Understanding Traditional & Modern Tempranillo Wines

Understanding Traditional and Modern Tempranillo Wines

– Written by Bryce Wiatrak

 

From blending choices to barrel aging, here are 5 key factors that affect Rioja and Ribera del Duero wines

Photo courtesy of La Rioja Turismo.

“It is a fantastic winery, but it’s also a time capsule,” says Víctor Charcán of Bodegas Roda. “It was the first modern vineyard of Rioja,” counters Telmo Rodríguez of both Remelluri and his eponymous label. Both are referring to López de Heredia, long perceived as the textbook “traditionalist” warrior in Rioja’s stylistic battleground of the 20th century.

You can understand why López de Heredia earns that reputation—I certainly did upon my first visit. The bodega looks as if it were perpetually ready to throw a Halloween party. A continuous net of cobwebs— “essential to the winery’s ecosystem,” I was told—drip above stacks upon stacks of old American oak barrels that I feared would disintegrate into a cloud of dust should I so much as graze them with my pinky. I asked why the winery wasn’t illuminated by candlelight. “Well, we fear the smoke from the candles could taint the wines,” my guide replied. I was kidding, but it was clear the proposition had been considered.

Yet outside the production facility, a jarringly geometric tasting room designed by the great Zaha Hadid stands in juxtaposition. It safeguards an old Beaux Arts booth, brought by López de Heredia to the 1910 world’s fair in Brussels. Perhaps this visitor center best encapsulates the paradox that is López de Heredia—and, in a way, Spain’s great Tempranillo appellations of Rioja and Ribera del Duero at large. “A wine can be both modern and traditional. Sometimes traditions can be modern and modernity can be traditional,” says María José López de Heredia, brushing off the question of how to categorize her family’s operation.

 

We are often taught to divide Rioja and Ribera del Duero wines into two camps: traditional and modern. The problem with such thinking arises with asking when, exactly, those traditions were born. “Rioja in the 18th century has nothing to do with what is López de Heredia,” argues Telmo Rodríguez. “López de Heredia has been modern for 140 years,” asserts María José in seeming agreement.

Evidence of winegrowing in Rioja dates back as early as Roman rule, and viticulture has continuously thrived here since the Catholic Reconquista of the region in the late 15th century. Nonetheless, connotations of “traditional” Rioja typically arise from the region’s 19th century advancements. The 1850s drove the French south to Rioja, searching for new fruit sources as phylloxera decimated their own vineyards. With them, the Bordelais brought new winemaking practices, as well as such modern conveniences as electricity—Haro being only the second electrified city in Spain in 1890, after Jerez. In 1880, a train station was erected in Haro, solidifying the town as Rioja’s industrial center, where wines were loaded for transport to France. Several of Rioja’s most historic producers, López de Heredia among them, were born in this Barrio de la Estación, or “train station district.” From these centenary wineries, we often derive what we conceive to be “traditional” Rioja, despite their relatively recent arrival. Red grapes have always dominated in Rioja, though white, rosé, and sparkling wine, including a new “vino espumoso de calidad” category, exist as well.

What exactly we view as traditional becomes even murkier in Ribera del Duero. The appellation is young, only codified as a Denominación de Origen in 1982 with roughly a dozen or two wineries. The ensuing decades saw Ribera del Duero’s rapid expansion, as wines such as Pingus and Tinto Pesquera achieved icon status. Ribera’s history of viticulture may also date back to ancient times, and it reemerges in the 12th century, when Benedictine monks began to cultivate wines alongside the Duero River. But perhaps the longest-serving vinous model in recent times is the pedigreed Vega Sicilia, first founded in 1864. Its blend, barrel regime, and other practices still serve as the formula many Ribera del Duero producers continue to follow, and “modernists” diverge.

In actuality, neither Rioja nor Ribera del Duero rests upon an ideological spectrum that runs from López de Heredia to Artadi or Vega Sicilia to Pingus. Both appellations provide myriad ways a winery can be traditional or modern—and few bodegas consistently adhere to one faction across all procedures. From varietal composition to barrel aging, here are five ways in which Spain’s great producers of Tempranillo can be traditional, modern, or somewhere in between, as well as a selection of wines that best emblematize these various discussions.

Monovarietal Wines vs. Blends

“In Spain, we don’t talk about grape varieties,” says Telmo Rodríguez. While Tempranillo is often thought of as Spain’s national grape—and is the world’s third most planted variety as of 2018 according to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine—it often finds the company of a suite of supporting players.

