Wine writing by Stas Medvedev

5 Decades of Rioja

I decided to draft an article as a follow up on the epic wine tasting of Rioja which I arranged for a group of wine enthusiasts some time ago. Here you will learn the absolutely must-know facts about Rioja wine region and get my 10 insights which I find very useful.

For lazy ones you can immediately scroll down to the end of the article, where you will find 10 useful conclusions and observations.

Rioja is by far the most famous wine region of Spain. Attention to Rioja turned to French merchants and winemakers, when a malicious phylloxera destroyed almost the entire wine industry of Bordeaux more than 150 years ago. In 1870 with the launch of railway traffic began the rapid trade of Rioja wines. Today we can confidently state that Rioja is one of the most outstanding wines of Europe in which the history and geography are combined in a wonderful way.

History of Rioja

Ancestors of Rioja are considered to be two marquis: Riscal and Murrieta. The first vines were planted in the estate of Ygay in 1825, and in 1852 Marquis de Murrieta founded the winery. In 1878 he acquired the Manor Ygay together with vineyards, which became the home of one of the greatest wineries in Spain. In 1858, the diplomat and writer Marquis de Riscal founded a winery that bears his name. He lived in Bordeaux from 1836 and wanted to experiment with French varieties in his estate in Elciego, where he built a winery, using the French approach to winemaking and technology. He was the first in the country to use the barrique (oak barrels 225 l). Soon his wines won the main prizes and were favourites at the court of the King Alfonso XII. Popularity led to these wines being forged. An ingenious marquis came up with a protective wire netting on the bottle that would not allow the cork to be pulled out without tearing it. This netting quickly became fashionable and became a feature of the top Rioja.

30 years later phylloxera reached Spain. It took about 10 years to restore the vineyards of the region.

Another significant milestone in history is the period between the 1960s and 1980s, when the ups and downs can be compared to a roller coaster. By the 70’s Rioja had made a major breakthrough since the Phylloxera and entered international markets, especially successfully in the UK. But by the end of that decade, overproduction and mediocrity had already undermined progress. By 1980, the problems of Rioja were already too obvious, allowing other forgotten and little-known regions of Spain to make themselves visible. Rioja lost its prestige in the 1970s due to the use of younger, more productive vines and less strict grape selection. Industrialization, faster maceration of barely ripe berries, all together, resulted in wines losing their aromatic and structural potential. As a result, wines turned out to be weak, acidic, dried out, smelling badly of vanilla and coconuts. One of the reasons was that wine producers did not have their own vineyards, but relied on supply form the winegrowers. There was a conflict of interest, as farmers were paid for their weight and they obviously concentrated on quantity rather than quality. Thus, 80’s wines produced from vineyards with monstrous yields severely damaged the reputation of Rioja. Today, most winemakers prefer to work with their own vineyards and fully control the process of cultivating grapes.

Geography of Rioja

map of Rioja
map of Rioja

Rioja is a region with a large geographical, geological and climatic diversity. Its length is about 100 km and the width is 50km. The river Ebro cuts Rioja from west to east from Haro to Alfaro. Some parts with a pronounced continental climate, others with strong Mediterranean and Atlantic influence. Yellow soils with clay and limestone, red clay soils rich in iron and fertile soil alluvial on flat areas. According to the above criteria Rioja is divided into 3 subzones: Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja.

Grape varieties of Rioja

Tempranillo is the main variety in Rioja
Tempranillo is the main variety in Rioja

Tempranillo is the flagship of Spain and the main variety of Rioja (80%). It is an early-ripening variety (temprano) and is very friendly with the oak barrel. The native varieties are obviously triumphant — red: Tempranillo, Garnaca, Masuelo, Graciano and white: Viura, Malvasia, Garnaca Blanca. International varieties take up very little planting area here. By the way, Cabernet Sauvignon, which gives excellent results and has a history in the region much longer than the same Graciano, is outlawed. It is forbidden to label it, but the vineyards where it traditionally grows are preserved.

