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, such as the Frank Gehry-designed hotel at Marques de Riscal and the curvy Bodegas Ysios, designed by Santiago Calatrava. Improvements are being made inside the wineries, too, and producers are refining their viticulture to get maximum expression from the grapes.
The Rioja wine region has a history that goes back hundreds of years, but it got a big boost in the mid-19th century, when wine producers and sellers from France, particularly Bordeaux, came to the region in search of wine after the root louse phylloxera devastated French vineyards. Some historic Rioja producers, such as Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana (known as Cune), Lopez de Heredia and Marques de Riscal, were established during this time.
In recent years, the wines of Rioja have sometimes gotten lost in the excitement over trendier areas like Ribera del Duero and Priorat, but the red wines are still the benchmark for Spain.
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 varying amounts of garnacha, graciano and mazuelo (known in many places by its French name, carignan). The vineyards are spread across three subregions with differing soils and microclimates, and some wines are blends of all three.
A lot of the more prestigious bodegas are in the subregions of Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. Rioja Baja, which is warmer and drier, 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, though he is perhaps better known for his wines from Priorat and Bierzo.
Much of Rioja Baja is flat, but Palacios' vineyards are at about 1,800 feet elevation, in the foothills of the mountains. There is some tempranillo, mazuelo and a white grape, viura, but the vineyard is 80 percent garnacha, and many vines are the historic clones of the area. "We never left garnacha," says Palacios, who relishes showing off the different blocks in the vineyard. The vines are farmed organically, and he has stopped irrigating them.
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.
Most visitors to Rioja stick to the towns of Haro and Logrono and the nearby Rioja Alta and Alavesa areas. Haro has a cluster of wineries around its historic railway station, including Lopez de Heredia, Cune, Muga and La Rioja Alta.
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!
The Cune wines are traditional but not aged as long. The 2010 Crianza ($15) offers pretty, bright cherry with fine tannins, while the flagship 2007 Imperial Gran Reserva ($70) has plenty of dark fruit, a note of dark chocolate and firm tannins.
In the Rioja Alavesa countryside, at Remelluri, Spanish winemaking star Telmo Rodriguez uses modern winemaking techniques but keeps an eye on tradition, creating some stunning wines. In addition to the estate wines, labeled Remelluri, there are two wines, called Lindes de Remelluri, made from nearby vineyards.
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The wines of Marques de Caceres are reasonably priced and relatively easy to find. The family-owned winery produces more than 800,000 cases a year but owns no vineyards. Instead, the company buys grapes from surrounding growers in Rioja Alta. The 2010 Crianza ($15) is very approachable, with bright cherry and spice and hints of anise and leather. The 2009 Reserva ($25) is more structured, with darker-toned cherry fruit, anise and a hint of dark chocolate, while the 2005 Gran Reserva ($35) is richer, with dark cherry and a slight meaty note. The 2011 MC ($31) is a more modern wine, made from tempranillo from old vineyards; it's dense and dark, with ripe black fruit, a chocolaty note and a long finish.
Marques de Riscal is also quite large "“ more than 900,000 cases a year "“ and is the epitome of the blending of old and new. The original building dates to 1860, but there's also a modern production facility, as well as a luxury hotel and restaurant designed by Frank Gehry. The flagship wine is the Marques de Riscal Reserva ($17). The currently available vintage is 2008, but during my visit, I tasted the 2009, which is dense and somewhat tannic, with red fruit, some dried cherry and nice freshness. Bodegas Muriel is in the same village, Elciego, and produces the very good 2008 Muriel Reserva ($20); it's lively and elegant, with cherry, hints of cedar and spice and fine tannins.
Beronia in Rioja Alta was started by a group of Basque businessmen as a bodega and gastronomic club. Gonzalez Byass, better known for its Tio Pepe sherry, purchased it in 1982 and greatly expanded it. The wines are reasonably priced "“ for example, the 2010 Crianza ($15), with its bright, lively red cherry and hint of anise, and the 2006 Gran Reserva ($30), which has darker fruit and nice freshness.
