Everyone’s making wine to drink young, these days. Wines all seem to be about lush fruit and defined ‘terroir’ character, leaving those who search for the complexities of aging in bottle and barrel wondering what has happened to their sturdy, beloved traditional styles. Even top wines are often dangerously drinkable when young, which can make it very hard for those with cellars to actually put them to proper use, and justify having them. (This is a premature, Tuesday night cork-popping problem that many of us would love to have, no doubt.)
For example, remember when Chateauneuf du Pape was a massive, sturdy beast that required 15 years or more? Well nowadays it is valued just as much for ‘poise’ and precision, with many top examples being plush and perfectly rounded on release. Even the formidable, once unapproachable wines of Barolo (with the benefit of modern winemaking and some oak influence) can be very fresh, yes, but fine and floral when young – not only drinkable, but very nearly delicious, in their way.
And top Bordeaux has famously suffered a similar fate. Not only is the cost suddenly astronomical, but thanks to certain modern winemaking techniques the wines are perhaps not as firm and reliant on cellaring as they used to be. Even for those who can afford them, lovers of old school cellar reds may find today’s Bordeaux labels attempting to be very judicious (a word used often by critics) to integrate their oak into a plump and flowing palate in which pure fruit flavours play the foremost part.
These days that’s known as good winemaking. And for many styles it is. But there remains one style that holds firm to a tradition of complexity and richness achieved by subjecting perfect fruit to the rigours of serious oak aging. Luckily it comes from a country that is still broadly undervalued. So despite an ancient history in wine – and also a tradition steeped in the best Bordeaux-style technique – the wine from here is still very inexpensive for what you get in the glass.
The country we are talking about is of course Spain, and the region is its most famous – Rioja. We have a big Rioja tasting coming up in September, so now seems timely to sing its praises.
Rioja is a very special place. Like most of the Iberian peninsula it has been making wine since a day or two after the dawn of time. Amphora have been dug up to attest its importance in the Roman era. But it was the infamous phylloxera bug in the 19th Century that defined what we know as Rioja today. When Phylloxera and mildew devastated the vineyards of France, those with the most to lose – Bordeaux’s international wine merchants – sought wine stocks from a region that was close by and (semi) Atlantic, both in wine style and shipping logistics.
Under the circumstances, Bordeaux producers must have been anxious about fruit ripeness and cleanliness. And in that regard they must have noted Rioja’s enviable situation. Though close to the Atlantic, the Cantabrian hills give Rioja protection from the maritime cold and rain. Cloistered inland and moderately elevated, very dry and sunny yet traversed by rivers, the Rioja region is, shall we say, a very, very nice place to make wine.
So their full-fruited yet sturdy product proved a suitable surrogate for Bordeaux during the hard times, which opened a crucial window into an international market. But it was the introduction of the Bordeaux-style oak barrique that was to distinguish and establish Rioja as producer of Spain’s most recognised and noble reds.
Rioja was soon hit by Phylloxera itself, which added to Spain’s relative obscurity and ensured Rioja continued to gain respect – but not the price it deserved – over most of the twentieth century. Today the situation is hardly any different – a huge range of immensely complex, premium Rioja reds are released after many years of aging, at a price hardly more than an average Kiwi Pinot.
Take the extraordinary range of 2009 Rioja reds we have on offer just now. Some are labelled Gran Reserva – the highest designation in the region. They have been given at least five years aging before release (mathematicians will note these have received seven) with no less than two of those years spent in oak. From top producers and top quality fruit, the level of the wine is among the best in the region – and therefore the world. As a result of their extensive aging they are ready to drink, or age further. And they cost around $50 each – perhaps a quarter of the price of an equivalent Bordeaux.
If you want to step it up, still older and more elevated Gran Reserva wines exist. Such a wine would be the 2005 Gran Reserva ‘904’ from a producer called La Rioja Alta. For a mere $70 something this wine offers not only extreme quality and concentration – in a gloriously sinewy and structured, deeply traditional expression – but it also, simply, delivers eleven years of wine age straight off the shelf and into your glass. Where else can you get that?
Extraordinary, but true. We’re so used to seeing Rioja wines around that we forget to consider their incomparable value. A bastion of oak-structured, aged-on-release quality, even ‘standard’ Rioja offerings represent staggering complexity and quality for the price.
And this is not only because of the delicious conditions the Rioja climate brings to its dominant red grapes, Tempranillo and Garnacha – not to mention the rising star Graciano. But it is also due to Rioja’s peculiarly Spanish penchant (and economic capacity) for holding wines back a while in barrel. Rather like the enrichment to fine Sherry provided by the Solera system, the provision for long term barrel aging has become implicit part of the Rioja style.
Though French oak is there – especially in the higher end – the more pungent properties of thicker-grained American oak is the classic thing. A mix of both types is often used, with new oak ensuring that wood flavour (coconut, vanilla, toast, ash) and texture (fine oak structure or tannins) comes through in all but the most entry-level wines.
But oak doesn’t just add flavour – being porous it also exposes the fruit to tiny levels of oxygen. This creates a development or ‘barrel-aging’ that happens much faster than in the complete closure in the bottle (though additional bottle aging is also stipulated for the local wines). Aging in barrel and later bottle, flavours slowly develop beyond ‘primary’ fruit, softening toward more cooked, dried and savoury fruit flavours. These meld with the existing mineral, spice and oak characters (which also integrate over time) to form a wine many would consider to be complete – and in great examples, sublime.
‘Gran Reserva’ is the sublime end, being top quality fruit given at least two years in oak and three in bottle before release. Reserva wines can be exceptional value, having seen at least one year in oak and two in bottle (usually more – but either way it’s more than enough age to make a very polished $30 wine). Crianza wines can sometimes be poised and food friendly (like the stylish Vina Real Crianza), but they are more often brighter or more direct in style, having had only one year in oak and one in bottle to settle down. ‘Joven’ wines are basic and may or may not see oak.
Like the rest of the world, Rioja is now influenced by fruit-forward styles – and principles of terroir, in which clarity of fruit flavour (not subjected to oak) is able to capture the nuances of individual vineyards and vintages. Whereas traditional Rioja red could be blended across the region – in fact doing so assisted house styles – now the region’s sheer fruit quality is starting to make its presence felt.
Wines like the gorgeous Artadi range represent this ‘new wave’ of Rioja, with lush, bright flavours showing off the characteristics of the landscape and certain of its single vineyards. Such new developments enhance the offering of this great region – so long as the majority of other, more traditional producers remain true to their time-honoured Rioja style. And so long as the classic methods of pre-aging in wood remain economically viable at current, wildly undervalued prices.
Because right now, times are very good for those who enjoy a complex, oaky Rioja for a very decent price. Let’s just hope that it continues, and we don’t all look back on these changing times as the twilight of a long-cherished tradition.
In the meantime, there’s only one way to insulate ourselves against that awful possibility – and to fully benefit from this continuing boon in Rioja value. Buy.