Traditionalists and modernists

Classic or traditional Rioja style — unsaturated red with a ruby and brick tint. Long years of aging in old American oak barrels give the wine a characteristic bouquet of leather, dry flowers. A blend of grapes harvested from different areas and even the Rioja sub zones.
The avant-garde or modernist style of Rioja is distinguished by the deep dark colour of the wine, fresh bright fruity aromas, strong extraction and the use of French oak that gives a flavour of vanilla and coconut. Shorter aging times. The best wines are from vineyards, where yields are limited.

Classification system in Rioja

Classification system in Rioja
Classification system in Rioja

The categories of wine Rioja differ in terms of aging in oak barrels and additional aging in the bottle.

Crianza is a minimum of 2 years of aging, starting from October 1 of the harvest year, at least 12 months from which in oak (6 months for pink and white wines).

Reserva — Minimum 3 years of aging, including a minimum of 1 year in oak for red. Minimum 2 years of aging, including a minimum of 6 months in oak for white and pink.

Gran Reserva is a minimum of 2 years of aging in oak, followed by an excerpt of three years in a red bottle. White and pink-4 years of exposure, including a minimum of 6 months in oak.

Epic Rioja wine tasting and notes

There were several objectives of the tasting we wanted to check:
  • The longevity of Rioja wines — myth or reality?
  • Is there a difference in the styles between the classics and the avant-garde?

R. López de Heredia Tondonia

2004 R. López de Heredia Rioja Blanco Reserva Viña Tondonia
2004 R. López de Heredia Rioja Blanco Reserva Viña Tondonia

One of the most important wineries in Rioja with 150 years of history. It is a family business run today by two charming sisters, Maria José and Mercedes, who help out Brother Julio and Father Pedro, who is over 80. The stronghold of stability in Rioja. It is unlikely that they will ever depart from the tradition of producing their iconic wines in the classical style or want to expand their lineup. The impeccable reputation of the house and adored by all the wines that take their name from their respective vineyards, located near Haro:

  • Tondonia
  • Bosconia
  • Zaconia.

A classic blend of varieties and a very radical approach to terroir.

It is generally believed that terroirs are expressed through vintage, when the climatic characteristics of the vintage have a major impact, but Hereida manage to produce wine with a paradoxical consistency year after year.

The philosophy of the producer is to create a wine that invariably reflects the style of the house. They naturally adjust the peculiarities of the year within the limits allowed by the regulations, adding up to 15% of wines from other vintages and mixing different wines from one plot. In their opinion, Crianza and Reserva wines should not depend on the year of vintage at all. On the contrary, Gran Reserva wines reflect all the peculiarities of a single vintage year.

We opened the tasting with a white wine 2004 R. López de Heredia Rioja Blanco Reserva Viña Tondonia. Without exaggeration, one of the best white wines in Spain. It is an autochthonous variety of Viura and sometimes up to 10% of Malvasia. Made in a highly oxidative style. The wine is aged up to 4–6 years in American oak barrels. These wines have an incredible potential for longevity.

Aromas of oak, lacquered wood. Oxidation notes with a hint of whisky, dried fruits, pharmacy, caramel, dried pear and other fruits.

Soft on flavour with above medium acidity. According to the house policy, wine enters the market when it is fully mature and ready to be enjoyed.

Bodegas Riojanas

Bodegas Riojanas Rioja Viña Albina Reserva 1964
Bodegas Riojanas Rioja Viña Albina Reserva 1964

Bodega was founded in 1890 and rightfully belongs to the club of historical wineries of the 19th century together with Murrieta and Riscal. For a long time, owned by the Spanish bank Santander, and now a public company, has expanded its production area to other regions: Toro and Rias Baixas. At the time of its purchase by the bank in the middle of the last century, this winery was one of the few that owned a large number of its own vineyards and until the early 2000s produced all its wines in the classic style.

Today, it has become a mass commercial producer with more than 3 million bottles a year. Many times, unsuccessful attempts were made to make wines in a modern style.

