“Traditional” vs “Modern” in Rioja – Which is Which, Anyway?

rioja-mapThe rise, fall, and re-birth of Rioja is one of the wine world’s most fascinating stories, and it’s almost always told in terms of the French and oak. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but there’s also an interesting bit of history on the shelves here in the store right now in the form of a Rioja made from a traditional “Vidau” vineyard. But, is the wine itself “traditional” or “modern”? Let’s see.

As is the case in most of Spain, people have been growing grapes and making wine in Rioja for centuries. The Romans probably introduced winemaking here, the Moors tolerated it, and the monasteries that sprung up after the expulsion of the Moors certainly encouraged further growth. But Rioja remained physically isolated from the rest of Spain and Europe, so the wines here were simple, everyday reds to drink instead of water or use at Mass.

grape-leaf-phylloxeraAt First, an Escape from Phylloxera. In the 1860s, as powdery mildew spread across Bordeaux and even more in the 1870s as the great vineyards of France were falling to the American vine louse, phylloxera, Bordeaux winemakers headed south in search of grapes they could use to satisfy France’s exploding demand for barrel aged wines.

When they got off the train in the sleepy Rioja town of Haro, they knew they’d found their spot. No, there was no Cabernet, Merlot or other Bordeaux varietal vineyards here – too hot and dry. But the native Tempranillo grape was pretty pleasing, especially when blended with zesty Graciano and fruity Garnacha. Soon trainloads of oak casks full of Rioja wine were leaving the Haro station daily for Bordeaux and points north.

Then, Disaster. Phylloxera reached Rioja in 1901 just as the vineyards of France were in recovery, and the Bordelaise immigrants hopped on the last trains out of Haro with no plans to return. Rioja winemakers saw demand and prices fall, accelerating their switch from barrels made from tight-grained French oak (as was used in Bordeaux) to looser-grained, less sophisticated, and much less expensive American oak.

And as the vines recovered and demand remained soft, Rioja winemakers took to leaving their wine in barrel longer and longer – holding off on buying bottles (and paying taxes) until the wine was actually sold. And so the “traditional” model of Rioja emerged: Tempranillo-based blends aged for years in American oak casks, ending up with light orange-tinged color, plenty of acidity, modest fruit, and a noticeable dollop of vanilla and green herb (American oak’s signature).

The 1980s and 90s. Then, the economic and wine boom of the 1980s and 1990s re-introduced Rioja to the wine world and once again drew French (or at least French-trained) winemakers back to the region. With a new vision of “quality” based on Bordeaux and Napa standards in mind, wineries began limiting and even eliminating all grapes other than Tempranillo – the darkest, most powerful Rioja grape.

They began lowering yields and picking later for more ripeness, aging the wine in smaller French oak casks, and getting it into bottle much earlier with darker color and much more intensely ripe and rich black fruit. Rioja’s breakthrough vintage was 1994, when Robert Parker bestowed extravagant ratings on big, rich, “modernist” wines from Artadi, Muga, Remelluri and more.

Of course, there was a backlash, starting with outcries against “anonymous, international-styled” wines and passionate defenses of more “traditional” producers like Lopez de Heredia and La Rioja Alta.   Lost in the shuffle was the notion that the “new” wines might have been more like late-1800s, Bordeaux-influenced Rioja than “traditional” tea and tart cherry American oak-aged wines were!

Rioja Today. As in much of the wine world where modern vs. traditional debates have raged, today Rioja is on the whole finding a sensible blend of winemaking styles and approaches. Want fat, concentrated, velvety and sleekly French-oaked points pigs? Plenty of those to choose from. Want tart and tangy almost orange-colored traditional wines? They’re there, too.

But most of Rioja’s wines fall somewhere in the middle, offering pretty, delicious, fruit framed with enough acidity and oak to remain clearly recognizable as “Rioja” vs. anything else.

rioja-vineyardTradition and Modernity in The Vineyard. One of the things we love about this week’s featured Bodegas Vinsacro Rioja Dioro 2010 is that it, and its winery, do a great job of capturing the essence of Rioja’s remarkable journey and highlight an often overlooked element – the role of vineyards and blends.

Juan Escudero began making Rioja wine in a small cave carved out of a hillside in 1852, well before the French invasion. The family continued winemaking and growing through the years, with Juan’s grandson, Benito, moving into Cava production in the 1950s. His children returned to Rioja and under the leadership of Bordeaux-trained brother Amador founded Bodegas Vinsacro around the turn of this century.

They planted about 30 acres of vines in Rioja Baja in 1996, but the key to the success of this very modern winery was a small, very old, and very, very, old-fashioned vineyard owned by the family for 120 years. It’s called Cuesta la Reina and it was planted around 1945 (70 years ago) on the stony southern slope of Mount Yerga between 450 and 800 meters elevation.

An Old-Fashioned Vineyard. As was customary at the time, the vineyard was planted by taking cuttings of another old vineyard and grafting the canes onto new rootstocks – a process called massal selection. And, as was customary in Rioja for centuries before the current modern revolution, that old vineyard was planted to a mixture of vine types including Temparnillo, Graciano, Monastrell and Bobal.

As in 17th and 18th Century Bordeaux, this blend of grapes was less about achieving the perfect blend in the finished wine than about insurance: if growing conditions caused problems with one varietal, there was at least a chance that the others would ripen. When it was time to harvest, the whole vineyard was picked at once and the wine’s final blend was whatever happened to come off the vines. In fact, the traditional name for this style vineyard, “Vidau,” means “ready to pick.”

vinsacro-grapesModern Quality and Care. Amador and his brothers cherished this old vineyard, but also began applying some modern farming ideas. First, they converted to completely organic farming to help the soil regain its health and keep the old vines thriving. Then, they began to pick each varietal separately as they ripened fully. Tempranillo gets picked first, usually in the first week of October. Then Garnacha (from a 20 year-old vineyard nearby) comes in late October before Graciano in early November and then, last, Mazuelo and Bobal.

As if four separate harvests weren’t expensive enough, the grapes are sorted twice, once in the vineyard and then on a vibrating table in the winery before they go into the vats. After fermenting seperately, each varietal ages for 12-14 months in 100% new French oak casks to both soften tannins and add a touch of spice without losing fruit or adding harsher American oak influence.

vinsacro-riojaFinally, Amador creates the decidedly old-fashioned Rioja blend that will become Dioro. About 50% of the final wine is Tempranillo – compared to 80-100% at most “modernist” estates. 20% is Garnacha (for hints of red raspberry) and 10% each Mazuelo and Graciano (for vivid acids and cherry fruit). Monastrell (earthy) and Bobal (licorice and plum) make up the rest of the blend. Only the very best barrels of wine from Cuesta la Reina go into Dioro, with the rest of the vineyard’s wine being blended into other bottlings.

From organic farming to multiple harvest passes, double sorting, new French oak aging, and strict selection of only the best lots, this is an expensive way to make wine. Which is why Wine Advocate gave the 2010 such high praise (92 points) at its $46 release price.

We’re selling it for a good deal less right now – like $14.98/ea by the case! Click here to see all the details and to drink a little Rioja history instead of just reading about it.