La Rioja, as a wine region, has it all. There are three distinctive sub-regions: the Alavesa, Rioja Alta, and Rioja Baja. The primary city most central to all three sub-regions is Logrono, where the Ebro River runs through. Actually, the Ebro River weaves its way all the way through La Rioja. Logrono is a charming, and relatively quiet small city, currently famous for its tapas crawl on Calle Laurel in the center of town. Historically, it is famous for its location on the religious path of the pilgrammage of the Way of St James of Campostela. The food is local, and certainly super fresh. Many of the tapas bars specialize in one or two of the local items like the incredible Jamon Iberico, the local mushrooms (Setas), great fresh anchovies, stuffed pequillo peppers, white asparagus, baby artichokes and the famous tortilla, an egg and potato tart. The wines are local and affordable, the way wines from a wine region should be for the locals, and they are referred to, whether they are Blanco, Rosado, or Tinto when they are ordered, as a "Rioja."
What is so compelling about Rioja, in particular, is the almost seamless meshing of the traditional, the modern, and those who embrace elements of both. This is true of the culinary world, as well as the world of wine. There is something for everyone, rich and poor; that allows Rioja a culture that centers around food and wine. Food and wine are unifying elements of a society, rather than a dividing line of social class. There is great street food. There is great traditional food, and there is great molecular gastronomy at highly rated Michelin starred restaurants.
The Blending of Tradition and Innovation
No winery symbolizes the embracing of the very traditional, with the very modern, better than Marques de Riscal. Marques de Riscal was founded in 1860 by Don Camilio Hurtado de Amezaga, who was the Marques de Riscal. He had lived in Bordeaux in the 1830s during the first Carlist War, a civil war for control of Spain, fought by the descendents of Ferdinand VII, following his death. Don Camilio Hurtado de Amazaga returned from Bordeaux influenced by the methods and traditions of the region; in particular their use of wood barrels for aging, and in winemaking practices, the destemming of grapes before fermentation.
Today, guests of the winery can visit the ancient cellars of Marques de Riscal, and see wines still remaining there from as far back as 1862. On the same visit, after walking through the cellars, and out of the original building, you can walk over to the very futuristic Frank Gehry designed hotel on the same grounds. Somehow, in some way, the innovative, and the modern take an inspiration from tradition. Some wineries, such as Lopez de Heredia, stay very true to their historical methods of production, while others, such as Baigorri, show in the architecture of their winery, as well as their production methods; a clean break from the traditional.
The Regions and Grapes
The Alavesa, whose boundaries go into Basque country at the base of the Sierra Cantabria mountains, and Navarre; along with Rioja Alta, have vineyards that get more of a cooler Atlantic influence, where Tempranillo is the star red grape. Tempranillo is a sexy grape, with a weight somewhere between Pinot Noir, and lighter styled Merlot. Temprano is translated to English as early, and that is when it ripens. Garnacha, which had traditionally been grown in Rioja Baja's warmer, more Mediterannean vineyards, has dropped dramatically in their plantings, accounting for less than 10 percent, today. Now, according to Ana Fabiano's insightful book, The Wine Regions of Rioja, 65 percent of the Garnacha plantings are in the Rioja Alta. Still, some of the more historic villages for Garnacha remain in Rioja Baja. Mazuelo and Graciano are the other minor grapes that are permitted and planted. Even though they represent less than 5 percent of the total red plantings, there are some notable bottling of both grapes on their own individually.
The characteristics of Garnacha, a hearty grape popularized in the southern Rhone Valley, as well as Rioja; a traditionally important grape, blended with Tempranillo, to provide the backbone of very traditional Rioja wines.
The white grapes are Viura (Macabeo), which is the primary grape, along with Garnacha Blanca and Malvasia. The combination of Viura's acidity and structure, Malvasia's floral aromatics, and Garnacha Blanca, which adds a boost of alcohol, and is low on acidity.
In 2009, four indigenous grapes became approved by the DOCa. One red, Maturana Tinta, and three whites, Maturana Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, and Turruntes, all of which can be said to really being in experimental stages.
Rioja in the Market Today
The uniqueness of Rioja as a wine region is wrapped in the sub-climates, the subtle nuances of the vast changes from one area even within the same sub-climate, and the dramatically different, just a short distance away. This is the reason for the uniqueness of terroir in Burgundy, and I believe it is an incredibly important factor in the production of Rioja wines as well. The blending of compatible grapes, and magically historic estates provides much of the backdrop of Bordeaux's special qualities. Rioja has that too. So, Rioja, in its own style has their own stamp on the two major characteristics of Bordeaux, and Burgundy, while clearly maintaining an aura of their own.
Still, the principles of supply and demand dictate the wine market. This is as true now, as it ever was. While the prices of classified Bordeaux, rare Burgundies soar in emerging markets; there comes a time to look at what people are paying for, and what the motivation is behind the purchase.
Rioja offers real value. The Reservas, Gran Reservas, and "High Expression wines" are still in financial reality for a special occasion. These are wines that have some of the great elements of Bordeaux and Burgundy wrapped together in a single region. Yes, these are the wines that still are a relative bargain, in comparison to the outrageous pricing of Bordeaux and top Burgundy wines.
The DOCa laws state that a red Reserva wine must have a minimum of one year in oak barrels, and at minimum sold in its fourth year. Gran Reservas must be aged a minimum of two years in oak barrels and an additional three years in bottle. Many of the top producers far exceed these requirements. If you were a restaurateur, would you purchase a top red Burgundy, which might take years to come around to drinking well; or would you purchase a young classified Bordeaux, which might take decades to come around? The red Reservas and Gran Reservas of Rioja are ready to drink upon release... and in my mind, are equally as great. I know which I would pick.