As is true in most longtime wine producing regions, some of Rioja's greatest producers are those that have evolved over generations. Ancestors may have been farmers, who started growing vines. They may have purchased vineyards in ideal locations at a time when prime spots were much easier to acquire than today. At some point, the family got involved in winemaking, and one generation shared its wisdom, acquired over decades of successes and failures, with the next.
That's the case with two of the families whose wines most stood out for me on my visit to Rioja last month. One of them, the Egurens, have been growing grapes for six generations and making excellent wines, and innovating for decades. This family has become justly famous, and also quite wealthy. I will write about their wines and their impact on Rioja winemaking in my next post. The other family, the Peciñas, have also been growing grapes for five generations, but only started making their own wines in 1992. They are not widely known yet, but they're also making terrific wines, in a very traditional style, that deserve greater recognition.
The wines both families are making are based primarily on Tempranillo, which is both indigenous to the region and the most widely planted grape in Rioja by far. Ninety percent of the vineyards of Rioja are planted to black grape varieties, and 81 percent of Rioja's black grape vines are Tempranillo. Tempranillo is a remarkably malleable black grape, capable of making both relatively light and fruity quaffers, as well as more elegant, structured and long-lived wines that gain complexity with years of barrel and bottle age. Depending on how and where it is grown, it can also produce very powerful, modern style, concentrated fruit bombs, especially when treated to large doses of new French oak.
There are a few other black grapes grown, primarily Garnacha (known elsewhere as Grenache), which can add ripe cherry fruit and warmth to blends; Graciano, used for its aromatics and deep color; and Mazuelo (known as Carignan elsewhere), which contributes acidity and tannin, for structure. The dominant white grape is Viura, along with lesser amounts of Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca.
A distinctive feature of Rioja wines, besides the dominance of Tempranillo, is the barrel maturation. The 225-liter "barrica bordelesa," which was introduced in the mid-1800s, is required by DOCa regulations. Up until recently, American oak barrels, with their distinctive vanilla and dill flavors, were widely used, but tighter grained French oak is coming into increasing use. Many producers now opt for a mix of new and used American and French oak barrels, and French only for some cuvées.
The regulations also specify minimum aging periods for each official category of wine. The traditional barrel aged categories are Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. Red wines labeled Crianza and Reserva must be aged at least one year in oak. A Crianza must spend at least another 12 months in bottle, while a Reserva -- the benchmark designation for most producers -- spends a minimum of 24 months in bottle before release. Gran Reservas -- made only in the best years, and often from particular, low yielding parcels -- are aged for a minimum of five years, two in barrel and three in bottle, although many bodegas age them even longer. Some producers in recent years, however, have chosen to opt out of these traditional age designations, at least for some of their wines, preferring the flexibility they gain by using simply a generic Rioja seal that indicates minimal or no oak aging, even though such wines may see substantial oak aging.
Most of the wines of the Peciña family, owners of Bodegas Hermanos Peciña, very much follow the traditional categories. They produce a young, fresh, appealing wine, a Cosecha, with simply the generic Rioja seal but then age their Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reservas, under their Senorio de P. Peciña label, for longer than required by regulations. All their wines are made from estate vineyards, 125 acres worth, with vines ranging in age from 16 to 66 years. Their Tempranillo vines are interplanted with a small proportion of Graciano and Garnacha, so that their red wines normally contain about two percent Graciano.
Vinification is very traditional, with the grapes destemmed and fermented using no commercial yeast in stainless steel tanks, where the malolactic fermentations also take place. To avoid strong oak flavors, they age the wines exclusively in used barrels, nearly all of which are American. They told us they had done some experimentation with French oak, but really like the effect of American oak on Tempranillo. They also use a very small amount of Hungarian oak. Every six months, to avoid reduction, they rack the wines by gravity, eliminating sediment by candling the wine that comes from the bottom of the barrel, as shown in the picture below. The wines are bottled without filtering or fining.
The results are impressive -- complex, very balanced wines, with some secondary flavors -- like tobacco and leather -- showing on the wines in all the traditional categories.
They also make some terrific whites from their 3.7 acres of Viura, which may have a small amount of Malvasia mixed in. Depending on the nature of the vintage, they either raise the whites entirely in stainless steel, or barrel age them on their lees. We tried examples of both, and I'm more of a fan of the stainless steel versions, which seem capable of aging for several years, at least.
As mentioned above, the family only started making wine in 1992, after growing grapes and selling them to wineries for generations. Pedro Peciña Crespo had worked for one of Rioja's oldest traditional producers, La Rioja Alta, for 15 years as vineyard manager before establishing this winery near the old Rioja Alta town of San Vicente de la Sonsierra with his two sons, daughter and son-in-law. One of the sons, also named Pedro, has been making wine since he was 14, and studied enology in Laguardia, so he serves as winemaker.
Besides, the traditional categories, they also make a wine in good vintages called the Vendimia Seleccionada Reserva, which is aged for three years in barrel and two in bottle, but which retains more color and concentration than a typical Gran Reserva. This was my favorite wine of the lineup. They also make a more modern style wine, Chobeo de Peciña, sourced from some of their oldest vines, that sees only nine months in new American oak. This is definitely a more modern style wine, but with great flavor complexity. The entire line is reasonably priced.
Nearly 50 percent of their production is exported, with 15 percent of it going to the United States. Some of this country's best wine shops, including K&L and Beltramo's in California, and Chambers Street in New York, carry many of their bottlings.
For my detailed tasting notes on these wines, see the complete post on my blog here.
Follow Richard Jennings on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rjonwine