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Spain Reigns: fresh talent and modern techniques in emerging regions have rejuvenated the Spanish winemaking industry

By Leslie Sbrocco from

When it comes to wine, Spain has been compared to a sleeping giant. As the country with the most land devoted to growing wine grapes in the world, giant is a fitting term. The sleeping part, however, is passe. This giant is wide awake and flexing its muscles.

While France and Italy have seen declines in the amount of their vineyard land over the past six years, plantings have steadily increased across Spain . Vineyards now cover nearly 3 million acres of countryside and Spain accounts for more than 15 percent of the world's total vineyard land, according to Wines from Spain , the official wine organization of the Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade. Similar increases in wine production have pushed Spain into second place behind France as the world's largest wine producing country.

"The interest in Spanish wines has peaked recently because Spain has reasserted itself as a dynamic force in the international wine scene," says Adam Savin, wine director of San Rafael 's Sabor of Spain, a year-old store that sells Spanish culinary products. David Rickenbaker, general manager of K & L Wine Merchants in San Francisco agrees, saying, "The Spanish category has exploded over the last four years. We used to have around 10 selections and now we have 63."

Spanish wine was once defined by tired, dried-out reds from Rioja or fortified sherries produced around the town of Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain . Traditional winemaking technique included extended barrel aging and allowing wines to oxidize to conform to local tastes. Wine was made the same way for centuries.

Fortunately, those days are gone -- the anchor of the Iberian Peninsula is undergoing a vinous renaissance.

Spanish wine has been transformed through a combination of factors including new technology, changing tastes and an infusion of winemaking talent. "By applying modern techniques to working with a wealth of interesting indigenous grape varietals, a new generation of winemakers is creating beautifully crafted wines," says Savin.

Though Spain 's wine history dates back more than 3,000 years, it has seen cycles of decline and growth. The industry suffered in the 20th century due to the isolation caused by the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent 40-year reign of Generalisimo Francisco Franco. When Spain fully rejoined the international community in the 1970s, the wine world had changed dramatically.

Some younger members of winemaking families challenged traditional methods to create modern wines that respected their birthplace yet still appealed to an international palate. Miguel Torres updated his family's centuries-old winemaking traditions; Alejandro Fernandez of Bodega Pesquera put Ribera del Duero on the map; and Rene Barbier began the renaissance in Priorat with his Clos Mogador wines.

In the United States pioneers of another type - importers - spurred the awareness of quality Spanish wines. Steve Metzler opened Classical Wines in Seattle in 1984 with his wife, Almudena de Llaguno, and showcased authentic yet modern expressions of Spanish wine. Shortly thereafter several other key importers such as Jorge Ordonez of Massachusetts-based Fine Estates From Spain and Eric Solomon of North Carolina-based European Cellars shone the spotlight on Spain .

Their work was important because it helped create a market for quality Spanish wines from another generation of winemaking pioneers like Telmo Rodriguez, who makes wines all across Spain in modern styles; Alvaro Palacios, the star of Priorat whose L'Ermita wines are coveted worldwide; and Danish expatriate Peter Sisseck, whose Dominio de Pingus might be the most-sought Spanish wine today. .

Working with native grape varieties including Tempranillo, Verdejo, Albarino, Mencia, Monastrell and Garnacha in emerging regions such as Toro, Ribera del Duero, Rueda, Rias Baixas, Bierzo, Jumilla and Priorat, bold Spanish winemakers craft some of the most exciting wines on today's market.

About a third of Spanish wine is exported. The United Kingdom and Germany are the top two markets; the United States is third. Between 2001 and 2003 Spanish wine exports to the United States grew more than 18 percent, much faster than the other top markets, according to Wines from Spain .

So, grab a glass -- there has never been a better time to explore the diversity of Spanish wine.

Toro Region

In Spanish toro means bull. These animals do roam the countryside of Toro, but despite the similarities between the bull's power and the strength of the region's wines, Toro is actually named after a town perched above the nearby Duero River .

"The wines from Toro are brimming with tradition. Their origins date back to before the settlements of the Romans and it is said that the wine Christopher Columbus took on his journey to discover America was from Toro," says Jose Manuel Azofra of Bodega Numanthia Termes, one of Toro's top wineries.

Living history is evident in Toro, which is home to some of the world's most ancient grapevines. Sandy soil prevented phylloxera, a vine disease that decimated France 's vineyards during the 1800s, from devastating the area. Bodega Numanthia makes its coveted wine Termanthia from pre-phylloxera vines more than 150 years old.

Even though the region has undergone long periods of neglect, today many of Spain 's notable winemakers are investing in Toro. One of the hottest is Bodegas Mauro, begun by Mariano Garcia, the former winemaker of the famous Vega Sicilia winery in Ribera del Duero, and his sons Eduardo and Alberto. This producer has pedigree and is helping to bring Toro to the forefront of Spain 's wine scene. Major wine style: big reds.

For lovers of bold reds, Toro is for you. Though other varieties such as Garnacha are planted, the celebrated grape of the region is Tinta de Toro. A local name for Spain 's trademark red variety Tempranillo, Tinta de Toro has adapted over time to the harsh conditions of Toro. A high-altitude plateau with low rainfall and extreme temperature swings, Toro produces grapes with power and concentration.

Anne Pickett, Spanish wine buyer for K & L Wine Merchants, says, "Even though Tempranillo is the same grape used in the famous regions of Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Toro, you couldn't have more different expressions in each place. Rioja is like Burgundy , Ribera del Duero like Bordeaux and Toro is packed with pure New-World punch."

Toro wines

2003 Dehesa Gago G Toro ($12) -- From the hands of one of Spain 's most creative and passionate winemakers, Telmo Rodriguez, comes this affordable yet intense red.