We have tasted Bodegas Riojanas Rioja Viña Albina Reserva wine from the legendary 1964 vintage. It is still referred to as the Vintage of the Millennium in Rioja. That year was perfect and gave very high quality wines. In addition, the production volume was very high that year (135 million liters with an average of 100 million in that same period). The greatness of this year ensured the enviable longevity of the wines and many of them delight wine lovers to this day.
Our wine was in great shape. The grapes were harvested from areas with limestone soils. Blend 75%, Tempranillo or as it is called Rioja Fino, 15% Mazuelo, 5% Graciano, 5% others (Viura and other autochthons). 4.5 years aging in oak, 3 of which in American oak barriques. The wine is clear, ruby pale colour with a brick tint. First, the wine opened with notes of reduction, suspicious notes of damp wood. Quickly aired it showed a bouquet of complex tertiary flavors and classic notes of chocolate, a humidor with Cuban cigars, leather. Long elegant finish with notes of dry leaves. Not a single hint of tannins. There’s still a charge of vital energy in the wine that will last another decade.
(93 +/100)

La Rioja Alta

1970 La Rioja Alta Rioja Reserva 904
1970 La Rioja Alta Rioja Reserva 904

Founded in 1890 by five Basque country winegrowers, the Bodega remains one of the most traditional in all of Spain. Until now, most of the business is still in the hands of the five families of the founder’s descendants. The true apologists of the classic Rioja style. They firmly believe that American oak barrels are the perfect choice for their wines. They still produce their own oak barrels, importing wood from the USA.

Bodega is named after the Rioja Alta sub-region, which is considered by many to have the most potential. In the past, when there were no requirements to indicate the year of vintage, the main wine of La Rioja Alta was named Gran Reserva 1890 after the year the winery was founded. Later, the “1” was removed. Leaving the 890. Another important wine was named Gran Reserva 1904 by analogy after another important event in the history of the winery — a significant expansion in 1904. Other wines are named after the family vineyards: Viña Alberdi, Viña Arana, Viña Ardanza.

Top wines are sold in wire netting bottles as a tribute to tradition. The company was one of the pioneers, creating the Club de Cosecheros, a club for lovers of its wines, which gives the right to buy a barrel of wine directly from the producer and gives preferences for visits to the winery and gala dinners.

Our wine 1970 La Rioja Alta Rioja Reserva 904, unfortunately, was flawed. Cloudy with heavy sediment and unpleasant smells. Most likely the reason for that was poor storage. With old wines it is a lottery, as at such a long distance it is quite difficult to trace the ownership history of the bottle if it was not purchased directly from the winemaker’s cellar.

1970 is also considered as one of the best vintages.

Herederos del Marqués de Riscal

1989 Marqués de Riscal Rioja Reserva
1989 Marqués de Riscal Rioja Reserva

The company claims to be the first in Rioja to start producing wines by the Bordeaux method. The local government asked the Marquis to organize local winegrowers to produce wines like in Medoc, Bordeaux. For this purpose, a winemaker from Chateau Lanessan was appointed, who came to Rioja Alavesa with 9000 vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Pinot Noir. The method implied a long barrique aging after the wine was made, for which the local winegrowers were not at all ready as they were used to getting their money right after the wine was sold rather than waiting for a few years for it to go on sale. The winemaker was fired, but the Marquis quickly employed him and built his own estate with cellars. Riscal has a long relationship with Cabernet Sauvignon. The best bodegas wines in the first half of the 20th century were the so-called Cuve Medoc, which contained about 60% of Cabernet Sauvignon. One of these wines from the 1945 harvest is still considered the best wine ever produced in Spain.

By the way, since 1986 it resumed the tradition of producing wines with CC, launching the Baron de Chirel Cuvée, which contains up to 15–20% of this variety. With this wine and Marqués de Riscal Gran Reserva he keeps the high level of wines up to now. Unfortunately, in the last 2 decades, other wines have seriously lost their overall level. For example, Riserva is produced in 3 million bottles and is a mediocre supermarket wine in which nothing is worth looking for.

We tasted 1989 Marqués de Riscal Rioja Reserva. For many it was the wine of the night in Best Old Wine nomination. The wine was at its peak maturity. Velvet tannins, deep ruby colour. The wine showed bright fruitiness, which over the years has acquired jammy character. Layered deep flavor. Beautiful wine.

