Rioja: New-Wave Reds
Although Rioja, located in north-central Spain, is easily the country's most famous red wine region, its success has posed perils of its own. Back in the '70s, when demand for its wines rose, many of Rioja's producers responded by increasing vineyard yields. They planted more productive clones of Rioja's chief grape, Tempranillo, and lavished them with fertilizers. The resulting wineslight and softstood in direct contrast to the rich, full-bodied ones being made in other parts of the world. More and more wine drinkers came to associate Rioja with reds that were not only light and soft but, due to extended aging in American oak, even vaguely oxidized.
A new generation of Rioja vintners is working hard to change that impression, making wines so concentrated and intense they invite comparison with the reds of Bordeaux or California. Although these vintners often regard themselves less as innovators than as restorers of Rioja's authentic traditions, their wines stand in stark contrast to the old status quo. Leading examples include Torre Muga from Bodegas Muga, Roda I and Cirsión from Bodegas Roda, Dos Vinedos from Bodegas Palacios Remondo and Aurus from Finca Allende. All are made from rigorously selected grapes drawn from low-yielding old vines planted in optimal vineyard sites; they are uniformly dark, dense and richly flavorful, framed by the finest French oak. Even though they retail for $50 or more a bottle, they often sell out immediately upon release. (More affordable renditions are available as wellin the $20 to $30 range, look for Contino Crianza, Bodegas Bretón's Loriñon Reserva and Bodegas Martinez Bujanda's Finca Valpiedra.)
These are the wines that have not only garnered acclaim in international circles, but have also gained a following among native drinkers. Ibone Candina, export manager for Bodegas Roda, notes that even in Spain, the audience for Rioja's old-style, light, oaky wines has grown smaller as a new generation of young, well-traveled Spaniards demonstrates a preference for the powerful New-Wave, fruit-driven wines they have encountered abroad.