2003 Dos Victorias Elias Mora Toro ($22) -- By up-and-coming winemaking stars Victoria Pariente and Victoria Benavides, this aromatic, balanced wine is powerful and supple.

2002 Numanthia Tinta de Toro ($50) -- Black fruit flavors are accented by mineral and cocoa aromas in a rich, decadent wine worthy of both the table and the cellar.

2003 Bodega Mauro Prima Toro ($16) -- This young, fruit-driven wine captures Toro's trademark dark coloring and juicy richness.

2001 Bodega Mauro San Roman Toro ($45) -- Massive, inky purple, complex and daringly dense, this cellar-worthy wine is the pure expression of Tinta de Toro.

Ribera Del Duero Region

If you have sipped Spanish wines in the past few years, it's likely you've sampled one from Ribera del Duero. The region has been on the world wine map since Vega Sicilia was founded there in 1864.

In modern times, Ribera del Duero gained fame due to pioneer vintner Alejandro Fernandez of Bodega Pesquera. When wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. bestowed his praise on Pesquera's wine in the early 1980s, investment flowed into the area and it was touted as the next Rioja, but producers took more than a decade to live up to the acclaim.

Today, Vega Sicilia and Pesquera share headlines with cult wines like Dominio de Pingus, made by Peter Sisseck. These stars have placed Ribera del Duero on the global wine stage.

"The marriage of the region's quality fruit with new technology has helped Ribera del Duero develop some of the world's most sought-after wines," says winemaker Javier Aladro of Bodegas Valdubon. Major wine style: seductive, structured reds.

"Ribera is simply born elegant," says Vega Sicilia's technical director, Xavier Ausas Lopez de Castro.

The birthplace of these stylish wines is only a several-hour drive from modern Madrid , yet Ribera del Duero's rugged landscape is dotted with rustic farms and ancient castles. Weaving along the banks of the Duero River (ribera means river bank or shore), the region's climate creates a long growing season, which encourages grapes to develop intensity and structure. In youth, reds made from Tempranillo, or Tinto Fino as it's called locally, are fruit-forward and bright. With ageing, they gain their trademark suppleness.

Ribera del Duero wines

2003 Torremoron Ribera del Duero Tempranillo ($11) -- An entry-level wine that's fresh and vibrant. Not overly serious, but packed with berry fruitiness.

2000 Legaris Crianza Ribera del Duero ($18) -- Layered and lush with hints of cracked pepper in the aroma and dark cherry jam flavors, this is a lovely expression of Ribera.

2000 Valdubon Reserva Ribera del Duero ($24) -- This winery is part of the Heredad Collection of Spanish wineries owned by the Ferrer family, which also owns Gloria Ferrer in Sonoma . The wine is ultra-smooth with dark cherry fruit flavors and a touch of peppery spice.

2002 Pesquera Ribera del Duero Tinto ($25) -- Classic Ribera with earthy notes and ripe red fruit. A seductive style that still showcases bright acidity and strong tannins.

2000 Condado de Haza Reserva Ribera del Duero ($34) -- Another notable property of Alejandro Fernandez that focuses on a richer, even more supple style than Pesquera. White chocolate aromas intermingle with black fruit flavors and a plush texture.

2001 Aalto Ribera del Duero ($45) -- Created by a dream team including winemaker Mariano Garcia, this superstar wine is concentrated and smooth. Though enjoyable now, it will age gracefully.

Bierzo Region

If there is one region that industry insiders are buzzing about, Bierzo is it. Metzler of Classical Wines says Bierzo is hot on his list these days.

"From my earliest research in Spain dating to the mid-1970s, I sought terroirs that would produce power without sacrificing balance and elegance," Metzler says.

That describes Bierzo's velvety reds perfectly. Bierzo is situated in the mountainous region of northwestern Spain between the high plateaus of Ribera del Duero and Toro and the lush, green coastline of western Spain . With its patchwork of small vineyards on steep tree-shrouded slopes, it's reminiscent of a rustic version of Piedmont , the great northern Italian wine region.

To understand Bierzo is to understand its central location on the Camino de Santiago (road to Santiago ). Over centuries pilgrims would come from across Europe to pay homage to the burial site of Saint James at the cathedral in the coastal city of Santiago de Compostela . Though vines were certainly planted during Roman inhabitation, the influence of these pilgrims during medieval times contributed to the area's diverse culture and rich wine history. Major wine style: unique, sleek reds.

The primary red grape in Bierzo is one most have never heard of, much less tasted - Mencia. It was long thought to be related to Cabernet Franc, a French variety brought along on pilgrims' travels. Similarities do exist with Cabernet Franc's floral aromas and mineral notes, but wines made from Mencia are also reminiscent of a silky Pinot Noir or a pretty Italian Nebbiolo.

Winemaker Raul Perez of Bierzo's Bodegas Estefania, which makes the highly regarded Tilenus wines, says, "Bierzo wines based on the unique Mencia grape are fashionable today because they are an excellent alternative. Today people know more about wine and want to be surprised with new flavors and bouquets."

Bierzo wines

2002 Pittacum Bierzo ($20) -- Love Pinot Noir? This rose-petal scented wine with a silky texture is for you.

2000 Tilenus Crianza Bierzo Mencia ($24) -- This wine is so sleek and supple you can't put it down. Hints of minerality on the nose combine with dark berry fruit and a supple mouth-feel.

2000 Tilenus Pagos de Posada Reserva Bierzo Mencia ($40) -- Darker than the Crianza with a velvety texture and intense complexity.

2003 Dominio de Tares Bierzo Mencia ($16) -- Another top-notch producer making aromatic, silky reds to fall in love with. This wine is worth twice the price.

