Why we still love rioja after all these years...

Rioja vineyards

Rioja vineyards - Credit: Archant

For many Spanish wine is Rioja despite the plethora of lovely wines from other parts of this country with a long vinous history. It’s great to try new wines but if the oldies that we know well are still good why not continue to enjoy them?

Conde bel and monopole

Conde bel and monopole - Credit: Archant

Rioja has a recognisable style and flavour that is based on the use of oak in both red and white wines creating a complex creaminess and depth of flavour.

A classification of the wines based on the aging and length of time spent in oak was developed and shown on the wine labels - the terms Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. A Crianza wine has to be aged for two years of which one has to be spent in oak, Reserva for three years of which one is in oak and Gran Reserva for five years with at least two years in oak.

Rioja was thus an easy first choice for oaky red wine drinkers but in a marketplace where they lost some market share following the rise of the richer easy drinking but still oaky New World wines. These were not defined by regulation and often proved better value for money.

It has taken the emergence of a new generation of young winemakers whose respect for tradition is balanced with a will to produce contemporary wines for rioja to see a renaissance.

An example of this is seen in some of the joven wines that have some delicate careful oak aging but fall short of the time needed for the classic classification categories. The benefit of this is that we can get wines such as Conde Bel Tinto that has a lovely balanced flavour with a hint of oak (aged for three months in new oak barrels).

On a recent visit to Rioja I had the chance to meet with some of the current producers and taste some of their wines.

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In addition to making traditional wines they offer wines made from grape varieties including Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon that are not permitted within the denominacion rules and also that don’t fit within the aging categories.

Some wines are too delicate to be aged in oak for the length of time required in the classification but are still excellent quality.

Look out for names such as Finca la Emperatrice, a company with a long history but a contemporary style and Vinedos Pujanza who only make three wines but each is stylish and distinctive with sensitivity to their oak aging potential.

There are also experiments with Tempranillo Blanco, a white grape variety that makes a refreshing lemony wine but with low acidity so needs to be drunk young. It is now being grown as an alternative to the traditional Viura.

Traditional Riojas have too strong a niche to be easily usurped by the ‘young upstarts’ but they are now making wines that are creating added interest in this region of north-eastern Spain. This ensures continued consumer interest in the region in their world markets including the UK.