Marqués de Riscal Baron de Chirel Reserva 2001
Marqués de Riscal Baron de Chirel Reserva 2001

We continued our acquaintance with the Marqués de Riscal winery. Baron de Chirel Reserva of the great 2001. The wine was opened 5 hours before tasting, and 2 hours before serving it was transferred to a decanter for more aeration. The wine is at the junction of two styles: classic and modern. Cabernet Sauvignon pleasantly shows itself with notes of Bulgarian green pepper. The aroma is bright, rich and perfumed. Expression of modernism in the new French oak. At the same time, the wine shows its pedigree, noble with many nuances. The wine is ready and will slowly develop over the years.

2001 vintage is recognized as one of the best in Rioja. Weather conditions were like in the textbook. This year is for long aging.

Bodegas Benjamin de Rothschild & Vega Sicilia

2012 Bodegas Benjamin de Rothschild & Vega Sicilia Rioja Macan
2012 Bodegas Benjamin de Rothschild & Vega Sicilia Rioja Macan

The latest (since 2003) joint project in Rioja of the famous Spanish family Alvarez, owners of Vega Sicilia, and the Rothschilds. After searching for a long time, they acquired 80 hectares of vineyards in Rioja Alta in San Vicente, which is called the “golden mile” of the region, painstakingly buying them from 70 different owners.

The winery produces 2 wines in the manner of Bordeaux: Grand Vin — Macan and the second wine Macan Clásico.

Terroir wine, 100% Tempranillo, aged 2 years in French oak barriques (50% new oak). During the process, some barrels are selected for the first wine, others are left for the second, and so the production and the areas for both wines are the same.

We tasted 2012 Bodegas Benjamin de Rothschild & Vega Sicilia Rioja Macan. The wine was opened and transferred to the decanter 8 hours before serving. The wine has a very deep purple colour. Expressive bright fruity aroma that fits perfectly into the overall style of the Vega Sicilia house. The whole range of black berries with a touch of wild raspberries, cherries and floral nuances. Oak is brightly expressed with vanilla notes. The wine is nothing like the Rioja you know. This avantgarde wine is from totally different dimension on the opposite to classic. It’s curious to see how this wine will develop over the years. We predict a bright future to it.
(92 +/100)

C.V.N.E. (Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España)

C.V.N.E. Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva 1964
C.V.N.E. Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva 1964

Founded in 1879 by two brothers from Bilbao, the company initially worked as a negociant and produced bulk wine and brandy. The abbreviation C.V.N.E. (Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España) soon transformed into a more harmonious CUNE (kune) and became an independent brand.

Later, they invited specialists from Champagne to create a sparkling Rioja, which quickly gained popularity and won prizes.

Then came the famous Monopole, Imperial and Viña Real that made the winery famous not only in Rioja but all over Spain.

Imperial has been the flagship of the Bodega since the 1920s. The blend of Tempranillo, which is perfectly balanced between Masuelo and Graciano and even Viura. Traditionally ⅔ was made with Rioja Alta grapes and a third with Rioja Alavesa.

Viña Real, on the contrary, is ⅔ Rioja Alavesa and ⅓ Rioja Alta. Nowadays Imperial is entirely from Rioja Alta, Viña Real is from Rioja Alavesa.

Another great vintage wine from 1964 at our tasting is the C.V.N.E. Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva. Gran Reserva is only available in exceptional years. Even now in the best years their circulation is about 150–300 thousand bottles. The wines in the ’60s were aged for 12 (!) years. Gradually the ageing period decreased and today the wine spends no more than 2 years in a barrel.

Our wine was clear ruby with a wide orange belt. The wine was a little tired, but there was fruitiness, plenty of tertiary aromas of boiled vegetables, coffee, woody notes. The wine fell apart in the glass rather quickly, but still left a pleasant impression of the greatness of the 1964 harvest.

Marqués de Murrieta

Bodega was founded by Luciano Murrieta, one of the brightest protagonists in the history of Rioja. After receiving the title of Marquis from Spanish King Amadeo I, he acquired the Finca Ygay estate.