2002 Dominio de Tares Bembibre Bierzo Mencia ($45) -- From select vineyard plots of almost 100-year-old vines, the licorice, mineral intensity of this red inspires oohs and aahs with every sip.

Priorat Region

On the other side of the country from Bierzo lies Priorat, named after the historic Priorato de Scala Dei, a 12th century monastery. Not far from the bustling city of Barcelona on the Mediterranean coastline, Priorat is a seemingly inhospitable yet hauntingly beautiful place. Vineyards are planted on steep, granite-laden hillsides below towering cliff faces of the Sierra de Montsant.

Like most Spanish wine regions, Priorat has a vast wine history but was neglected due to its remoteness. In the 1980s Rene Barbier became one of Spain 's famous names as he tried to revitalize Priorat with his now-legendary Clos Mogador wines. Coupled with the determination of young winemakers like Dafne Glorian and Alvaro Palacios (now a Spanish wine icon), wines from Priorat began their ascent to the top of the world wine scene. Major wine style: earthy, concentrated reds.

"Priorat, working mainly with Carinena and Garnacha grape varietals, is a spectacular growing region with revitalized vineyards that make for richly concentrated wines," says Savin at Sabor of Spain.

Garnacha, or Grenache as it's known in other parts of the world, can produce wines that are deceptively powerful. Not as inky dark in color as Toro, they nonetheless pack a serious punch. The elusive but distinctive quality in Priorat reds whether made from Carinena, Garnacha or the now-present Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot is called llicorella - a mineral character imparted to the grapes by the vine's roots digging deep into the slate soil to find water.

Priorat wines

2002 Alvaro Palacios Les Terrasses Priorat ($30) -- Palacios is known more for his expensive powerhouse wines L'Ermita and Finca Dofi, but this little brother to those wines is tremendous. Herbal aromas marry seamlessly with dark, almost dried fruit flavors, and restrained power.

2002 Scala Dei Negre Priorat ($15) -- What a deal this licorice-scented, earthy and intense wine is to get your feet (or palate) wet with the essence of Priorat.

2002 Pasanau Ceps Nous Priorat ($20) -- A blend of Garnacha, Merlot, Mazuelo (Carinena) and Syrah that is plush and lush but still tinged with distinctive mineral notes.

2001 Morlanda Crianza Priorat ($48) -- This is terroir -- the expression of the place in the glass. Dried cherries and dusty, earthy aromas entice you to sip the wine, which follows through with balanced tannins and a long, spicy finish.

Rias Baixas Region

For white wine lovers looking to buy Spanish, say "Rias Baixas" (pronounced ree-AHSH buy-SHUS). These refreshing, food-friendly whites need to be at the top of your list.

Rias Baixas is located across the border from Portugal along the Atlantic coastline of Spain . The larger area is Galicia with its own language - Gallego - and it's a world away from what most people imagine as Spain . Lush, green mountains are a backdrop for sandy beaches and dramatic rias (fjords) rising from the sea.

Spain 's juxtaposition of modern technology with ancient culture is most apparent in Rias Baixas. Copious amounts of rainfall create humid conditions where grapes are still trellised on the old system of tall pergolas to keep them free from moisture, but cellars are brimming with stainless steel tanks and the latest winemaking equipment. Though the area dates back to Celtic times, the white wine revolution started here in the past several decades. It's in full swing and the result is wines of amazing quality. Major wine style: racy, revved-up whites.

The star white grape in Rias Baixas is Albarino. Though other white grapes such as Treixadura may be part of a blend, the buzz is all about Albarino's citrusy freshness wrapped around a strong backbone of acidity. Rumor has it that Albarino is related to Riesling brought over centuries ago by German monks on a pilgrimage, although locals insist it's native to the area. Importer Metzler says, "A $20 Albarino that is properly ripened is less similar to Riesling and more like a $30 (to) $40 Viognier or Sauvignon Blanc in a zippier style." No wonder these wines are perfect complements to seafood dishes.

Rias Baixas wines

2003 Condes de Albarei Rias Baixas Albarino ($14) -- A well-known and widely available producer of Albarino captures the grape's zesty lemon-lime flavors and vibrant character in this wine.

2003 Condes de Albarei Salneval Rias Baixas Albarino ($9) -- Put away that Sauvignon Blanc and pick up this zesty, entry-level Albarino. It makes a great party wine.

2003 Vionta Rias Baixas Albarino ($18) -- Riper in style with melon notes and a touch of creaminess on the palate. Ideal with lobster and fleshy fish.

2003 Fillaboa Rias Baixas Albarino ($16) -- Beautiful richness and peach flavors pair up with taut acidity in an impeccably balanced white.

2003 Lusco Rias Baixas Albarino ($23) -- A stunner. Mineral and floral aromas are rounded out by passion fruit notes and sleek texture.

 The History of more than one hundred years success


At the first appellations in Spain the Denomination de Origen Rioja was honored in 1991 with the supplementary title of Calificada. This made it at last official: what was long regarded as Spain 's most prestigious wine region now stood perched at the top of the ladder in the wine sector's quality league. From then on, no Rioja wine could be bottled outside the designated region and quality controls reached a new peak.

The Rioja success story is based on a great varietal, Tempranillo; but it also owes much to tradicion, history and adaptability – and do not let us forget the resourceful marketing which helped Rioja thrive in export, particularly in the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States. Spain 's most famous red has reaped repeated success over the centuries. Since this local wine from the Ebro Valley was first mentioned more than 1,000 years ago in one of the early documents from Castile it has adorned the finest tables of the world.

World fame came early in the Middle Ages as the Christian pilgrimage route to St. James of Compostella took travellers right through the vineyards, a countryside rich not only in Rioja but also in Roman and Gothic architecture as well as picturesque medieval villages.