Hermanos Pecina was founded in the early 1990s by the former vineyard manager at La Rioja Alta. Most of the wines are traditionally styled, although there are some more modern bottlings under the Chobeo de Pecina label. The 2012 Hermanos Pecina Cosecha Tinto ($13) is a young wine that doesn't spend any time in oak. It's bright and fruity, with red cherry, nice freshness, a hint of anise and medium tannins. The 2003 Gran Reserva ($45) displays red fruit, a hint of cherry compote, fine tannins and nice freshness, especially considering that it's from a very warm vintage. The 2006 Vendimia Seleccionada ($45), made only in the best years, is rich and powerful, with darker fruit, bigger tannins, a hint of forest floor and good aging potential.
At Remelluri, a short drive away, the hilly estate dates back to the 14th century, when monks founded a farm on the site. The Rodriguez family bought the property in the late 1960s and began restoring the farm and its vineyards. "This place was very lucky to find my parents, and my parents were lucky to find this place," says Amaia Rodriguez, who runs the place while her winemaker brother Telmo attends to winemaking projects all around Spain.
The 2009 Remelluri Reserva ($38) is quite structured, with dark fruit, hints of chocolate and spice and a drying finish. The wine formerly included grapes from surrounding growers, but now it's all estate fruit. The purchased fruit goes into two wines labeled as Lindes de Remelluri, both of which are more approachable than the estate wine. The 2010 Lindes de Remelluri San Vicente ($32) is dark and dense, with warm, ripe cherry, good concentration and fine tannins, while the 2010 Labastida ($32) displays more red fruit, good acidity and fine tannins. There's also a rare, expensive white, the 2010 Remelluri Blanco ($80), made from nine grape varieties. The wine is lively and rich, with pear, white stone fruit and some creaminess.
Back in the town of Haro, Lopez de Heredia also makes interesting white wine "“ albeit in a very different style. During my visit, I tasted the 1999 Vina Tondonia Reserva Blanco ($50), which is evolved yet fresh, with flavors of dry honey, citrus, white peach and some creaminess. (The 1998 is the currently available vintage.) The reds, too, undergo extended aging. Still, the 2002 Vina Tondonia Reserva ($49) is quite young-tasting, with red fruit, nice freshness and a long finish. It could actually use a bit more time in the bottle. It's interesting to note that the ultratraditional wines are poured in an ultramodern tasting room.
Viura is the main white grape in Rioja, and a good example, called Monopole, is produced at Cune. The 2013 Monopole ($15) is fresh and a little floral, with apple, citrus and apple peel. It's very refreshing for summer quaffing.
Bodegas Muga also has a good, affordably priced white, the 2013 Blanco ($15); it's racy and fresh with apple flavors and some creaminess. But reds dominate, like the 2010 Reserva ($25), with its lively red and black cherry and notes of cedar and tobacco; the more modern 2009 Seleccion Especial Reserva ($40), made only from high-altitude vineyards in the best years; and the big, concentrated 2010 Torre Muga ($90), with its dark, lively blackberry and black cherry and smooth finish.
At Palacios Remondo, the red wines contain increasing amounts of garnacha as they increase in price. The 2011 La Montesa ($20), which is 70 percent garnacha, is brimming with spicy strawberry fruit, accented by a note of chamomile tea. It could use more time in the bottle for the oak to integrate. The 2010 Propriedad ($45) is 100 percent garnacha and shows a lot of charm and refinement, with its spicy strawberry and cherry fruit and firm but approachable tannins.
"I'm trying to do the typical wines from here," winemaker Alvaro Palacios says. "The flavors from when I was a kid."
He also makes a limited-production white from viura, the 2011 Placet ($45). The wine displays racy white fruit, a hint of creaminess and a lot of minerality.