Is Rioja Today’s Most Overlooked (and Underappreciated) Wine?

It’s not just oak anymore
Is Rioja Today’s Most Overlooked (and Underappreciated) Wine?
Matt Kramer makes a compelling argument for Rioja's greatness. (Jon Moe)
Mar 20, 2018

HARO, Spain—“The past is never dead,” famously opined William Faulkner. “It’s not even past.” Spending two days with three of Rioja’s most famous wine producers had Faulkner’s words not just ringing in my ears, but dancing on my palate as well.

To tour Spain’s Rioja region today is to invite an almost head-spinning sensation of a constantly flexing time warp. Thirty minutes from the simple country town of Haro is the 21st-century likes of the Hotel Marquès de Riscal, designed by architect Frank Gehry, adorned with Gehry’s signature roof of convoluted ribbons of titanium and stainless steel, some tinted pink to evoke the wine setting. Nothing could be more futuristic.

Yet in Haro you also find the proudly, even defiantly, traditional likes of three of Rioja’s greatest producers: CVNE, Muga and López de Heredia. When, for example, was the last time you visited a winery that has its own coopers—a half a dozen or more—fashioning barrels right on the premises?

Both Muga and López de Heredia have such, showing a visitor, with a matter-of-fact casualness, their barrel-making apparatus with its saws and planes and fire spurting from the floor (the heat of which helps bend the staves and toast the interior of the new barrel). And in Rioja, which venerates wood with almost Druidic fervor, they are hardly the only ones fashioning their own barrels straight from logs purchased from half a dozen countries (it’s not just American oak anymore), not to mention repairing the thousands of existing older barrels.

And it’s not just barrels either. Likely you will never see more large upright wood casks, each holding 1,000 or more gallons, than in Rioja. Muga, for example, has hundreds of them, many of them decades old.

“We tend to pick later than many other producers,“ explains Jorge Muga Palacín. “Other producers might get to use these large wood vats for fermenting two or three times over a harvest, as the grapes arrive in stages. But our grapes come in late and very nearly all at once. So we need two or three times as many of these vats in order to accommodate all of the grapes at the same time.” Then he shrugs. No big deal.

All of this is on the surface, as it were. But it is only in conversation that resolute convictions about the worth and beauty of Rioja’s traditions give way to a more modern unease about the future and, especially, a sense of diminished stature in the fine-wine world.

Make no mistake: Rioja has lost esteem in the past few decades. Time was that Rioja was everybody’s go-to wine. You were guaranteed to see Rioja listings on nearly every restaurant wine list. Wine lovers everywhere usually had one or another Rioja red as their house wine. Then, starting in the 1980s, the music stopped—or at least was less often heard.

Partly this was inevitable. Whole new winegrowing regions emerged to offer both local and international competition on a scale that previously only the likes of Rioja’s impressively big bodegas could equal. You had California, Chile, Australia, Argentina, Washington state and others proffering quality wines calibrated to contemporary tastes at highly competitive prices, often muscled into the marketplace by the capital and marketing savvy of deep-pocketed corporations with penetrating distribution.

“What I’d like to know now,” asks Victor Urrutia, the fifth-generation owner of CVNE (the merciful abbreviation for Compañia Vinícola del Norte de España, which abbreviation is itself transformed into the more pronounceable Cune), “is what will it take for people outside of Spain to recognize the greatness of Rioja’s wines?”

Mr. Urrutia is himself nothing if not sophisticated. Natively fluent in English thanks to having been sent at a young age by his English language–obsessed Spanish father to a Benedictine boarding school in the north of England (and further polished by an MBA from Columbia University), Mr. Urrutia feels a certain frustration because his flagship red, called Imperial, is indisputably great. And while it gets a very good price, hovering near the $100 mark, it only rarely gets cited among the world’s greatest red wines (setting aside its recognition in 2013 as Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year).

