“The times they are a-changing” sang Bob Dylan in 1964. Indeed, a sentiment that could be applied to many factors in life and of course, wine. However, for the purposes of this piece lets imagine Bob was talking about the great Spanish wine of Rioja.
Now, I don’t know if Bob Dylan was, or still is a Rioja fan but I do know that if he drove through the region that lies in Northern Spain, with the city of Logroño as its Capital, he would witness a physical change in its landscape and a palatable change in its wines.
Examples of modernity, some would say juxtaposed with tradition, can be seen in the varied architectural style of the Bodegas that dot this vast landscape. Frank O. Gehry, designed the avant-garde, Technicolor hotel that sits alongside the Marques de Riscal Bodega, occupying a site that has been in operation since 1858 and somewhat overshadowing the lowly wine producing Bodega.
Counter to this placement of modernity in a classic landscape sits a (recently refurbished) Riojan winery, forged strongly in the ‘tradtional’ mould by the name of Marqués de Murrieta. Architecturally, the Ygay Castle, was built in the 19th Century in the style of a French Château from Bordeaux. This building is the emblematic image most of us hold when we picture a traditional Bodega. The notion of tradition within the world of Rioja is however and interesting and complex concept. Tradition both in terms of physical landscape and vinous enjoyment can run side-by-side.
Wine sleeping patiently for many years in barrel halls, housed within traditional, cool stone built cellars is the representation I have when I buy a bottle of aged Rioja. We must remember that Riojan wine and its quality levels are determined by periods of time spent ageing in these oak vessels, as discussed in the previous blog post. Interesting that this very custom of wine production is inherently a French method of production that traversed the Pyrenees around 150 years ago and has acted as a lasting model for many of the traditionalists that make wine to this day. This winemaking style provided a smoothness and lightness through short fermentation times, little skin contact and the obligatory long term ageing of wines in used American oak barrels. Overall, these are wines seeking elegance and finesse with wines at the higher end producing spectacular pleasure many years after date of vintage. These are wines that ultimately are ‘old world classics’ and are snapshots of traditional wine making practice and very much in keeping with the image/ brand that Rioja aims to project, protect and of course maintain.
However, there is a strong argument that these wines, although enjoyable, do not really provide an insight into the land, soil and grapes that moulded them. Enter the modern rioja winemaker. Juan Carlos López de Lacalle at Artadi Wines is seen to be at the forefront of this ‘modernist revival.’ His ‘back to the land’ movement has prompted many winemakers to seek a different style of final wine, and to indeed look past the minimum ageing requirements and conventional blending of grapes, as required by the Rioja control board or Consejo Regulador.
Juan Carlos is a believer that Rioja should be born of the land not born of the rules. He uses native yeasts, less sulphur and French oak barrels instead of the more common American oak. Ultimately, he seeks wines that are more ‘fruit forward’, deeply coloured and assertive, less cloaked in oak and genuinely reflect the land, soil and grapes that has given rise to them more so than the traditional wines. His philosophy is more akin to the Burgundian model of naming wines by the place. The wines have been criticised as being ‘too international’ and too new world in style, lacking Rioja’s traditional ‘earthy’ inflections. Now that he has chosen to leave the DOC, his wines will not bear the official stamp of Rioja recognition and his ‘maverick’ status has earned him respect from his forward thinking peers.
Rioja as a brand is very strong and has a well defined image, be it in the minds of wine drinkers or physically on our shelf. Both traditional and modern styles can co-exist, and indeed a converging of these styles can be seen in many wineries producing differing wines that fall into both of these hard to define categories. I see no abandonment of the ‘old way’ of assembly, with consumers beginning to seek out the modern styles more, as they offer a character that contrasts wonderfully with the stone walled Bodega imagery that occupies a strong position in my mind. To borrow a tagline from the official Rioja website, “Rioja; where modernity meets tradition.”
View all our offers for the month of Rioja HERE