With the blossoming of the Spanish global empire wine from the Upper Ebro gradually found its way overseas. A couple of centuries later it experienced an unexpected boon when French wine production was hit by phylloxera and the fruits from the Ebro were brought in to fill the void. A further boost came when those same buyers, consultants and winemakers from neighbouring Bordeaux initiated a general overhaul of the antiquated wine making techniques in the region and in doing so laid the foundations for a spectacular rebirth: the victory march of barrel-aged Rioja came to the stage at the end of the nineteenth century In 1928 the first comprehensive regulations for wine production on both sides of the Ebro were adopted, but it was another 40 years before the three famous quality rungs for barrel-aged wine were finally defined: Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. Today Rioja is the most successful Denominación on the domestic market. Despite several international wine crises, the region regularly turns out production and sales figures which leave other famous international appellations lost in dreams. There were, for instance, 273 million liters harvested as certified Rioja in 2005; sales for that year reached 250 million liters.

Behind the high standard of the wine grown in this charming countryside is a geographically unique region. There are 60,000 hectares of Rioja vineyards, making it about half the size of its 300 kilometer distant cousin in Bordeaux . The Rioja vineyards stretch to the south and west of two mountain ranges that at times top 2,000 meters. The grapes grown here are predominantly red. The river Ebro , the artery of life for the region, flows eastwards through an expansive valley towards the Mediterranean . In the shadow of these mighty ranges, well-sheltered from the raw winds of the southern central Spanish plateau and the storms brewing off of the Bay of Biscay , thrives one of the finest red wine grapes in the world, the Tempranillo. The vines flourish on softly undulating hills and picturesque hillside slopes.

Unique quality control system
Contrary to the often publicised opinion that Spanish reds are heavy, with high alcohol content, these finest tintos from the Rioja region captivate the wine lover's palate with refinement, elegance and a dazzling fruit presence. In the traditional wines, Tempranillo, so named (in Spanish temprano means early) because it ripens very early, is supplemented by other native red varieties including the autochthonous Graciano which provides acidity and fruit, the red Garnacha offering richness and the Mazuelo, internationally known as Carignan, adding tannin and extract to the blend; but many of the finest modern Rioja crushed today are made only from Tempranillo, the queen of the Spanish red wine varieties. Although a substantial amount of young, fruity red wine is produced, the speciality of Rioja is the tinto that is traditionally matured in small oak barrels. The unique quality control system of the region guides the aging process in wood and bottle though four levels: young wine, Crianza, Reserva and the king's class, Gran Reserva. To qualify for the latter title, for instance, the red wine must mature for 24 months in the barrel followed by 36 in the bottle before release. This means that it can only be marketed in its sixth year, at which is just approaching the beginning of its drinkability.

However, a new quality standard has arisen beside Gran Reserva at the tip of the pyramid, the single vineyard vino de pago. Although it will be some time before this emerging quality standard is properly defined by and integrated into the regulations, it has already enjoyed enormous success on the market.

Beside fruit-driven Rosados the region also produces white wines. Although some traditional brands demonstrate astonishing ageing capacity, most are produced for immediate consumption or, less often, to create robust, longer lived qualities though barrel fermentation.
Rioja grows in three sub-regions, with the largest and probably most well-known being the Rioja Alta, which lies on the Ebro 's southern bank. This is where most of the large producers and nearly all of the well-established bodegas with their famous old cellars are situated. Soils here are a mix of chalk and clay.

Outstanding conditions for Tempranillo
However, in the west the valley narrows with steeper slopes and poorer soils. On the opposite side of the river lies the fine Rioja Alavesa, the smallest sub-region. Vineyards here are smaller with only a few well-known family businesses producing excellent qualities. On the north bank of the river only a small enclave around the community of San Vicente de la Sonsierra is considered part of the Rioja Alta.

South facing, with chalky soil interspersed with gravel from the Sierra Cantabria and cool winds blowing through the vineyards, this region offers outstanding conditions for Tempranillo, which accounts for 95% of all the vines planted. In fact, the hig her vineyards actually climb steeply into the range's foothills. Only where the valley widens south of Logoño, with deeper soils and substantially higher average temperatures, do we move into Rioja Baja. Once, this area tended to produce grapes with higher alcohols that were primarily used to blend with the lighter wines from the west. Just a few years ago this area had few important growers other than the local cooperatives. Times have changed, though. Today a number of top producers have moved into the region, finding excellent conditions on the stony, gravel rich soils – and it is in this sub-region that are found the greatest concentrations of Garnacha plantings, producing rich, aromatic young wines in the warm, flat vineyards.

A great wine region is not the least characterised by the variety of styles to which it gives birth. 150 years ago the modern era began for Rioja. It was then that destalking of harvested grapes, fermentation in large oak vats and maturation in small oak barrels - the French way - became firmly established. This first generation of modern winemakers began to fine-tune a style which was to make their wines, and especially the reds, world famous.

Traditional Rioja: elegance, harmony and longevity
Northern Spain along with the Basque region is traditionally one of the most important wine consuming markets on the Iberian Peninsula . Not surprisingly, this thirst is paired with culinary expertise. It is thus understandable that wines are preferred which pamper the gourmet with their elegance. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the classic Riojas, which are still produced in a not to be underestimated number of traditional bodegas, captivate the palates of their admirers through their delicate fruit, elegant body and lively, but still detectable acidity. The ascendancy of barrel maturation highlighted another trump for the region as Rioja's estates discovered the ageing potential of their wine. The most experienced vintners insist that the legendary longevity of classic Rioja depends on the blending of three or four grape varieties, pairing acidity, fruit and tannin; but this construct rests firmly on the pedestal of the main variety, Tempranillo, and its beneficial trait of oxidising very slowly. Traditional red Riojas are finely woven wines of a not too deep ruby red colour, moderate alcohol content and subtle vanilla notes with a sweet fruit presence highlighted by red currant. They can have a svelte, but still concentrated character.

