Rioja’s international acclaim shows no sign of waning
By Isabelle Escande - Photographs: Courtesy of the estates, posted on 02 May 2023
As a premier Spanish wine region, Rioja has scaled the heights of quality and allowed the country to shine in the global wine firmament. Although rival regions such as Priorat and Ribera del Duero may be knocking on the door of vinous fame too, Rioja is not about to relinquish its ranking. It has not rested on the laurels of tradition and in recent times has successfully reinvented itself as evidenced by the relentless growth of its exports. We take a closer look at a trend that shows no signs of abating.
The vineyards at Bodega Heredad de Baroja are sheltered to the North by the Cantabrian Mountains.
A breath of fresh air is blowing across the vineyards of Rioja. Of late, increasing numbers of bodegas have torn up the region’s traditional rulebook in terms of styles and ventured into new territory with fresher wines, slightly less overt oak influence and greater fruit vibrancy. The wines, which have found an audience in various places around the globe, now account for a relatively significant share of exports. Obviously the so-called classic range is still fighting fit – and that’s good news – but Rioja has become more varied, offering up a greater choice of renditions which is now not only deliberate but actively sought after.
To gain a better understanding of this successful make-over, we met Remi Sanz, communications director with Araex Grands Spanish Fine Wines, the country’s largest group of independent wineries which boasts several estates in Rioja. “Each of them has its own persona, its own style and inherent characteristics and together they perfectly epitomise the variety afforded by the unique vineyard sites of Rioja Alavesa”, explains Sanz. The Araex group’s inception dates back to 1993 and its purpose was to promote exports for its member wineries. Fast forward thirty years and it markets the largest range of premium and ultra-premium Spanish wines, several of them from Rioja, where exports have clearly been headed north in recent times.
“If we compare the significance of exports twenty years ago with today’s share, I think the trend is clear. Spanish quality wines grow their global reach every year”. Several factors are driving the trend and one of them is of course the efforts that present-day bodegas pour into raising awareness of their wines and exporting them worldwide. Figures vary depending on the wineries but all of those belonging to the Araex project show a genuine vocation for exports. For some of them, overseas sales account for around 35% of production, whereas others reach an impressive 75%.
Wines designed for export markets
Also, the markets themselves are increasingly varied. At Araex, each bodega has its own preferred destinations even though, generally speaking, Holland, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Canada and the United States are the main importer countries. Other regions like Mexico, Scandinavia and the whole of the Asian continent are described as being synonymous with “fabulous opportunities” and the group obviously intends to continue its development in those promising markets.
The wineries have introduced tools to promote exports and of course began by designing their wines to resonate with the international marketplace. It was not a case of ‘one-size-fits-all’ however and the export drive has instead fostered a broadening of the range among the estates. As mentioned above, winegrowers have begun to craft fruitier wines with higher acidity, reverting back to traditions that were commonplace fifty years ago. This return to Rioja’s roots has been very fruitful and is perhaps one of the (positive) consequences of being confronted with global markets. In a bid to differentiate themselves, winegrowers have given thought to their identity and the unique character of their heritage and this rich past is also reflected in the varied range of wines.
Tempranillo gets a run for its money
Recent research by some bodegas into native grape varieties illustrates this intent. Minority grape varieties are increasingly sparking interest and their proportion in blends is becoming more assertive. In Rioja Alavesa, the historic home of Tempranillo, some grape varieties that were much-maligned up until now are re-emerging, explains Sanz. This is true of Viura (Macabeu), Tempranillo blanco and Maturana blanco which are now used for the region’s fine wines. It is also the case for Graciano, Mazuelo and Garnacha (Grenache) which also offer a unique and very different style. Despite this, Sanz admits that “Tempranillo will remain, in my opinion, the most popular grape variety in the region for a long time, and also the one that international consumers enjoy the most”.
The art of maturing wines.
