Despite all the excitement over the new discoveries in Spanish vineyards, Rioja remains atop the international community’s perception of Spanish wines, as it has for two centuries or more. Yet there is not one true style of Rioja; instead, several versions are valid. The ancient style of Rioja, exemplified by oxidative red, white, and rosé wines, may not be to everyone’s taste, but this mode remains legitimate, if more and more unusual. The modern school, with labels that came forward in the 1960s and onward, emphasizes time in oak for other reasons; these wines seek supple expressions and softer structures. And the new internationalist school of winemaking is in full effect in Rioja; there are plenty of producers with powerful wines, inky-dark and joltingly tannic from new French oak. So the bastion of Spain’s wine tradition has many rooms in its mansion, as it were, and each ought to be viewed as genuine.
Rioja’s regions are often just as wildly and confusingly championed as the styles of its wines, and from a similar misperception. Many people believe that the three subregions—Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta, and Rioja Baja—are distinctly different and hierarchical. The Alavesa is indeed distinct; its chalky soils and high elevation create wines of less color and greater perfume, more longevity, and less power at birth. The Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja regions carry more or less the same soil types. Both have iron-rich, limestone-clay soils, interspersed with alluvial soils from the many rivers that carve the area. The name Rioja is a contraction of one of the tributaries of the Ebro River, the Río Oja.
What differentiates the three subregions is elevation. The Alta, as the name says, is higher. Meanwhile, the Baja’s lower altitude compounds its hot and dry conditions. The soil structure of the Baja differs from that of Alta in only one important aspect: a hard limestone layer often is found less than a foot below the topsoil. Since the Baja is hot and dry, that hardpan makes it very difficult to grow grapes in hot and dry years. But the authorities are now allowing people to irrigate in the Baja, and a few have taken to ripping up that hardpan, allowing the vines’ roots to dig deeper and farther from the ravages of the sun.
So Baja is making some very good wine, despite its reputation. And the truly traditional wines of Rioja have always been blends of wines from all three areas, despite the modern focus upon certain regions or vineyards. With the marketplace all agog with more minute selections of vineyards and microclimates, the future of Rioja leads away from these blends. The best that can be hoped for by traditionalists is that the market will continue to embrace at least some wines made the old way.
The vineyards are more than 80% red grapes. Among the whites, Viura is the most widely planted and the ideal grape for those interested in a fresher, more modern style. But some of the traditionalists still love their old Malvasía vines.
The mainstay grape is Tempranillo. Much of the Garnacha of the area is clustered in the Baja, and so the reputation of Garnacha lingers far behind Tempranillo in Rioja. Small plantings of Mazuelo (Carineña) and Graciano attest to the traditional lack of interest in those two grapes. But Graciano is struggling to shine like a rising star—those wines with part or all Graciano in them can be spectacular.
More importantly, all three regions benefit from the angle of the mountains around Rioja: they are protected by the Sierra de Cantábria and the Sierra de la Demanda from the coldest, Atlantic air masses, but still influenced by that nearby ocean. Meanwhile, the opening of that mountainous angle allows for a Mediterranean influence from the south. Perhaps surprisingly, the ideal vintages are not those in which the Mediterranean has a great influence. Rather, the better years rest on a blending of influences of the north and the south, as it were; that’s what growers hope for in a perfect vintage—not too hot, not too cold.
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