What does Rioja taste like? “Er, smooth. Yeah, dead smooth. Especially them Gran Reservas. And fruity as well.” Oh. Is that it?
Spain’s most famous red wine has now been with us, in its popular form at least, for around 150 years. Well the evidence suggests that they’ve been at it since Roman times, but the history that concerns us started in the mid-1800s, when crippling outbreaks of powdery mildew and phylloxera sent Bordeaux wine merchants flocking across the Pyrenees in search of wine to fill their depleted reserves. In response, French duties were relaxed, a rail link was built, the French merchants showed how to age the wine in oak barrels and soon enough a whole cluster of bodegas was founded around Haro railway station, the first stop from Bordeaux.
During the late nineteenth century, Rioja was exporting anything up to 13 million gallons of wine a month to France, with some of the larger bodegas building their own platforms on Haro station, and some of the smaller ones bringing wine for blending from all over the region, even from the more humble parts of Rioja Baja, by rail, by horse and cart, by wing and prayer! Of course, phylloxera was bound to catch up with Rioja, and by the turn of the twentieth century the boom years were over, with two World Wars and one Civil War doing little for sustained expansion.
The wine itself, as it was widely made until the latter part of the last century, is remembered with fond, perhaps rosy nostalgia by more mature drinkers. The emphasis was firmly on oak maturation and blending rather than fruit quality and attentive winemaking, and the result was a juicy and vanilla-sweet concoction. Bottlers, who seldom owned land of their own, took little control over the farmers who were growing for them, so fruit quality and yield may occasionally have been compromised; fermentation was fast and maturation took longer than may always have been right for the wine, in old barrels that might not always have been of an age and condition appropriate to the vintage. Great and serious wines were still being made, of course, but by the end of the twentieth century, a large number of bodegas and smaller, more progressive wineries began to reconsider their winemaking techniques.
So how does the modern day Rioja winery differ? Let’s have a look at one. Just outside Laguardia in Rioja Alavesa sits Bodegas Luis Alegre, founded by Don Luis Alegre in 1968. A vibrant and much-loved local character, by the late 1990s he had realised that the times they were a-changing, and he drafted in a team of young and passionate oenology graduates to help him update his approach. Good move. They didn’t want to stop at a little friendly advice, and they stuck by Luis’ vision of high quality, meticulously created wines until by 2000 they had built a dazzlingly modern winery set into the hillside. Four floors, with gravity doing all the work to keep aggressive handling down and to maintain the purity of the fruit as far as possible – grapes received at the top, fermentation on the next floor down, then down to the ageing and bottling floors. The bodega itself owns 50 hectares of scrupulously attended vineyards – a rarity until recently – and has a further 30 under contract, which it treats as pretty much its own. All of the fruit for all of the wines is harvested by hand, and staves of French and American oak are dried at the bodega for at least 18 months, where they are continually analysed to make sure their eventual marriage to the wine will be harmonious. Yes, of course there’s a bit of rather unromantic laboratory work involved, but you couldn’t get much further removed from some of the old ways without making light of the region’s tradition.
And the wines? I shan’t bore you with a list, suffice it to say that I presented two comparatively-priced roble Riojas at a recent tasting event. The first, Vina Valoria, was made in the old-fashioned way and had flavours of sweet dark fruit overlaid with creamy oak. Basically, it tasted like blackcurrant cheesecake, not that this was a fault. Luis Alegre’s Koden Rioja, on the other hand, oak-aged for eight months, sat in the mouth and allowed layers of flavour to unpeel from around its core of fruit concentration, blackberry, spice and only the quietest suggestion of vanilla, all helped along by fine oak tannin and finishing with lingering cloves. Thoroughly modern, and utterly delicious!