One of the implications of this determination to showcase the region’s heritage is a greater focus among winegrowers on the concept of terroir. For many years, a wine’s vineyard origin was not a priority in Rioja – the idea of style was preferred – but it has now been placed centre stage, at least for some winegrowers. They include those at Araex who are strong advocates of differentiated vineyard areas. “You cannot compare a Rioja from Labastide or Samaniego – in the heart of Rioja Alavesa – with, for example, a wine from Tudelilla in Rioja Oriental. These are two entirely different worlds with a wide range of styles”, stresses Sanz. In bodegas like Luis Cañas, Amaren and others within the group, the aim is clear: “To encapsulate a specific single vineyard site in a bottle, by vinting the wines separately and controlling specific volumes. By doing so, we can provide wine enthusiasts with a thousand different iterations of the same appellation”.
At Bodega Amaren, the vines are farmed by hand.
Reaching out to an audience, though, is also about enhanced knowledge and education. Here, too, the Araex group has been a successful innovator, creating the Spanish Fine Wines Institute a decade ago. “This is one of the projects we are most proud of”. The educational platform has allowed over 3,000 trade members to increase their knowledge about Spanish wines. “We are proud to provide industry members with a resource like this and it encourages us to continue to work on improving the understanding of quality Spanish wines beyond our borders”.
We have selected five bodegas that illustrate the rich variety of wines from this outstanding region.
Fidel Fernández has been the winemaker at Bodega Luis Cañas for over thirty years.
Bodegas Luis Cañas, a family affair
It all started over a century ago when the Luis Cañas family produced traditional offerings at the time using whole cluster fermentation to craft young wines. Since then, a succession of four generations have helmed the bodega which now boasts over 1,000 small vineyard blocks in the very heart of Rioja Alavesa. As a reminder, Rioja is divided into three sub-areas – Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental.
Sheltered by the Cantabrian Mountains, Luis Cañas’ vineyards – most of them old vines planted on terraces with poor clay-limestone soils – enjoy a felicitous micro-climate and aspect that allow them to thrive. The vines are farmed with no pesticides or chemical fertilisers, entirely by hand. This precision work in the vineyard is mirrored by sensitive ageing in the winery.
Luis Cañas (in the middle) with his son Juan Luis Cañas (right) and grandson Jon (left).
The winery adheres to a policy of “one wine, one persona” and has launched a range of signature wines, each one of which originates in a single, unique block. A case in point is Camino Leza, made from vines aged over 50 located over 500 metres above sea level. Another unique feature is the blend, because the Tempranillo vines – which hold a majority share in the block – were planted alongside a clutch of, believe it or not, white vine varieties like Viura and Malvasia Riojana, as was customary at the time. These varieties ultimately end up in the wine.
Bodega Luis Cañas has become a benchmark property in DOCa Rioja and has successfully created a following outside the country – it now markets its wines across three continents and sets aside approximately 35% of its wines for international sales.
Bodegas Amaren, the art of gratitude
It is difficult to talk about Luis Cañas without mentioning Amaren, whose owner is no other than Luis Cañas’ son, Juan Luis Cañas. Designed as a tribute to his mother, Amaren (which means ‘from mother’ in Basque) was initially a wine by the family-owned winery before becoming a personal project in its own right.
Amaren is located in Samaniego, in Rioja Alavesa.
The company’s ethos can be summarised in a single word – respect, firstly for his mother, but also for the land and the 65 hectares under vine that surround this bodega in Rioja Alavesa. Divided into small blocks, some of the vines are 110 years old and access is not easy. Obviously, everything is done by hand and in some cases with animal-drawn implements, and the overriding aim is to work the land as naturally as possible.
Treating the terroir with respect also implies a desire to protect the different grape varieties that have traditionally been planted in the region. Tempranillo of course – which is the majority varietal – but also some Graciano, Garnacha, Viura, Malvasia Riojana and Bobal. The winegrower believes that their presence is no accident, which is why they have to be safeguarded and blended into the wines.
Maturation in oak barrels is also a stage of the process that is handle with great care at Bodega Amaren.
Throughout the winemaking process, tradition is also the norm here – Juan Luis Cañas has chosen concrete tanks to make his wines in order to showcase the fruit. This is also a return to roots because it is how wines were made in his mother’s era.
