HOLA LA RIOJA, and other things

Prior to landing in Spain, I thought I had a decent understanding of Spanish wines. Once I arrived in Spain, I realized I actually knew nothing. In this moment, I was transported back to a passage I read from Joe Beef’s “The art of living” that really resonated with me…

There is a core Québec crowd that has, for many historical reasons, cemented this province with a vin français toujours policy. I have many customers who won’t even acknowledge any wine other than French wine. Italian wine is exotic, and Spanish wine, well, they just shrug and look bewildered.

– Meredith Erickson

I’m not saying that I won’t acknowledge anything other than French wine; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. What I mean is that despite its international reputation as a world-class producer of wine, Spanish wine just isn’t that familiar to us here in Canada.

I’ve had friends ask me for Spanish wine suggestions and recommendations, and I’m able to give them the basic information I know about La Rioja and its Tempranillo or sometimes Grenache-based red blends, bold, age-worthy wines typically aged in American oak.

Recently, I met someone who was under the impression that “rioja” simply meant “red” Spanish wine.

There’s no one really to blame for this. When looking for a red wine from the Old World, in Canada, our markets are simply saturated with offerings from France and Italy. I’m not saying this is good or bad, it’s just a fact that likely results from what we as consumers in Canada desire.

This said, I’m a firm believer in the idea that tastes in foods shouldn’t be static. I’ll try anything once. Sure, there’s a chance I might not like what I’m trying, but on the flip side there’s also equally a good chance that I’ll be enlightened. I might even crave and desire that new taste in the future. You simply don’t know until you try.

I carry this philosophy with me into the world of wine. Gimme the stuff I haven’t tried yet!

Now, let’s get into my little anecdote about my experience in La Rioja.

La Rioja in my own words

We’re in the northern part of Spain. We’re not quite in “green Spain” because we’re protected from the rain-carrying Atlantic winds due to the famous mountain range called the Sierra de Cantabria. The region itself is quite diverse – from the high altitude vineyards located on the slopes of the Sierra de Cantabria to the low-lying valley floor.

When it comes to geography, it’s important to understand that the region is broken up into 3 official sub-regions; Rioja Alta, the Basque portion of La Rioja called Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja. Wines from Rioja Alta and Alavesa get the best accolades, mainly due to the elevation of the vineyards, the sloped vineyards, and soil quality that lends to better aging potential, it is said.

What I saw in Rioja Alta was simply breathtaking. It was a beautiful cauldron of rolling vineyards, crested in the distance by impressive mountain ranges. As mentioned previously, the Sierra de Cantabria creates a cauldron effect and insulates La Rioja against extreme temperatures, making it a truly ideal place to grow vines.

A vineyard in Rioja Alta with the Sierra de Cantabria in the distance.

Castles and gobelets. The landscape of La Rioja is doted by ancient castles of kingdoms from yesteryear. Many of them lay abandoned, and actually make for neat hiking stops and settings for picnics. Ahh… charms of the Old World.

A random fortress.

I don’t know why, but I just love the look of the hundreds of thousands of gnarly tree-like vines against the rolling hills. These are the classic Garnacha vines of La Rioja, grown without trestling in the gobelet style. We just don’t see these in Canadian vineyards. It’s just not hot enough. The Castles and gobelet vines are stark reminders that you aren’t in Canada anymore. The fact that you are definitely in Spain, truly sets in.

The classic gobelet vines of the Garnacha grape.

There is evidence that wine was grown in La Rioja as early as the Roman ages. Due to its central location on the route of the Camino de Compostela, its production was boosted by the activities of monks and monasteries serving pilgrimmers since the late 15th century. However, the real boom of La Rioja can be attributed to the thirsty French. They French traversed the Pyrenees in search of wine firstly due to powdery mildew affecting vineyards in the late 1840’s, then again when phylloxera devasted French vineyards. A rail system was built specifically for the export of wine directly from the winemaking town of Haro, directly into France!

The production of wine in La Rioja resembles that of Champagne or Burgundy, rather than the chateaux-style organization of Bordeaux. This means that there are major wine-making power houses that purchase grapes from wine-growers. A lot of these winemaking houses are found in the historic village of Haro. Take a drive through the town and you’ll in awe of the sophisticated buildings, modern infrastructure, and superbly manicured landscaping of La Rioja Alta S. A., R. Lopez de Heredia, Muga, Hacienda Lopez de Haro, Bodegas Faustino, the list goes on.

Industrial tanks typical of the larger winehouses in La Rioja.

There are, of course, the exceptions. We are increasingly seeing smaller, chateaux-style producers who grow their own grapes, and make and bottle their own wine. These producers are also relying on low-intervention and ancestral methods of creating wine. Bodega Akutain and Bodegas Moraza are two of these chateau-style producers excelling in the shadows of giants.

The legendary Lopez de Heredia located in the village of Haro.

Yes, the main varietals are Tempranillo and Garnacha. Yes, the wine is typically aged in American oak. There are also grapes we rarely experience in Canada. Varietals like Graciano, Mazuelo, Carinena that play a vital role in the La Rioja red wine scene. In speaking with some growers, there is also a revival of some indigenous grapes like Maturana Tinta – Bodegas Akutain is one of them.

Again, my conception of wines from La Rioja evolved during my short stay, and my knowledge grew exponentially. Back home, the typical or average wine from La Rioja (not breaking the bank) were bold, tannic, and a little too oaked. I had an image of La Rioja as this hot, desert-like environment. I wasn’t getting any of that when I was actually there. For one, it was cold, the air was crisp, and the landscape was actually a lot more green than I had expected. I wasn’t getting the same wine-drinking experience either. What surprised me time and time again was the freshness and vivacity in the wines I was tasting. I didn’t expect the level of acidity, the lively mouthfeel, and the amount of fresh fruit – this was coming from both the Joven (young) wines, as well as the Crianza’s, Reserva’s, and Gran Reserva’s (aged) wines. Not overly oaked either; and the oak you do get has more of a Burgundian touch.

White Rioja

However, again, another shift in my head coming up here… THE WHITES ARE EQUALLY, IF NOT BETTER! What we REALLY don’t see in the true north strong and free, is La Rioja’s ability to produce fine white wines (one of my favourite white wines comes from a varietal grown in La Rioja). Viura, Malvasia, Garnacha Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Blanca, Turruntés, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Verdejo – as you can see, the list of white grape offerings is actually longer than the reds, and down right delicious. The acidity I discovered in the reds… it translates beautifully into their whites. The tendency to age the whites gives them nutty complexity. Seriously, if you haven’t tried Viura yet, please put it on your list of to-do’s. Put white Rioja on your list in general.

A final thought

Like anything in life, you can read, you can talk, you can try to emulate, but nothing beats the experience of actually being there. It can shift your perspective, your preconceived notions, and you might even learn a thing or two.

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