Imagine a world without red Bordeaux.
The wine world has already lost Bordeaux once, and on that occasion the loss was literal rather than figurative. At the end of the 19th century, the phylloxera epidemic reduced Bordeaux production to a trickle. Where did Bordeaux’s merchants turn to fill their empty vats? To Rioja, just 300km further south. Wine trains rolled north through Basque country to French buyers; even today, many of Rioja’s leading bodegas are clustered around Haro’s railhead in the north of the region.
French options were limited at the time, but the Bordelais must surely have found something in the wines of Rioja that they recognised. It is one of the few wine regions in the world whose appeal shares something of the universality and centrality of red Bordeaux. Although they are made principally from Tempranillo rather than Cabernet and Merlot, the red wines of the upper Ebro valley occupy the same middle ground in terms of weight, structure and warmth as do Bordeaux’s red wines. They have the same ability to modulate predictably with age, and acquire a different register of beauty as they do so.
Rioja is not, as many assume, just another slab of sun-scoured meseta. Most great Rioja is produced within 100km of the Atlantic, and from vineyards higher in altitude than any of France’s fine wine regions. Nuanced temperatures, cool nights and often misty, humid air mean harvest dates rival those of Barolo and Barbaresco for tardiness. There’s freshness as well as warmth. Everything is in place, in short, to produce wines of shocking grandeur rather than the comfortable familiarity with which Rioja is synonymous.
But two things muzzle the region. One is its domination by large companies rather than the small growers typical of Burgundy or Piedmont, or the ambitious estates you find in Bordeaux or Tuscany. Large companies need large blends; these efface the subtle singularities which drive, for example, the vineyard theology of Burgundy.
The second muzzle is that quality in Rioja has traditionally been associated with an age statement. In place of the challenge of vineyards or villages, Rioja tends to rank quality via the age-labels of Crianza (a year each in barrel and bottle), Reserva (one in barrel, two in bottle) and Gran Reserva (two in barrel, three in bottle). This emphasis on somnolent age can drain excitement and vintage nuance from Rioja’s offer.
I don’t want to sound unsympathetic, since the classic Riojan tradition produces magnificent wines, particularly in middle price ranges. The 2004 Imperial Reserva from CVNE, for example, is widely available at present in both the UK and the US at £15-£25 (or its dollar equivalent) per bottle. I find it hard to imagine a more comforting red wine, with its scent of dusty plums, its bell-round flavours, its texture of dropping silk. This is the companionable bottle incarnate.
Rioja, though, ought to be more than companionable. The large companies themselves now nurture internal alternatives. CVNE, for example, has had the single-estate Contino, sited just into Alava on a fine sweep of the Ebro, since the mid-1970s; initially it produced only Reserva wines, but now there is a range, peaking with the opulent Viña del Olivo and the invariably challenging single-varietal Graciano.
Traditional family-owned companies such as Muga haven’t stood still, either. With Aro, Muga has one of Europe’s most selectively made, contemporary-styled wines. It is not just a selection of single, high-sited vineyards in Alava, but a further pick from individually tagged old vines. The 2006 Aro, priced at well over £100 a bottle, is a provocative, horizon-altering wine: saturated black in colour, with smoky, visceral scents and mouthfilling, fleshy flavours of charcoal, earth and wild black fruits. It’s still Rioja, but Rioja electrically transfigured.
Much of the running for this revolution, though, has been made by a series of innovative smaller producers: the Eguren family of Sierra Cantabria; Jaíme Rodriguez and his son Telmo of Remelluri estate; the loquacious Miguel Angel de Gregorio of Finca Allende; and restless experimenter Fernando Remírez de Ganuza, to take four examples. The common point of all of their work is a close focus on vineyards, even though some of the wines are blends. Remírez de Ganuza, for example, was one of the region’s leading vineyard brokers before founding his own company; the Eguren family’s five greatest wines are all single-vineyard efforts; while the “singular, unique magic” of the sites cultivated by Allende near the village of Briones is what inspires de Gregorio. It is too soon to derive a sense of place-related differences in these wines, as you might by comparing St-Estèphe with Margaux in the Médoc, or St-Joseph with Cornas in the Rhône. What is palpable – and striking to anyone nursed on traditional Rioja – is their energy and almost explosive force: again, the word shocking doesn’t seem excessive. Their weakness, paradoxically, is the use of copious new French oak. Traditional Rioja styles make extensive and subtle use of older oak. The natural sweetness of Tempranillo can be over-sweetened by new oak alone.
Allende’s 2005 Calvario is graceful and fine-lined, its intensity of fruit driving the palate forward. Sierra Cantabria’s 2006 single-vineyard San Vicente is bigger and more spice-laden, yet with something of the same purity at its heart.
For textural opulence, it would be hard to better Remírez de Ganuza’s 2005 Reserva: layered black fruits and a mist of fine tannins combine to moving effect in its tongue-coating flavours, with a subtext of dark chocolate lurking beneath. Remelluri’s 2005 single-estate Reserva makes a fitting contrast: similarly multi-layered flavours, this time hinting at wild hillside plants – mint, thyme, cade and cistus, backed by meaty warmth. Despite its intensity, it leaves the palate with the typically slow-fading grace of Tempranillo.
I can think of other fine red wines in Europe and elsewhere with qualities of this order. But not many.
Jancis Robinson is away
● For Allende, contact Berry Bros and Rudd
● For Muga, contact C&D Wines (canddwines.co.uk)
● For Sierra Cantabria, contact Justerini & Brooks (justerinis.com)
● For Remelluri, contact Alliance Wine (alliancewine.co.uk)
Remírez de Ganuza 2005 Reserva
“Fruit, vintage and land” are the three elements considered most important by Fernando Remírez de Ganuza in the creation of his close-textured, sumptuous, contemporary Rioja – like this 2005 Reserva. £44.99, Indigo Wine (indigowine.com)