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Rioja - The Old and the New

By Alastair Marshall, also posted in News on

  It is a fairly daunting prospect to contemplate a wine visit to the Rioja region, not because the people are off-putting in any way – in fact they are extremely warm and friendly, neither is it the countryside because that has a little of everything and is very easy on the eye. Nor is it the food, which is simply sensational - but it is the hours they keep which does for me. When dinner starts at 10pm and is liable to go on for three hours, I find myself only too keen to embrace the siesta culture. Rioja owes its unique character to a combination of location, grape variety and ageing process. Originally based on land that bordered the river Oja (Rio Oja), this region has a long history of wine production,  but it is only in the mid-nineteenth century that the influence of an oxidative style of winemaking, involving oak barrels, was brought from Bordeaux. This changed the region’s fortunes, and soon Rioja was a household name.  The vineyards enjoy a temperate, central European climate and are protected to the north by the Cantabrian Mountains which moderate fierce winds and shield against excessive rain. The roll-call of grapes is led by the mighty Tempranillo, grown in Spain since early times and which now dominates Spanish viticulture, followed in popularity by Garnacha, which brings juicy flavours and alcohol to the mix. Then we have  Graciano, which is mostly unique to the region and brings depth of colour and ageing potential to a wine, and finally Mazuelo which is confusingly a synonym for France’s Carignan, which originally gets its name as hailing from the Cariñena region, which is a mere few hours drive east of Rioja. Having learned the art of maturing wine in cask from the Bordelais, which the Riojans now excel at, you will find row upon row, stack upon stack of barrels in every cellar, made from different types of oak from around the world. American oak is particularly favoured for its broad grain and the generous, sweet vanilla flavours that it imparts to a wine. Here's a breakdown on the different levels of ageing in wines from the Rioja region: Joven (young) or Sin Crianza (literally, without rearing) is a wine that has not seen any, or very little oak. Semi-Crianza (such as Adnams Rioja) has spent a maximum of six months in oak and just a few months in bottle before being released. This is not an official category, but a style that is growing in popularity – the best of both worlds, if you like. Crianza, on the other hand, means that the wine has spent a minimum of six months in cask and two years ageing in bottle. Reserva denotes a minimum of one year in oak and up to a period of three years in bottle. Rioja Gran Reserva is a wine made from the best grapes in the finest vintages and aged for a minimum of two years in oak and a further three years development in bottle before release. We have identified some of our favourite wines which show off grape type and crianza category, picked from four top Rioja estates, which we believe exemplify the modernism as well as traditionalism. You can order them here in a 6-bottle mixed case containing 1 of each of the following wines for £63 (saving over £5), or a 12-bottle mixed case containing 2 bottles of each wine for £119 (saving over £17). Delivery is free on both cases. 2010 Rioja Sin Crianza, Organic, Navardia, Bodega Bagordi, £7.50 per bottle (70% Garnacha 20% Graciano 10% Garnacha)     2008 Rioja Semi-Crianza, Adnams Selection, Bodega Medievo, £8.99 per bottle (80% Tempranillo 10% Garnacha 5% Mazuelo 5% Graciano)     2009 Rioja Crianza Selección, Puerta Vieja, Bodegas Riojanas, £8.99 per bottle (80% Tempranillo 15% Mazuelo 5% Graciano)     2010 Rioja Joven, Bodega Rioja Vega, £11.99 per bottle     (100% Tempranillo)       2006 Rioja Reserva, Monte Real, Bodegas Riojanas, £11.99 per bottle (100% Tempranillo)     2004 Rioja Gran Reserva, Monte Real, Bodegas Riojanas,  £17.99 per bottle (80% Tempranilo 15% Mazuelo 5% Graciano)


Alastair Marshall