For decades, brand Rioja has been the real powerhouse of the Spanish wine industry, almost single-handedly supporting the country’s reputation and value in export markets. Of course, it continues to be of huge significance, however nowadays we are seeing a small but growing movement that celebrates greater diversity with a refocus on terroir and techniques that are underwriting entirely new expressions of Rioja. These are a world apart from the branded, overly oaked glossy Riojas of the past decade. Increasingly, producers are looking to the vineyards and individual parcels as the guiding factor in quality and potential, rather than the age-old reliance on aging and concentration alone. The wine-world watches these developments with great interest. Overall though, Rioja is still largely founded on high volume, low value production. And while often uninspiring, occasionally, it is possible to find truly delicious, ageworthy wines in the traditional categories of Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva can be bought, cellared, and enjoyed, for a snip.
One such producer is Senorio de Hermanos Pecina from the Sonsierra de San Vicente on the border between Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Alta. Proudly traditional, despite being established as recently as the 1990s, here they believe in respecting the old ways of long aging in American oak barriques with regular rackings carried out by hand. At their best, they are comforting, hearty, spicy Riojas that demand to be drunk. On the vanguard of the modern movement, by contrast, sits Artuke; a young, Burgundian-inspired team that advocates for classification along regional, village and single vineyard lines. Gentle extractions and short aging in neutral French barrels produces some of the purest, most precise Riojan wines you are likely to encounter. Somewhere in between sits Luberri, a modern traditionalist, who experiment with temperature-controlled fermentations and a range of different aging vessels. Overall, the maturation times are at the shorter end of the spectrum, rounded out with varying proportions of new oak. Nevertheless, they follow the traditional classifications and offer exceptional value for money. Its hard to think of many regions as big or as established as Rioja witnessing the same levels of refocus and change. It is an undeniably exciting time for Spain’s flagship region.