Modern Rioja: fruit, ripeness and body
Many producers reoriented their wine making philosophies under the influence of the nouvelle vogue from Bordeaux – a style marked by highly concentrated, fruit-driven wines - as well as similarly conceived wines from the New World . The reds became more concentrated, their colour darker. Although the maturation period in barrel was reduced, the use of new wood was increased – and a higher proportion of French rather than traditional American oak became the standard. The great winner in this development was the sweet fruit and velvety softness of Tempranillo. Those characteristics were accentuated, giving more concentration and glamour to the young wines than ever before. Selections from vineyards with old vines and lower yields brought Reservas of a previously unknown density and structure. Sorting belts became part of the standard equipment, cold maceration was introduced and extraction time lengthened. The resultant so called Super Reservas or Vinos de alta expresión characterised the 1990s, once again establishing the world class status of the wines from Rioja!

The influence of terroir
Famous classic labels such as Viña Tondonia, Viña Albina or Viña Real hint that many Riojas once came from a particular vineyard site or lie of land. Later, the large producers moved onwards to blend grapes or wines from other plots, even sub-regions and used the original names as brands. The latest development could be described as the “Renaissance des Terroirs”. An ever increasing number of trendsetting winemakers now create their finest quality wines in a way which reflects the characteristics of the land and soil which nurtured the vines. The interplay of microclimate and soil brought a new expression of excellent Rioja wine types. Over the past few years a small group of estates have specialised in the maturation of something akin to first growths from particular single vineyard sites where concentration and ripeness play an important role. With these wines, a more elegant and finer type of Rioja is now emerging from the symbiosis of minerals, structure and individual character.

Never before were the top Rioja wines so elegant, clear and intellectual, reflecting the strengths of their respective vineyard sites and optimising the influence of fruit, freshness, elegance, finesse, structure and longevity. Soon, vintners will be able to use the term vino de pago to market the wine thus classified.

Even though its picturesque countryside, unique ancient villages and old wineries create some of the most beautiful wine landscapes in the world, there's no doubt that Rioja has been, rather unfairly, long overlooked as a tourist destination. The region is no longer being ignored, however, and within just a few years has become a Mecca for lovers of modern architecture. With this development Rioja has shown not only that good taste and high culture are at home here, but also that wine has a lot to do with both. Together, they encourage wine lovers to tour the region and take advantage of the greatly improved tourist opportunities.

Tradition meets the modern world
With the winery Ysios near Laguardia Domecq Bodegas, once part of the Allied Domecq Group, set new standards. Santiago Calatrava, the world-renowned engineer and architect, gave the elongated building a wavy facade imitating the Sierra Cantabria's stunning silhouette so that wine production and landscape melt into an architectural unity. With that, though, the Group was not satisfied. Near Logroño a plateau was excavated and the largest barrel cellar in Spain built. Bodegas Juan Alcorta was designed by Ignacio Quemada, a student of the star architect Rafael Moneo, who also worked on the details of this titanic project. Pharaoistic wooden doors link gigantic subterranean halls. When one enters the cellar in darkness a gigantic panorama window is opened at the touch of a button. Treading a catwalk, 75,000 barrels are revealed below. Juan Alcorta placed great importance on the perfect integration into the surrounding countryside. Only the upper storey rises out of the mountain embedded in a manicured vineyard.

Even gravity seems to have been designed into the new Bodega Baigorri. An almost empty, completely glazed hall is enthroned upon a concrete cube which descends to the south in a line of halls forming twelve steps. The Basque architect Iñaki Aspiazu kept the cellar technology in the foreground and thus created a futuristic jewel of modern architecture.

Another gigantic monument was created by CVNE in their new Bodega Viña Real. Situated between Laguardia and Logroño it features a structure modelled as a gigantic oak fermentation vat enthroned at natural elevation. Two colossal, 120 metre long tunnels pierce the base below the building and form the cellar. With this work the architect Philippe Mazieres ennobled the ageing of wine in wood as symbol of the whole region.

Alongside the spectacular new buildings other projects are emerging that, without compromise, merge tradition and modernity. There's hardly a bodega that can better claim to protect the ultratraditional Rioja style than that of López de Heredia. Here, the contrast between the producer's magnificent art nouveau tower and the new extension by Iraqi star architect Zaha Hadid is all the more captivating. The airy, light steel and glass structure appears as a futuristic showcase.

Even more adventurous is the project of the Marqués de Riscal's heirs. On the lands of Ciudad del Vino, as this spectacular development is called, past and present entwine. The ensemble centre was designed by Frank O. Gehry who, in modified Guggenheim style, merges a futuristic hotel with his trademark of corrugated titanium plate. A wine spa and gourmet restaurant managed by the only chef in Rioja with a Michelin star, Francis Paniego, complete the complex.

There's no doubt that Rioja will in many areas continue to extend its leading position among the world's finest wine production regions. Even now, precise plans on how this development should proceed through to 2020 are already on the table. 

Experts from all over the world describe their relationship to Rioja
Carlos Delgado:
This is an ode to Rioja, the greatest of traditional growths. A wine that survives unimpressed by fashions and a drink that established the fame of wine in Spain . There was a threat that it might be cast aside by modern blends, the dark muscular show-offs that earn the highest marks at tastings. Did we, the critics and spit masters, perhaps loose sight of the ingenuous consumer – those who only want to enjoy their wines – only because we wanted to encourage them to drink more, to drink better? I am sure that the time has now come to reintroduce this hedonistic value, the essence of every great wine, time to search for wines that one wants to drink to the very last drop.

