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Spain's 'Burdeaux': La Rioja's Journey to the World Stage

As the only Indian at the Fourth Grandes de La Rioja 2006, Subhash Arora got to sample some of the best products of Spain's premier wine-making region. Here's his guide that will help you understand the versatility of La Rioja's wines a little better.

For a long time, Rioja has been considered the Burgundy of Spain ... and also its Bordeaux, despite using totally different and indigenous grapes. The reason is quite evident. Rioja Alta's cool climate mirrors that of Burgundy. The region presents a fragmented picture because of the parcelisation of vineyards as a result of the laws of hereditary transfers of land, which are similar to the Napoleonic laws that are responsible for the very small sizes of the vineyards in Burgundy.

Although Rioja has been producing wine for 2,200 years, the defining moment came when many of the producers from Bordeaux who were hit by phylloxera in the 1870s decided to set up their own Bodegas (wineries) in the region. The town of Haro (pronounced ah-row) was already linked with Bordeaux by rail and so it became La Rioja's wine capital.

The wine-making conditions were very different and the main grape variety used was the indigenous Tempranillo, but a huge opportunity was there to implement the Bordelais methods and establish a stable supply line. This love affair lasted till the end of the century when the disease caught up with Rioja, which made the Bordelais to pack up and go home, selling the wineries to local notables. No wonder, out of the 17 wineries in La Rioja that are more than 100 years old, 11 are in Haro.

It is important to understand the difference between Rioja and La Rioja. Rioja is the Appellation (an equivalent of AOC in France and DOC in Italy). DO is a common Denominacion de Origen appellation. DOCa, or DO Calcificada, signifies wines of consistent higher quality and DO Rioja was the first to be promoted to DOCa status in 1991 (Priorat and Cava are the two other regions that earned this honour subsequently). The DOCa has 61,000 hectares of land under vines, of which 42,000 hectares (70%) are within the La Rioja province. The balance 30% is equally divided between the provinces of Navarra and Basque to the north of La Rioja.

La Rioja is the smallest province, but it's far ahead of the other provinces in wine exports. The province has 350,000 residents, of whom about 100,000 live in Logronyo, the capital. It's one of the richest regions of Spain with an established auto ancillary industry and home appliances factories, which are consistently attracting many immigrants, both legal and illegal. The Riojans, though, are regarded as rugged and hard-working, important qualifications for viticulture. The region is synonymous with premium Spanish wines, which enjoy a virtual monopoly in all the good restaurants in Spain. Ribera del Duero and Priorat, though, are taking the region head on. A significant reason for the arrival of these new kids on the block is the astronomical increase in the prices of Rioja wines in the last 20 years, a trend that has stabilised in this millennium.

To be fair, Riojan wines have experienced a significant improvement of quality during this period. With new techniques of fermentation and barrel aging, the wine styles are converging to a more friendly style that is fruitier and less tannic.

These wines are made from low-yielding grapes and matured in barriques made from new French and American oak, which add complexity to the wines and round off the tannins. As I discovered during the professional tastings at the Fourth Grandes de La Rioja 2006, great wines are still available if one has the ability and the inclination to study the territory. Rioja boasts of a unique terroir. Located around the Rio Ebro, which runs from the northwest to the east, the region is named after a smaller river named Rio Oja. The beautiful valley is surrounded by the Sierra de Cantabria mountains to the north, which stand as a wall against cold winds, and to the south are the tall snow-peaked Domanda mountains at a distance. The upper portion of Rioja, Rioja Alta, enjoys a cool Atlantic climate; the lower Alta Baja is more in the plains and has a warmer climate, making it suitable for a hot-climate grape variety like Garnacha.

Another unique feature of Rioja is that as a result of the small sizes of the plots, wineries are allowed to buy grapes from outside and mix them with their own grapes and still call the wines DOCa. This won't be tolerated in Bordeaux. Many co-operatives are flourishing. Most producers don't own their estates and have contracts with farmers to make their own wines. They are allowed to blend the grapes from all parts of Rioja, provided they are from the same Denominacion.

Rioja is known mostly for its red wines made from Tempranillo, which is the main grape (75% of all the vines), with Garnacha (Grenache) and other local varieties, Graciano (pronounced grah-th-iano) and Mazuelo, are used in small quantities.

Among connoisseurs, the Crianzas and Reservas are more popular than the Gran Reservas, which at times, as a result of too much oaking (5-10 years), express soft vanilla flavours, but the wines have less fruit and freshness.

Tempranillo is excellent for aging. While on a visit to Bodegas Franco Espagnola, an old winery in Logronyo that used to be frequented by Ernest Hemingway, I'd the pleasure of tasting a Bodegas Paternine 1955 and a 1948, both made from 100% Tempranillo. The wines were minerally, elegant, well-balanced, drinking well, and vibrant with soft tannins. My German friend Joel Payne, co-author of the German Wine Guide, who was at the tasting, commented: "In a blind tasting I would have thought it was much younger, perhaps a Gran Reserva." The wine, it appeared, would drink well for many more years.

This is the sign of a wine made from grapes that age well. Another reason could be the natural acidity of the grape which helps it preserve itself and age better. Rioja boasts of many old vines, usually aged between 30 and 70 years. This is more the rule than the exception.

I have observed that the alcohol level of Rioja reds are quite high -- 13-14.5% being quite normal. The alcohol, though, is well-integrated and doesn't interfere with food. The lighter-bodied Crianzas make a good match for Indian food; the Reservas are perfect with red meats, especially the Iberian ham and chorizo sausages.

A number wineries export their Crianzas as Reservas, for they meet the legal requirements. For importers, this is an important point to note because it affects the pricing.

The recent practice of bottling earlier to reduce the dominance of oaky aromas has resulted in more luscious wines. At our tasting, a Cirsion 2004 made at a newer state-of-the-art winery called Roda, in Haro, was unanimously declared the most delicious wine. Made from pre-selected vines and clusters of grapes, it is a young wine compared to the classic style of Riojan wines, but represents the new wave of winemakers.

Selling at US$ 220 in the US, it is available only on allocation or at special tastings like the one we had at the venue and later at the winery.

Rioja's white wines are made from 100% Viura, a refreshing and very acidic grape. (it is known as Macabeo in Catalonia, where it is used as the basic grape for making Cava). I found that the addition of 10% Malvasia (which is what many producers do) tamed the acids, making the wines more palatable and yet adding body and aromas. Some of the whites are aged in barrels for four to five years. These are more expensive but more expressive of the terroir.

The reds offer many reasons to import Riojans into India, even though the price is a lot cheaper for the whites.

Rioja has taken the lead in producing quality organic wines. Good values are available for eco-friendly consumers. Producers in Rioja, moreover, have woken up to the sleeping giant, the Indian wine market. Undoubtedly, more and more Indian importers and hotels and restaurants will add these wines to their portfolios because consumers want better and diverse wines at affordable prices.

Just 12 harvests have been considered 'Excellent' by the Regulating Council of Rioja, which started rating each vintage since 1925. Five of these have been in recent years -- 2005, 2004, 2001, 1995 and 1994. The 2004 and 2005 vintages haven't yet been released and are undergoing maturation. The 2001 Reservas are already in the market and are generally fabulous. You may pick up most of 2001 vintages at any duty-free shops; you won't be disappointed. They are drinking well now, but will also age gracefully to become much more complex during the next five to ten years, depending on the estate.

The year 2000 was a difficult vintage; it should be avoided. The year 2005 has been declared an 'Excellent' vintage not very long ago, after the sampling of the wines from that year was completed on March 31, 2005. All the other vintages in the last 12 years have been rated 'Very Good'.


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