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Rioja on the Cusp

From Haro, the heart of Rioja Alta, you can look north on mornings in May and find thick white clouds above the Sierra Cantabria Mountains, a wall of weather piling up against the peaks like sheets of meringue, looking as if at any moment they’ll tumble into the valley below. But they stay put, melting away in the afternoon heat, on the cusp of coastal and continental climate zones. North of the Sierra, the heart of Basque country, the mountains are lush and green; south of them, the slopes turn out scrub and brush, broom and madrone, garrigue set in a jumble of limestone, clay and cobble.

This interstitial climatic state frequently defines a great growing region. In Burgundy, these minutiae of terroir would be analyzed in painstaking detail. In Rioja, however, such particulars feel incidental; to visit Rioja is to ditch the viticultural cliché that all great wine is made in the vineyard. In Rioja, most great wines are defined by their elevage, the time they spend in cellars, in barrel or bottle, taking on the patina of age, becoming something else. Region-wide, at any given moment, a billion bottles lie in repose, while a million barrels filled with juice wait in the wings.

Such cultural practices are more or less enforced by law. Rioja’s three principle red wine classifications — Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva — are defined by aging requirements, in barrel and bottle. Clearly, tradition plays a role as well, born from a long history with the châteaux of Bordeaux, beginning in the latter half of the 19th century, when troubles with phylloxera forced that region to turn south for assistance, a move that instantly elevated Rioja as Spain’s most heralded. To some extent that era seems to have stopped time in Haro, where to this day the Centenarians — historic wineries that did business with the Bordelais — are clustered near the train depot, where their liquid wares were placed on special cars custom fitted with enormous transport barrels and hauled north to France.

Rioja’s focus on barrels

Barrels. No region in the world is more obsessed. To hear a Rioja winemaker speak of barrels is by turns fascinating and stupefying. Riojanos have developed unparalleled systems of barrel management; most of the world’s innovations in transport, inventory, rotation, racking and reuse originate here.

Not surprisingly, Riojanos love to talk about oak (traditionally American). They obsess about it, analyze it to the minutest degree; just when you thought they’ve thoroughly exhausted the topic they press forward, with yet more to say. Oak is the lens through which every red wine is seen in Rioja, and a wine’s time in barrel is like a kind of the currency with which the region trades.

The space required for all of these aging vessels is vast and labyrinthine, especially in the older wineries; without a guide you’d get lost in the maze-like network of tunnels, where barrels are stacked to the ceiling, where library wines reside in cement cubbyholes accumulating decades of mold, dust and cobwebs, the walls oozing with strangely-colored growths — all signs, by the way, of superb cellar health, an ideal wine aging ecosystem. On a recent cellar tour, Mercedes Lopez de Heredia, scion, with her sister Maria Jose, of Bodegas Lopez de Heredia, one of the region’s oldest, expressed concern about her depleted spider populations — how, she worried, will they manage the fruit flies without them?

Overcoming my squeamishness, I drew my finger across the grim black mold that clung to one of the bottles. It had the consistency of oily gossamer wool and shrank to the touch like a cobweb, with a faint earthy smell, though for something so vile in appearance, it was curiously benign.

Mercedes took one of these bottles upstairs, a 1942 Viña Tondonia, wrapping it carefully in tissue, pouring it undecanted for our meal. For about 25 minutes, it was a glorious, incantatory experience in the glass, profoundly ancient scents of wet soil, truffle, mushroom and tobacco, dried plum flavors translucent as faded silk, through it all the acidity still singing a pure high note. The experience was as uplifting as it was utterly fleeting, a half hour’s grace of the sort that makes one glad to be alive to glimpse it, and wistful when it falls away.

This wine, I remember thinking, was a repository of history: The person who had placed it in its crypt was long dead; when it had last been touched, the inhabitants of Haro were still reeling from the memories of fascism and civil strife, and enduring the trials of the greatest war they’d ever face, even as vintages moved on, impassive to hardship and deprivation, carrying the region inexorably forward.

A tension in winemaking styles

The 21st century keeps forcing itself upon Rioja, despite the pull of history. The region’s most modern winery, Roda, producer of dramatic French oak-aged bottlings of power and polish, happens to share a dividing wall with Lopez de Heredia, one of the many ironies the region accommodates without effort. And Bodegas Dinastía Vivanco, another winery making wines in a flashy international style, draws in visitors with a spectacular museum of wine, extolling a global history in which it no doubt hopes to insinuate itself, even as it bypasses traditional styles altogether.

In fact many wineries produce a tier of traditional wines as well as a set of modern, international bottlings, employing much riper fruit and French oak, perhaps in response to the preferences of certain very untraditional critics. In this bifurcated existence, a weird tension exists. The traditional wines can be almost reverential of the old ways, but can also seem fusty and outmoded, dependent on oak for definition, which too often leaches vineyard expression from the wine. On the other hand, many of the posh modern bottlings taste as if they could come from anywhere; to strip a Rioja wine of its typicity hardly feels like an advancement.

For better or worse, tradition must inform the better wines of the region, though the version expressed in the great Centenarian houses of La Rioja Alta, CVNE, and Bilbainas, or in the wines of Muga and Marques de Murrieta, isn’t its only iteration. You can find it in the wines of Bodegas Hermanos Peciña, a small new-ish winery that is imposing a compelling natural wine practice upon the traditional framework of Rioja elevage, employing indigenous yeasts and neutral barrels, for more focused fruit expression.

Or it can take the form of the wines of Remelluri, made by the talented Telmo Rodríguez, who left Rioja in the 1990s to found wineries in several regions of Spain, only to return to his family’s estate in Labastida. Precariously planted on mountain slopes that abut the border of La Rioja and Basque Country, the estate lies on the very edge that defines the region’s climate. There Rodríguez is retraining his vines off trellises and back to gobelet bush vines, converting his viticulture to a personal version of biodynamics, introducing a higher percentage of Garnacha in his blends than most other wineries — inspired perhaps by his success with the grape in Navarro and elsewhere. Even beneath the traditional carapace of oak, the wines are lithe and bracing, and in their lucid expression Rodríguez seems to reclaim a tradition that he could only discover upon leaving, and may now help to synthesize.


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Clouds over the Sierra Cantabria, north of Rioja. Patrick Comiskey.


Photo: Aging wine bottles. Credit: Patrick Comiskey

Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.