Our tasting group was bewildered by Tempranillo more than once so I’ve had a request to visit Ribera del Duero as a theme for tasting. Before we do that, I want to have a red Rioja tasting because it is a great introduction to Spain that paints a good picture and foundation for the style and history of the country’s wine production.
The history of wine in Spain is long… I s’pose that’s why we call it history? What I mean to say is that a lot has happened that shifted the modus operandi of the Spanish wine world is very significant ways many a time.
Deep breath, here’s the historical low-down:
Grapes were thought to be cultivated as long ago as in the 4th century BCE in Spain. The Phoenicians farmed then the Romans the latter of whom introduced some fine farming techniques like pruning and viniculture techniques like ageing. The ancient wine industry was just moving right along until the Moors took over from 711CE to 1492 and said that wine was no longer allowed. Lots of vines were pulled up but some remained because grapes were still allowed for fruit and for juice (I bet some naughty Spaniards still made wine). Then the reconquista occurred in 1492, the Catholic royalty embraced and encouraged wine production so now the industry was really booming. Combine that with the fact that Spain prevented all of its colonies (which were many) from producing their own wine so they’d have to rely Spain. Sherry was huge (based out of the very old port town of Jerez) and likely one of the first exports to North America. Spanish wine was ruling! But then… phylloxera.
Phylloxera: a root-feeding pest that only attacks grapevines first discovered in 1863 in France. The yellow female who is about 1mm long lays a TON of eggs which then produce four to seven generations in one season. By the time the damage is visible to us, it’s too late and the vine is ruined. It took a significant amount of time and research to figure out how to deter this aphid. The solution? Graft the top part of the vine to rootstock from America. American rootstock is resistant to phylloxera and just as this little pest has made its way around most of the grapevine growing world, so now has American rootstock. There are some places that have pre-phylloxera vineyards that survived though. There’s a lot more to the story, but there are the basics.
Phylloxera didn’t hit Spain until about 1901. The solution to graft onto American rootstock had already been discovered but it still took a lot of time and resources and set the Spanish wine market back so some producers started producing cheap, bulk dross to get by. Then there were the world wars. The industry survived but was in a bleak condition until Fascist Franco established co-ops all over the country which helped in volume but not quality. When Franco died and Spain entered the EU in 1975 things started looking up, the country took on a wine law system very similar to that in France, order was in place and quality was sought after. There are around approximately 61 delineated areas of quality (look for “DO” on the label) and two slightly superior areas (DOCa): Priorat and Rioja. Finally, I’m talking about Rioja. I imagined my history snippet to well, a snippet.
Rioja is in North Central Spain hugging the Ebro River, it’s a large area geographically speaking and has about 57 hectares of vineyards. Ripening grapes here is never really an issue because the mild continental climate combined with the influences of both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic oceans creates ideal conditions for our little grape friends. The altitude is relatively high, higher than most all of France in fact but being further south latitude wise = lovely exposure to the sun. Drought can be an issue however and when soils become dry, they cannot support a lot of vines at once. Therefore, lots of vineyards in Spain including in Rioja are spaced quite widely apart and trained low to the ground.
The wine! A typical Rioja red blend is about 70% Tempranillo, 15% Garnacha, 7.5% Graciano and 7.5% Mazuelo. Tempranillo is prized for its finesse, great ageing capability and impressive aromatics. Temprano means “early” in Spanish so the name is likely a reference to the fact that this grape ripens relatively early in the season. It has flavor profiles like strawberry and raspberry, spice, leather and tobacco leaves. Its life with oak introduces lots of other notes that we’ll get into. Garnacha is the same thing as French Grenache (though it has a longer history in Spain). It is high yielding and produces wines with high alcohol. Bad thing? It oxidizes easily during production and ageing. It marries wonderfully with the strength of Tempranillo. Mazuelo is also called Cariñena (also the name of a town in NE Spain) which is the same thing as Carignan, a common blending grape in the Rhône. It produces wines that are high in acid, tannin, color and bitterness, hence using it in small amounts as a blending varietal. Graciano is a low-yielding grape that like Mazuelo, adds color but also adds intense perfume aromatics and depth to the fruit.
Oak: Before phylloxera entered the wine world, the Spanish were fermenting and ageing their wines in large barrels. When France was devastated by the pest in the late 1800s a lot of vignerons made their way down to Spain and introduced small barrels to the winemaking style. Around this same time the Spanish were trading goods with North America and so enter, American oak. There are three categories of red Rioja wine (broadly speaking) that we can encounter in the market today. The first one being traditional: Quick fermentation then a long time in American oak and lots of ageing making wines that are light in color but have layers of flavor. American oak introduces bold aromas and flavors like dill pickle, sunscreen, toast, coconut and more, plus a big but soft mouthfeel. Too much of this can be bad and make a wine very monolithic but if well-integrated it allows for a complex wine with varietal expression. Some producers who have maintained the traditional style include López de Heredia, La Rioja Alta and Marqués de Murietta. The second style is modern: use of French barrels is preferred to American, more Tempranillo is used (sometimes 100%), the wine is more extracted. An example producer of this style is Marqués de Caraces. There is also the post-modern: new oak is used (French or American), more wines are single vineyard, some international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon are included in the blend; this is true in the example of Marqués de Riscal. (Marqués de Riscal has a monumental winery and hotel [shown below] in Rioja that is designed by renowned designer, Frank Gehry,. You may recognize this name from the Seattle Experience Music Museum, work at Millenium Park in Chicago and more.)
Ageing: I am not into wines that use lots of oak, new oak in particular. Well-integrated oak with some of the ageing techniques of the Spanish though, and it’s a wine with distinctive style. Something that sets many Spanish wine producers apart from other wines from around the world is the fact that they very often age their wines for extended periods of time before release. A red wine labeled Crianza is at least two years old with a minimum of one year in cask. A Reserva is three years old with at least one year in cask and a Gran Reserva is two years in cask followed by three years in bottle. Hence, the red Riojas you can buy at your local wine shop are somtimes, some of the older ones on the shelves.
Some past tasting notes: dried plums. Rust. High tannin. Chewy. Dill. Black cherries. Stewed fruit. Prunes. Tobacco. Smoke. Black tea. Coconut. Strawberry, mocha. Toast. Cookies. Cranberry. Sunscreen musty. Toffee. Sweet spice. Dried flowers. Jame. Clove. Orange peel. Fireside. Caramel. Cinnamon, vanilla. Figs. Fruit pie.
I didn’t mean to write that much.