This story has a happy ending. I take a red Rioja with an extremely classical composition, but crushed with sufficient craftsmanship to avoid revealing the fault of a misunderstood typicity. It is a 1996 Viña Pomal, a demonstration of finesse enveloping its solid structure, a perfect example of harmony in aromatic composition, velvety on the palate, with an agreeable length that only appears to be superficial, but in reality leaves behind a lingering taste of tender fruit. Pure pleasure!In Haro, in the barrio de la estación, a few wineries of the highest quality and prestige have grouped together, firms which have made history for and added splendour to Rioja: CVNE, Bodegas Bilbaínas, López de Heredia- Viña Tondonia, Rioja Alta, Muga. The wines they've made for more than 100 years have become the examples that all of Spain tries to copy. In the cellars of these bodegas lie Riojas that enjoy the privilege of immortality, wines such as the Imperial Gran Reserva from 1958 which still shows a surprising liveliness, an unbelievably mellowness on the palate and a concerto of noble woods and spices. Just as indescribable is the Prado Enea 1969: I am fascinated by the tenderness of its touch, moved by the absolute depth of balance of this wine that still whispers the magic tale its long maturation.

What has made Rioja so famous and also so enjoyable to drink is the finesse, the elegance, the subtlety, the nerve, the lightness: all these are attributes that I should never want to miss. However, the passage of time has also brought a more natural taste, a sensuous presence of fruit, a discreet wooden tone, wine with “well-turned ankles”. This is the keyboard on which one has to play to make our classics modern - as currently found in the railway station quarter of Haro and other locations. The weariness with which ever more wine friends regard overly concentrated drinks; the wines that impress, but do not wholly convince, much less please; they are so similar because they try too hard to be different. It is a golden opportunity that classic Rioja must not miss.

Reni Gabriel:
Nothing special, I thought, when I tasted the Centenario in Spain . Carlos Martinez-Bujanda proudly handed it to me at a tasting, as a bonus, so to speak. No chance against his younger vintages, I thought, and certainly not against his best wine so far, the already almost legendary 1985 Martinez-Bujanda of which I still have two magnums lying at home. It is Rioja 1968 Reserva that he had held back to create, in minutely predetermined strategy, a jubilee wine called Centenario for the bodega's 100th anniversary. Arriving back home, I laid it in the miscellaneous section of my cellar where lie forlorn those single bottles not entered in my inventory. They lie there trembling, realising that most of them land in the cooking pot. Only a third are given a tiny reprieve when I open the bottle and sniff. Seldom do I go on to taste, much less take a second sip.

As my winter flu was on the wane I decided to try something from the odd bin's heap as a substitute for tea, so to speak, or as oenological medicine towards a good night's sleep. I won't describe the 1968 Rioja Gran Reserva Centenario from Conde de Valdemar. I was not up to par at the time; but it did put me in the mood to rattle out this story on the keyboard. It reminded me of when I started to enjoy wine, when more than half of my cellar was full of Rioja, wines that were already softly oxidized when they came onto the market.

When I take a week's holiday I prefer the Canary Isles. There we rent a bungalow, with siesta being our main pastime. In every restaurant there's a respectable and always inexpensively priced Spanish wine to drink, all simultaneously fiery and yet mature. When we simply take such a wine with lunch at work then our choice often falls on Rioja. A lot of wine for little money would be a fair assertion. Don Sebastian is the best-selling wine from Mövenpick. Behind this label, though, lies a reliable and enjoyable Rioja, one of the best value-for-money deals in the world! For the 1989 Don Sebastian Reserva – tasted together with Enrique Forner in his bodega in Spain – I went weak in the knees. This wine, nurtured for more than six years at the bodega, only to hit the market for the same price as miserable Bordeaux . One opens the bottle, waits a little, takes a first enjoyable sip and completes the experience a few hours later. Don't ask about ruby or garnet, about tile-red shimmer or even ripening brown tones. Just breathe in the bouquet – not crouched over like a nervous starter for the 100 metres, but relaxed, revelling in the sweetness and soft, velvety, tannin. So good is a fine bottle of Rioja!

Rioja? I would always drink it again! At home, in Spain , at noon , in the evening, or down. Then, when pensioned, I shall tell my guests that there was a vintage of the century in Spain , too, and that such a wine, even though less deeply coloured and not so laced in tannin in its youth, ages just as well and spreads as much pleasure as much more expensive Bordeaux !

P.S. The above story also applies also to many other Riojas that have given me much joy including, not in any particular order, 1990 Faustino V., 1986 Campo Viejo, 1970 Tondonia, 1970 Faustino I. , 1968 La Rioja Alta and so on.

Knut-Espen Misje:
I like Rioja because of the diversity of wine styles it has to offer. I love the traditional, elegant and complex wines of Lopez de Heredia. They prove that heavy extraction and new oak is not the only way to go. At the same time modern wineries such as Artadi demonstrate that state of the art techniques can, if the fruit is of sufficient quality, also emphasise the unique terroir of Rioja. For me, the strengths of Rioja are the selection of great grape varieties from which it is blended and its naturally low yields which provide depth and character. However, large quantities of sub-standard wine bottled under the appellation could undermine the long term reputation of Rioja. Opportunities for the regions include continued focus on their individual single vineyards combined with marketing the wines through the well-established styles of the appellation. The greatest threat to the Riojas is global warming, that over time could change the unique character of the wines.

Steve Tanzer:
The red wines of Rioja are a perfect choice for wine-loving carnivores in an age of instant gratification. The best classic Riojas are fragrant, mellow wines that are easier on the head and stomach than most of the world's other serious reds, with more flavor and complexity than would seem possible from wines carrying a moderate 12 to 12.5 percent of alcohol. Of course, today's new wave Riojas, deeper in colour, riper, higher in alcohol, generally cleaner, and more likely to be made in new French barriques than old American casks, are another story entirely. They can compete with large-scaled reds from elsewhere; but can they match the traditional Rioja style for elegance and sheer foodfriendliness?