“Let me be honest,” he submits. “I don’t believe that any wine region anywhere in the world offers greater value—by which I mean higher quality at a fairer price—than Rioja. And I’m not just talking about my wines, mind you. We age our wines longer than almost anybody. And really, we don’t charge for that. Or not much anyway. When you buy a good red Rioja, even though it can age in your cellar for decades more, it’s far more ready to drink, far more along in its evolution, than almost any fine red wine from anywhere else.”

He’s right. Rioja, uniquely in this observer’s view, routinely offers the world a level of matured wine quality like no other. Are there young, simple, red wines from Rioja? Of course there are, oceans of them.

But even at the low price end, you need only visit the highly modern (and vast) cellar of the giant Campo Viejo winery in Rioja’s other, bigger and more sophisticated wine town of Logroño to witness the commitment to Rioja’s traditional taste preference for a rounder maturity, however modest the wine.

Campo Viejo, owned by wine-and-spirits giant Pernod Ricard, dazzles the visitor with a single cellar expanse of tens of thousands of small oak barrels, arrayed in horizon-stretching ranks like those ancient Chinese terra cotta warriors. A surprising number of these barrels are new or only a year or two old. In a world of expensive oak, how this pencils out I’ll never know. But there it is.

In the meantime, Rioja is grappling with modernity. A recent, and controversial, push to revise Rioja’s antiquated labeling laws now allows producers to cite a specific village name. And that, mind you, only comes on the heels of a 1998 revision which grudgingly allowed producers to cite even the very broad-brushstroke designations of Rioja’s three subregions: Rioja Baja, Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa.

Of course the French have encouraged terroir-oriented site specificity from the controlled appellation get-go in the 1930s. But Rioja’s tradition was always blending, and its big bodegas have long had no interest, commercially or intellectually, in offering any information that detracted from their brand names or their blending needs.

So change is in the wind. Yet the tradition remains resolute—and rewarding. The wines of Muga, for example, impeccably reflect what might be called a contemporary traditionalism, ringing the changes from a superbly crisp, fresh, utterly modern white made from Viura (a 1973 bottling, opened while I was there to honor a celebrated San Sebastián chef who also was visiting, revealed a capacity to age that impressed even the Muga family members), to a salmon-hued rosé that I would put in competition with the world’s best and subtlest rosés, to several full-throated reds of uncommon depth and layers derived from high-elevation, often limestone-rich sites.

And then there are the other-worldly wines of López de Heredia. Even by Rioja standards, this producer is the keeper of an ancient flame like no other. I mean, do you know of any other producer who releases its rosé only after 10 years of aging? (The current 2008 vintage release is impressively fresh-tasting, with just the barest inviting edge of funkiness.)

And while López de Heredia’s reds are among Rioja’s best, it’s their single-vineyard Viña Tondonia Blanco that will rock your world. Here, the current release is the 2005 vintage. How to describe it? My notes, like some sort of spirit writing, keep repeating the word “fascinating.”

Over dinner with owner María José López de Heredia, a 1976 Viña Tondonia Blanco was served. In the decanter it almost looked like a rosé so tinted was the hue, yet when poured in the glass the color was a light medium gold with the barest touch of topaz. The scent was dryly fruity with a hint of nuts. Just 11.5 percent alcohol, its flavors compare to no other white wine in my experience, with notes of citrus, nuts and dried fruits flitting in and out yet still retaining a striking vibrancy despite the obvious maturity, finishing with the faintest Sherry note. Is it a “modern” dry white wine? Hardly. Yet it’s brilliantly original, like no other dry white wine in my experience.

I asked María José López de Heredia, a charmingly voluble woman who freely admits to talking with her ancestors and getting answers—something no other Rioja producer, no matter how reverently traditional, has yet admitted to me—if the 1976 Viña Tondonia Blanco could possibly evolve further after four decades of aging.

“No,” she admitted, “it won’t. But I recently had a bottle from the 1950s. And it was about the same as this 1976. It will just stay the same now.” Drinking a wine like that, none of us, however, will be the same. It’s that enlightening—and original—an experience.

Spain Opinion

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