Financial Times: Jancis Robinson on Rioja, a wine region refreshed
Rioja is on a roll: rolling out all sorts of new features while savouring continued sales growth in a country where the wine industry has been somewhat in the doldrums. The big complaint from most Spanish wine producers recently has been that average prices have been so low but Rioja, Spain’s leading fine wine region, which accounts for more than 30 per cent by volume of exports of Spanish wines with a geographical appellation, accounts for 40 per cent of their value.
This northern wine region had a bit of a reputational wobble a couple of years ago when Artadi, one of the most admired producers, said it no longer wished to be associated with Rioja because the name — applied to cheap supermarket blends as freely as to Artadi’s finest — had no value.
But I take my hat off to the Consejo Regulador, the governing body, for responding to this relatively rapidly. From the 2017 vintage, three new, much more geographically precise categories of Rioja have been introduced. Producers who wish to, and whose wines obey the sensibly strict rules, may produce fashionable single-vineyard wines, marked on the label as a Viñedo Singular. The hand-picked vines have to be at least 35 years old (bravo for setting the bar this high), yields must be relatively low, and the wines so labelled must pass a tasting test.
There are also some special conditions for the many who buy rather than grow grapes. The wine producer must have been buying grapes from the grower in question for at least 10 years.
wo more new geographical categories have been introduced. Rioja may now be labelled with the name of a village, though the winery has to be located in that village for a wine to qualify as a Vino de Municipio. Less specific are Vinos de Zona, which may be labelled with the name of one of the three zones that make up the Rioja region: Rioja Alta in the west, Rioja Alavesa in the northern Alava province, and what is now to be known as Rioja Oriental (eastern), considered a less freighted term than the former Rioja Baja (low Rioja).
This new concentration on a precise location plays into the hands of the new wave of Rioja producers, many of whom have recently switched from growing and selling their grapes and are typically based in a fairly small area. As Ricardo Aguiriano, the Consejo’s marketing director, explained to me recently in London: “Every one of these people has a story, and consumers like stories.”
Jose Maria Lacuesta, the Consejo’s export director, was also in London, capital of Rioja’s biggest market after Spain, to explain these new categories. He was frank about the need to polish Rioja’s image and add interest to this extremely well-established wine. I remember when I first wrote about Rioja in the late 1970s, it seemed daringly exotic in the UK, but today Rioja is apparently the most frequently searched term on the website of Britain’s leading online wine retailer Laithwaite’s, which sells more of it than Bordeaux.
Official efforts to add interest to Rioja include increased attention on white Rioja, which has gone from representing five to eight per cent of total production in the past five years. I have fond memories of the deep-golden, waxy, somehow molten white Riojas that were available in the 1970s. Since then, such wines have become difficult to find, although Finca Allende, founded only in 1986, specialises in them; a 2000 based on the local Viura grape enjoyed last month was still in great shape. As were Viña Tondonia Reserva 1999 and 1991, whites from arch-traditionalist López de Heredia even more recently. Marqués de Murrieta, another of Rioja’s historic producers, has been trying to recreate the white wine marvels it used to produce. Its Capellania is a lavishly oaked wine from old vines that begins to prove itself only after several years in bottle.
But apart from these exceptions, the current focus seems to be on much fresher, less distinctive white Riojas — as witness the Consejo’s decision in 2007 to allow grape varieties from outside the region. Last year’s welter of new regulations also included the possibility of white Riojas based on just one of the wide array of permitted grape varieties: the traditional Viura and Malvasia; the Spanish Garnacha Blanca (Grenache Blanc), Maturana Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Turruntés and Verdejo; and the decidedly foreign Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Something similar has been happening to pink Rioja. It used to be rather distinctively full — bodied, fairly deep-coloured, like the Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva 2000 tasted at the same time as its white stablemates cited above. But, seeing the success of Provençal rosé, the authorities have deliberately been encouraging a paler, lighter and ultimately less distinctive style.
As part of this revitalisation of Rioja’s image, there is even serious talk of making traditional-method sparkling wine, espumosos de calidad, to be released from 2019, after ageing for at least 15 months. I will spare you the 14 criteria that have to be met but I can assure you these sparkling wines will be a world away from the oaky reds that built Rioja’s reputation.
It’s exciting that the region is feeling so confident, and that it seems to have at least partly addressed some of the criticisms recently levelled at it. I just hope the best traditional houses — generally much bigger and older than the new-wave, geographically specific producers — will continue to provide us with fastidiously long oak-aged blends that are some of the longest-living wines in the world.
Apparently there is a certain amount of resistance to the new categories from the old guard, especially those whose philosophy is built not on geography (they have been buying in grapes for decades) but on a hierarchy of time in bottle. Their Reservas are at least three years old (which must now include at least six months in bottle) and Gran Reservas at least five but, in practice, often much longer.
Bravo to Rioja wine producers who, in contrast to their counterparts over the Pyrenees in Bordeaux, release their wines only when they are ready to drink. And welcome to the new generation set to teach us about the intricacies of Rioja’s geography.
Notable Rioja producers
• Bodegas Bilbaínas
• Bodegas Riojanas
• López de Heredia
• Marqués de Murrieta
• Marqués de Riscal
• La Rioja Alta
The (relative) newcomers
• Abel Mendoza
• Finca Allende
• Palacios Remondo
• Remirez de Ganuza
• Telmo Rodriguez
• Benjamin Romeo
• Señorio de San Vicente
• Sierra Cantabria
The new wave
• Olivier Rivière
• Basilio Izquierdo
• Paco Garcia
• Juan Carlos Sancha
Source: Financial Times.