Charles Metcalfe:
Rioja combines several factors that can make its wines unique: a mild climate, capable of ripening the major grapes grown there appropriately in most years; enough rain, but not too much; a healthy interplay between traditional and modern attitudes to winemaking; and a pride in being one of the Spanish regions that has had a reputation for good wine for centuries. Its strength certainly lies in barrel-aged red wines rather than whites - and it is one of the two regions where the Tempranillo grape really plays above its normal game.

Valentin Duarte:
The uniqueness of Rioja begins with the fact that it can always be identified in a wine tasting. Rioja brings to fruition the Tempranillo grape's potential. Even today, history and tradition are not neglected. It was Spain 's first D.O.Ca. The control of this wine guarantees quality and genuineness from the first bottle to the last. Rioja is one of the world's great regions because we are in the presence of a wine with the potential for ageing. For me that is the sign of quality and pedigree. A Rioja with 20 years of age can be a great pleasure, such as the Conde de los Andes 1982 that we import. The future of Rioja lies in the continuity between past and future. Rioja must – and will – remain unique, even though there are modern Riojas that open new frontiers for the region: unusual fruit accents, colour and body – perhaps atypical, but still interesting wines.

Don St. Pierre Jr.:
Rioja for me is special because the best producers these days are able to blend the region's magnificent past with the best of modern-day winemaking, developing techniques to create a unique taste that is both full-bodied and well-balanced.


The Rioja Wine Interprofessional Organization, assisted by Bearing Piont Consulting and Fernando Gómez- Bezares from Deusto University, drafted the "Strategic Plan 2005-2020" for the Denominación de Origin Calificada Rioja. Its purpose is to foster the development of the local wine sector over the next 15 years. To this end it has established a strategic vision for the region: "to consolidate its leadership on the Spanish market and to become a reference point for quality wine markets worldwide".

The president of the organization, Victor Pascual Artacho, is convinced that „this ambitious project for the future of our wines will allow us to coordinate the efforts of all members of the organization as they embark upon a process of innovation.“ The board of directors of the organization has approved the essential lines of the plan, which will provide a framework for action and an orientation for the future of the region over the coming years. The plan's mission is to define a philosophy that will guide present and future actions in Rioja, worded as follows: „to make and sell quality, consumer focused wines, continuously adapting to markets and creating a joint brand with its own identity that will generate value and profits and contribute to the development of the region based on the collaboration and cooperation between the players interacting in the industry.“
Based on a survey of market requirements and the current situation in the region the plan proposes actions to obtain a better position for the wines of Rioja, particularly on international markets. Drafted at a time when things are going well, the plan focuses its goals on improving the status quo. This is quite different from plans conceived in a time of crisis. One of the conclusions of the survey on the competitive position of different segments in the domestic market is that sales of Rioja have grown over the past few years proportionally to the increase in sales of wines from other Denominacións. Rioja's market share has remained the same, giving this wine region a dominant position in practically all market segments, both in terms of price and of quality. The survey confirms that aged red wines have been the main driver of the region's growth. The considerable investments made in renovating both bodegas and vineyards by incorporating the latest technologies have allowed Rioja to build a strong position, both in terms of the quantity and the quality of its assets.

There is no doubt that Rioja's current challenge is to improve its position within a very competitive market. During the last decade, production and sales have doubled, while the number of bodegas has trebled. Major investments have been made and the sales of wines with greater added value have risen significantly. In view of a general market trend toward greater consumption of quality wines, one of the pil- lars of the plan focuses on continuous quality improvement. Rioja must continue to offer products adapted to the tastes and demands of consumers and ensure that these products become a reference in the quality wine segment worldwide. With respect to sales, and in view of market forecasts by the analysts, the plan sets a production objective of 290 million litres a year by 2009. This requires a consolidation of the region's leadership in the domestic market and serious marketing and promotional efforts on foreign markets with the highest potential for growth. To achieve this, the Plan includes seven strategic goals.

1. A precondition is that Rioja wines be oriented to consumer taste and demand.
2. Balanced production guarantees quality and market conformity. This includes yield control and quality mechanisms.
3. It is important that priorities be set according to the innate potential of the different markets.
4. The plan formulates the need to increase resources for marketing and communication.
5. Among the key proposals of the plan is the need to foster and improve cooperation between public players – the regional and national public administrations- and the private sector.
6. Rioja, as the leading region in the Spanish wine sector, has to become a national and international reference in viticulture and oenology.
7. In addition, the plan underscores the importance of wine tourism as a tool for communication.
The strategic challenges arising from an analysis of the current situation of the wine market have been covered by the Rioja Wine Strategic Plan, which provides outlines and a tactical course of action to guide the future of the D.O.Ca. Rioja until 2020.


With the founding of the Organización Interprofesional del Vino de Rioja in 2003 the wine growing region on the Upper Ebro became the first appellation in Spain to be managed by a twin track executive. Until then all decisions were made exclusively by the Consejo Regulador. The new organisation has 32 representatives from the six most important producer consortiums, from nine wine grower's associations and the three regional bodies. Seat distribution is based on the volume of wine marketed by the respective organisations and the number of hectares each association cultivates. The two organisations function in parallel and allow for a clear division of tasks with a control council involved in the practical implementation of interprofessional regulations. Concentrating on day-today business allows more independence, objectivity and quality control .

The Organización Interprofesional oversees Rioja's strategy, promotion and marketing and is a decision-making and negotiating council in one, using a consensus between marketing and production. Where a 50% agreement must be achieved within the marketing or wine producers' groups, a majority of 75% is required for council decisions.