Manuel Quintano, the legacy of a pioneering family
After travelling to Bordeaux to study the region’s wines which, at the time, sold well in export markets due to their ageability, Manuel Quintano and his brother Diego were the first to introduce the innovative techniques used in Bordeaux to Rioja, in the 18th century. Manuel even wrote a book – ‘Receta pa hazer el Bino de Bordeus’ – when he returned to Spain to document what he had learnt. The Quintano family subsequently began producing wines using these innovative principles, introducing barrel maturation, regular racking and adding sulphur. Unfortunately, the hostile reaction of the authorities and their peers prevented them from making new discoveries and spreading the word.
Javier Cerecada, The winemaker at Bodega Manuel Quintano.
Located in Labastide, the native village of the famous trailblazers, Bodega Manuel Quintano strives to befittingly perpetuate the legacy of the two brothers. Maturation is an honoured technique but it is not the only one – quality is the focus of every stage of the process. It is mirrored in the meticulous choice of vineyard blocks, environmentally-friendly vineyard management techniques and the most natural winemaking methods available, including crushing and pumping over by hand and avoidance of commercial yeast strains.
Bodega Manuel Quintano is the premium project of the Union de cosecheros de Labastida, a co-operative winery founded in the 1960s when 175 grape growers decided to join forces to market their wines. Nowadays, it exports approximately 70% of its wines and in doing so is realising the unfulfilled dreams of Rioja’s first modern winegrower, Manuel Quintano.
The co-operatives finest vineyards were selected form de Manuel Quintano Project.
Bodegas Heredad de Baroja, expertise and tradition
The name of this bodega is designed as a tribute to the famous Basque author Pio Baroja (1872-1956). The winery’s inception dates back to 1964 in the uplands of Rioja Alavesa. The tiny village of Elvillar de Alava is where the Meruelo family calls home. When it established its winery, it had a single-minded goal – to turn its Tempranillo grapes into elegant wines epitomising the classic style of Rioja.
The Heredad de Baroja winery.
Located at over 600 metres above sea level, the vines are over forty years old and achieve an excellent balance of ripeness and acidity due to the broad differences in temperature between day and night time. The carefully selected fruit is then fermented with same focus on excellence. The winery is fitted with modern equipment such as stainless steel tanks and temperature control to guarantee the quality of the wines. These are noble, characterful offerings crafted with an undisguised desire to withstand the test of time.
Lar de Paula, a project that has triumphed overseas
The catalyst for the creation of this winery in 2005 was a desire by Fernando Meruelo to produce wines in a more modern style than those of the parent company, Bodega Heredad de Baroja, whilst at the same time benefitting from its well-oiled international distribution channels. His project – which is named after his daughter Paula – materialised when he teamed up with his friend Félix Revuelta, a seasoned entrepreneur and keen wine enthusiast. He was joined by his second daughter Patricia, who now runs the sales department.
The vineyards at Bodega Lar de Paula are located at over 600 metres above the sea level.
Right from the outset, the idea of crafting more offbeat wines was a clear focus of the project, although there is also a more traditional range. By using minority grape varieties, very old vines and limited edition labels, the winery is venturing off the well-trodden path and has nailed its innovative colours to the mast. Even the labels break the mould, proudly displaying a creative design. This open-minded approach obviously also applies to the markets targeted by the bodega, the avowed aim being not to limit sales to a select circle of insiders, but rather to reach out to a new audience, both inside and outside national borders.
Patricia Meruelo runs the Bodega Lar de Paula' sales department.
The project has proven to be a success, as evidenced by the numerous accolades garnered by the winery across the globe, including the gold medal awarded by the 2022 International Gilbert & Gaillard Challenge for the red 2015 Reserva which scored 92/100. The success is also mirrored in the family-run company’s share of exports, which continues to grow. The wines have found favour in export markets. One of the reasons for this is because quality is a constant – through hand picking, careful sorting, low intervention winemaking and sensitive maturation techniques, to name a few, innovation resides comfortably alongside excellence and craftsmanship.
Fernando Meruelo, his two daughters Patricia and Paula, and winemaker Toni Meruelo.
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