2007 Marqués de Murrieta Rioja Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial
2007 Marqués de Murrieta Rioja Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial

Having visited Bordeaux many times before, he believed in the French approach to winemaking. The Marquis, who had no heirs, handed over the management of the estate to a friendly family who owned the business until the late 20th century. In 1983 another noble family acquired the estate and revived the decaying Bodega.

The winery uses only the grapes grown at the estate for its production. The main variety is Tempranillo, but it also cultivates auxiliary authorized varieties. In recent years, the stylistic search has moved away from the classicism to which the winery gravitated throughout its history. Nowadays, French oak is preferred, trying to give more fruity aroma to the wines.
At the end of the evening we opened the 2007 Marqués de Murrieta Rioja Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial. The wine was aerated for 12 (!) hours, spent a long time in the decanter and was again bottled and chilled to the right temperature before serving. Such sophisticated manipulations made it possible to maximize the potential of a still very young wine. The wine turned out to be incredibly bright, powerful with an astounding volume and depth of aroma. A multilayered bouquet of fruits and berries, fragrance of flowers, notes of liquorice, menthol. Perfumery. Tannins are clinging, young. You can feel the presence of a barrel of vanilla. The enormous potential of this wine, which will have to fully prove itself in the next decades, is clearly traced. A serious wine that you can already try to drink now, and certainly it will gain a lot from the laying in the cellar. Buy a case and once every 1–2 years open it with a bottle and watch the wine evolve.
(94 +/100)

Here are my key 10 takeaways:

  1. Obviously, even such great vintages as 1964, 1970 and others have laid down the potential for longevity, but the conditions of wine storage turn the process into a lottery, where the chances of winning are decreasing every year. I am sure that winning such a lottery will more than just compensate for the unsuccessful attempts, but you need to be prepared for the losses.
  2. The wines from the 80s are more likely to be at the peak maturity. However, that period is overshadowed by a huge overproduction and a serious drop in quality. Therefore, I recommend to focus primarily on top producers.
  3. A good ripe Rioja is a serious quality wine, which has nothing to do with 90% of supermarket wines from the same production region. Miracles do not happen here either. Don’t be fooled with the wine labeled Rioja Gran Reserva you find on the shelf in the supermarket. It doesn’t guarantee the quality and enjoyment of the contents of such a bottle.
  4. It is interesting to compare classical and avant-garde styles. They are really very polar. It’s a great idea for a wine tasting at home.
  5. Be sure to try the rare white (no more than 10% of the region’s total production) and even rarer pink (rosado)from the best bodegas.
  6. The quality of the top wines from the best producers today is surely superior to that of 50 years ago. The best wines can be safely laid down for decades.
  7. The wines from the magnificent 2001, 2004 and 2005 vintages are already drinkable and beautiful!
  8. Rioja, even the top one, is still advantageously affordable compared to wines of comparable quality from the best regions of France, Italy and the USA.
  9. It is better to enjoy Rioja wines from high-quality glassware — specially designed for Tempranillo, also suitable forms for Bordeaux or universal glasses from the best manufacturers.
  10. Pay attention to the following producers (there are about 800 wineries in Rioja), which were not mentioned in the article, but whose wines are definitely worth exploring. The best wines are listed in brackets, the rest can be skipped :)

Bodegas Muga (Torre Muga, Prado Enea Gran Reserva)
Bodegas Roda (Cirsion, Roda I)
Bodegas Bilbainas (Viña Pomal Reserva)
Bodegas Castillo de Cuzcurrita (Cerrado del Castillo)
Ramon Bilbao (Viña Turzaballa, Mirto)
Carlos Serres (Onomastica Reserva)
Tobia (Alma de Tobia Tinto de Autor)
Finca Allende (Aurus, Martires)
Bodega Contador — Benjamin Romeo (Contador)
Senorio de San Vicente (San Vicente)
Viñedos Sierra Cantabria (Sierra Cantabria Colección Privada, Finca El Bosque)
Granja Nuestra Senora de Remelluri (Remelluri Bianco, Remelluri Gran Reserva)
Fernando Remirez de Ganuza (Gran Reserva)
Viña Izadi
Viñedos de Paganos (La Nieta)
Viñedos del Contino (Reserva)

Terroir Tasting Winemaker
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