The representatives of the interprofession are directly elected by the 15 respective associations. Following the last control council's legislative period, the new Consejo Regulador will be replaced by the 32 Organización Interprofesional del Vino de Rioja representatives so that the boards of directors of both organs are identical. President of both councils is Don Victor Pascual Artacho, managing director of the winery group Domecq Bodegas.


Rioja: classic or modern?

By Victor de la Serna from

When produced in its traditional style, the finest Rioja is easily recognized by its aroma, flavour and taste. Some believe that this style of Rioja is in danger of being eclipsed, if not forgotten, as an international, but less personal Rioja emerges.

Modern Rioja is the darling of high profile oenologists, wine writers and a public - nurtured on New World wines - that is unwilling or unable to understand the older style. Still, while the modernists get the editorial coverage, at least 90% of the Rioja made today - more than 20 million cases a year - is still vinified and aged in the traditional style. Some of this wine is sublime, but little reaches truly great heights.

Ideally, traditional Rioja comes from old, bush-pruned, vineyards at reduced yields. In contrast to the more modern styles the alcohol level is relatively moderate because the grapes are not picked at inflated levels of ripeness. These are seldom single varietals wines, but blends that add to the elegance of the predominant Tempranillo by teasing the warmth out of Garnacha, the nerve out of Graciano and the acidity out of Mazuelo. In the traditionalists' ideal world, the finest Gran Reserva are fermented in large, open casks and matured for years in old barrels made of American oak, thereby reducing their alcohol levels. Their style also shuns modern stabilisation techniques and places little emphasis on primary aromas. Their aim? Tertiary aromas, bright acidity, freshness and structure.

Traditional Rioja is often distinguished by a peculiar, 19th century style of winemaking and aging. When done with the utmost care from outstanding grapes, this traditional style yields the brilliant results of wines like Viña Tondonia from López de Heredia, Selección Especial from Montecillo, Castillo Ygay from Marqués de Murrieta, Prado Enea from Muga and 890 from La Rioja Alta.

Often slightly brick-red in color, these wines have aromas that are never fruit driven, but rather a mature bouquet of leather, spices and forest floors. Often the trained palate notes a hint of acidity on the nose that evolves on the palate in a fresh and elegant fashion. Well-balanced rather than overblown, it is the acidity more than the tannins that provide these wines with depth and length. Usually best after a few years in bottle, great Gran Reserva have the potential to age for several decades; but as the finesse of this style of wine has been lost on the current generation of wine drinkers, lovers of these wines tend to be older and with greater wine experience.

To be fair to the younger drinkers, however, it is quite possible that they have never had the opportunity to taste really top class traditional Rioja. Most old vines in Rioja, as in many parts of Spain , were uprooted in the 1970s and 1980s and replaced by much higher yielding clones. Apologists for more recent vintages claim that they "need more time" to show their class. In fact very few wineries still produce wines with the aging potential of the great examples of the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s. On the other hand, the best of the modernists have opened up a different avenue for Rioja: that of vineyard and fruit. Some of them, no doubt, over extract, over-concentrate and over-oak, but the finest are producing wines of great depth and structure. Despite the claims of their critics, these are wines that have all the aging capacity of great Bordeaux and, after 20 or 25 years, they acquire all the cedar, tobacco leaf suavity of traditional Rioja. As traditionalists like to say, here, too, you must show patience. After 15 years in the bottle, however it was made, great Rioja is sure to show more similarities than differences.

Rioja goes varietal happy

By Victor de la Serna from

For the first time since the Rioja appellation was established 82 years ago, new grape varieties were admitted by the Consejo Regulador, its governing council, in its first meeting of 2007. It was a long wait, but the results were spectacular: nine new grape varieties are now legal in Spain\'s most well-known wine region - and not one of them is cabernet sauvignon. Six of the varieties are minority cultivars in the region, some of them almost extinct, which have been recovered and propagated by the regional viticultural research center. These are the three red varieties maturana tinta, maturana parda and monastel and the three whites tempranillo blanco, maturana blanca and turruntes. The intensely colored, well-structured maturana tinta is the most promising addition. Monastel is merely the Riojan name for Somontagno\'s light-coloured moristel, not a top-notch variety. The tempranillo blanco is a mutation that was discovered a few years ago in a red tempranillo vineyard, much like Henri Gouges found a white mutation of pinot noir in Nuits-Saint-Georges in the 1930s. Like the white pinot noir, not to be confused with pinot blanc, the tempranillo blanco vines never revert to red. They give a full, interesting wine.

Then there are three foreign white varieties: chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and verdejo. These can only be a minority component in a blend dominated by native varieties, including the three newly-authorized ones.

Greater varietal wealth and the possibility to make more unique wines is the reason for the reaccreditation of the six native cultivars. In the case of the three \'foreign\' ones, the reasons are less clear: they will be used to attempt to give more body and more aromatic interest to Rioja\'s whites, which have been in the doldrums in the market. Until now, viura, southern France\'s maccabeu, grenache blanc and malvasia riojana were the accepted white varieties. Although the planting of new white vineyards has been actively discouraged for years, there are still over 9,000 hectares of them in the region. With demand for white wines rising again, the council is attempting to make Riojan whites more attractive on international markets.

The council left in limbo the so-called \'other\' red varieties that for years have been tolerated, but never mentioned by their names, in blends. These are mainly cabernet sauvignon, with some merlot and syrah. They are considered to be \'foreign\' and really don\'t add that much to the potential of Rioja reds, which are legally made with tempranillo, garnacha tinta, or grenache, graciano and mazuelo, which is carignan. But it\'s interesting to note that Marques de Riscal\'s cabernet vineyard in Elciego was established in 1860, while the first grenache vines in the region were only brought from Aragon after phylloxera struck around 1900.


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