Food & Drink

How Spain’s Rioja region redefines itself

Laurie Daniel
Laurie Daniel

Rioja is probably the most traditional of Spain’s table wine appellations, with a reputation that goes back more than 100 years. But it’s also a dynamic region that continues to redefine itself.

You can see the changes not only in the wines but also in the surroundings. Historic old villages are home to dramatic modern architecture, like the Frank Gehry-designed hotel at Marques de Riscal. Improvements are being made inside the wineries.

One important aspect of the traditional wines is the use of extended aging, both in wood and in bottle. Wines labeled as crianza, reserva and gran reserva are required to go through minimum periods of aging, with gran reservas aged the longest. All that aging is expensive, but, surprisingly, many good crianza wines cost around $15. Reservas and gran reservas are pricier, but not prohibitively so. There are also modern-styled wines that don’t follow the aging rules.

Tempranillo is the main red grape of Rioja and accounts for about 75 percent of the acreage. It is often blended with garnacha, graciano and mazuelo (known in many places by its French name, carignan). The vineyards are spread across three sub-regions with differing soils and microclimates, and some wines are blends of all three.

A lot of the more prestigious bodegas are in the sub-regions of Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Baja, which is warmer, drier and flatter, has the reputation for higher-production, irrigated vineyards of tempranillo. But the area traditionally had been planted with garnacha, which does better in the dry climate and is the focus of well-known winemaker Alvaro Palacios. Palacios, a Rioja native, runs his family’s Palacios Remondo winery in Rioja Baja, although he is perhaps better known for his wines from Priorat and Bierzo.

Palacios’ vineyards are at about 1,800 feet, in the foothills of the mountains. There is some tempranillo, mazuelo and a white grape, viura, but the vineyard is 80 percent garnacha. The Palacios Remondo wines are surprisingly affordable, especially the 2012 La Vendimia ($17), a 50-50 blend of garnacha and tempranillo that’s fresh and lively, with red cherry, strawberry compote, a hint of anise and medium tannins.

Other reasonably priced Rioja wines that are in fairly good supply include the 2010 Marques de Caceres Crianza ($15), 2008 Marques de Riscal Reserva ($17), 2010 Beronia Crianza ($15) and 2010 Cune Crianza ($15). For a splurge, consider the 2007 Cune Imperial Gran Reserva ($70), the 2009 Remelluri Reserva ($38) or the big, concentrated 2010 Torre Muga ($90) from Bodegas Muga.

The wines of Lopez de Heredia are some of the most distinctive in Rioja, the result of very long aging. The currently available vintages range from 1991 to 2004 — and that 1991 wine is a white! They are delicious but expensive and hard to find.