These days, the prestigious paper The Guardian, has mentioned us as one of the six best Garnacha of the World. Besides being very grateful for it, it encourages us to keep working harder every day so that you can continue to enjoy it.
The wonder of grenache is that the meagre crops of fruit produced by vines which can be anything up to 100 years old create some of the most vivacious wines around: a stream of soft, mouth-filling juiciness, with flavours of bramble jam, raspberry, cherry, tangy plum and paprika. How all this primary-coloured flavour emerges from such harsh surroundings is a wonder of nature on a par with something from a David Attenborough documentary – like one of those desert plants that lie dormant for years waiting for the briefest rain shower to bring them into bloom.
If there’s a better-value red wine style in the world – a better yield of fruit flavour per pound – than the absurdly underpriced old-vine garnachas of the Campo de Borja region of Aragon in northern Spain, I’ve yet to find it. Wines such as Bodegas Borsao Garnacha 2015 (£5.95, slurp.co.uk) and the Co-op’s Gran Vista Garnacha 2015 (£4.99) have so much more about them than the sweetened alcoholic Ribena that so often passes for wine at the £5 to £6 level these days.
Grenache’s reputation has also suffered more than most at the hands of incautious winemakers: leave it to get too ripe and the abundance of fruit becomes a syrupy, alcoholic jamminess.
When it’s good though, it certainly deserves a place at the top table – indeed, over the past decade,it’s made more strides than any other grape variety, with producers developing a much wider palette. It can provide succulent, spicy easy-drinkers such as Honoro Vera Garnacha 2015 (£8.45, Booths) from another Spanish region, Calatayud, or the always-alluring Yalumba Bush Vine Grenache 2014 (£12, Morrisons) from South Australia. Or it can produce lush winter warmers such as Domaine of the Bee 2011 (£27.50, thesampler.co.uk)
Most interesting of all, however, is the new wave of grenache made in a more restrained style. The prime movers behind this re-imagining of grenache as the “pinot noir of the south” are Spanish, with the likes of Daniel Jiménez-Landi in the hills of Mentrida, Bodegas Joan d’Anguera in Priorat’s neighbour Montsant, and Bodegas Aldonia in Rioja all conjuring subtly earthy, graceful, light-coloured garnachas from very old vines.
There are fine examples, too, in the New World’s new wave. Producers such as Australia’s Jauma, the Ministry of Clouds and Ochota Barrels, and the likes of Craig Hawkins and David Sadie from South Africa’s trendy Swartland set have all contributed to grenache’s more nuanced 21st-century personality in wines that, no matter how gentle they might feel, are still all about the sun.
Six of the best grenaches
Tesco Old Vines Garnacha, Campo de Borja, Spain 2015 (£5, Tesco)
The winemakers of Campo de Borja are blessed with a wealth of old garnacha vines that provide real depth of flavour at absurd prices, like this delightfully exuberant bargain burst of juicy bramble fruit.
Waitrose Southern French Grenache 2015 (£6.49, Waitrose)
Spicy and supple, with a sprinkling of white pepper and dried herbs adding savoury interest to the brisk raspberry and cherry fruit, this is good-value grenache in light, thirst-quenching, bangers-and-mash-matching mode.
Bodegas Aldonia Vendimia Rioja 2015 (£12.50, Vinoteca)
Having been somewhat eclipsed by tempranillo in Rioja, garnacha has made a comeback in recent years. At Aldonia it takes a leading role, joined here by 40% tempanillo in a fluently elegant, red-fruited, super-silky red.
Chris Williams The Foundry Grenache, Stellenbosch, South Africa 2014 (£12.95, the Wine Society)
Talented Cape winemaker Chris Williams’s Rhône-inspired grenache is perfectly pitched, offering a lively succulence of blackberry and raspberry combined with a nip of tannin and hints of peppery spice and wild herb.
Bodegas Jiménez-Landi Las Uvas de la Ira, Castilla y Leon, Spain 2014 (from £21.50, St Andrews Wine Company; the Sampler)
Daniel Jiménez-Landi is one of a handful of Spanish winemakers to pioneer the more sensitive, subtle side of garnacha, using old vines from the Gredos hills of central Spain. So pretty, floral and subtly earthy – it’s garnacha for pinot lovers.
Ochota Barrels The Fugazi Vineyard Grenache, South Australia 2014 (£28.50, Honest Grapes; Handfords; Prohibition Wines)
From a new-wave Australian cellar that puts the emphasis on fresh drinkability, this is a flat-out gorgeous take on grenache with a core of crunchy black and red berries and a streak of peppered-steak bloody-meatiness.
Aldonia 2013, Silver Medal in Sommelier Wine Awards.
Aldonia 100 2013 has earned the highest rating in the tasting by British Steven Spurrier, with 93 points.
Tasting notes Steven Spurrier:
Fine fresh mid red, very attractive nose of fresh red fruits with good lift from high elevation vines, polished and natural on the palate, great purity of fruit and lovely acidity, elegant for Grenache, full of natural energy. 2016-23. 93/100.
Now to enjoy it. Cheers!
It´s here: Aldonia Vendimia 2015. A fruity wine, tasty and juicy. Our best vintage so far.
Cherry red in the glass with a violet rim, clean and bright. Very fruity. On the nose, crystallised red fruit (strawberries and cranberries). Light floral hints of violets and underbrush. Notes of liquorice, blood orange and peach on a light backdrop of chocolate and vanilla. The palate is fresh, juicy and structured. Balanced and easy to drink.You will repeat.
After waiting, comes the reward. They’re here the new vintages of Aldonia and Aldonia 100. Garnacha height. Very happy with the result. We only hope that also delight your moments.