in the wine region while promoting the local winemakers and how the region has transformed with time. Most consumers still think of Rioja as an “old wine” or a wine region only characterized by tradition. These days there is so much more to the region which is embracing change and opening the doors to the promising new generation. The wine region’s investment in human capital and education will translate into a dynamic market of consumers learning more about the region through these educators and the spreading of the Rioja wine gospel.
Tapestry of Tradition and Progress
Rioja's wine renaissance is a testament to its ability to evolve while remaining deeply rooted in tradition. The region's journey is a tapestry woven with threads of history, innovation, and a profound connection to the land. As we navigate Rioja's vinicultural landscape, we witness a region that honors its past, navigates the present with grace, and confidently strides into the future, inviting wine enthusiasts around the world to savor the magic of Rioja's wines. If one word can define the region is passion. Passion for the land, the vine, the wine, and the dynamic food scene of the region. Passion is what leads the region and what makes it one of a kind and the perfect example of blending tradition with innovation. In the meantime, ¡Ponme otro Rioja!