Rioja is often synonymized with Tempranillo, but the region traditionally has shied away from the production of varietal wine. In fact, in 1973, Tempranillo only represented 31% of Rioja’s vineyard space; Garnacha (Grenache), by contrast, occupied 39%. Today, Tempranillo covers roughly 80% of Rioja, but most winemakers still value the contributions of complementary grape varieties. “The varietal wines, they are something very vulgar,” argues Rodríguez. “I don’t have any wines made only with Tempranillo. I don’t think it’s part of our culture.”

In Rioja, vintners most commonly blend Tempranillo with Garnacha and Graciano, although Mazuelo (Carignan), Maturana Tinta, and the hyper-rare Monastel (not to be confused with Monastrell) are legally permissible. Historically, these blending varieties acted as a sort of insurance policy should something go wrong for Tempranillo, the same way Merlot and Cabernet Franc provide some cushion for the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux’s Left Bank. “The philosophy of buying was a process of risk reduction. If you need acidity, you go to high altitude; if you need alcohol, you go to Rioja Baja,” says Jesús Madrazo, winemaker at Contino in Rioja Alavesa.

Garnacha is most widely cultivated in Rioja Baja, Rioja’s vast southeastern segment that is both hotter and less fashionable. (Recently, Rioja Baja was officially renamed Rioja Oriental, or Eastern Rioja, by Rioja’s Consejo Regulador.) Vintners in Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa, Rioja’s other two subzones, source Garnacha grapes from this corridor to raise the alcohol levels of their wines. “Tempranillo was always very low in alcohol content. We need Garnacha to add sugar,” explains María José López de Heredia.

Graciano, on the other hand, “is never ripe enough,” María José continues. The grape approached extinction in the 20th century, its intense acidity and low alcohols offering little to contribute when more voluminous wines were in vogue. Today, that’s precisely why winemakers like Graciano. Some, such as Jesús Madrazo, champion the variety in the Rioja blend and even make it as a varietal wine. Madrazo adds, “With global warming and temperatures increasing these last 10 years, sometimes there’s a lack of acidity with an early-ripening grape [like Tempranillo]. Graciano saves things.”

Unlike Rioja, Ribera del Duero has relied on French varieties to complement Tempranillo, ever since Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves brought Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec down from Bordeaux when founding the now-iconic Vega Sicilia in 1864. For more than a century and a half, vintners have followed in Vega Sicilia’s footsteps, looking to its cuvée as the benchmark for Ribera del Duero. But in recent years, several vintners have questioned the suitability of Ribera del Duero’s terroir to these international grapes.

“When you think of the moment you begin harvest in Rioja and the moment you finish, it’s a big segment. In Ribera, everything is more confined—it’s a much shorter cycle,” notes Víctor Charcán, who works with wineries in both regions: Roda in Rioja and Corimbo in Ribera del Duero. Merlot can prove too sensitive to the region’s heat, while Cabernet Sauvignon is often harvested underripe. In consequence, estates are proving increasingly reliant on Tempranillo, specifically Tinto Fino or Tinta del País, the local, thick-skinned cultivar of Tempranillo. Ribera del Duero today approaches becoming a varietally homogenous region, with 96% of the appellation’s vineyards planted to Tempranillo.

Perhaps the first to fully realize the potential for Tempranillo as a monovarietal wine in Ribera del Duero was Alejandro Fernández, who established Tinto Pesquera in the 1970s. With Tempranillo, Fernández sought to return to more historic winemaking procedures, utilizing a 16th century stone lagar to press his wines up until 1991. Today, a number of Ribera del Duero producers follow suit in bottling 100% Tempranillo wines. Even Vega Sicilia, which in the 19th century was planted roughly half to Bordeaux grapes, has reduced its percentages of these varieties. The flagship Único sees roughly 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and no longer any influence from Merlot or Malbec.

Not everybody views this trajectory with enthusiasm. “I think it’s only the greatest vineyards in the world that can stand with just one grape variety,” says Peter Sisseck, the Danish winemaker and founder of Pingus. While his icon wine is typically 100% Tempranillo, sourced from a single vineyard, Sisseck turns to Garnacha to fulfill 10 to 15% of “Psi,” a project aimed at preserving old Ribera del Duero vineyards. He’s found that these older sites, too, are almost entirely planted to Tempranillo. “I think it’s a misconception to say that Tempranillo cannot do a wine by itself,” says Sisseck. But he adds, “Tempranillo by itself can tend to be a little monotonous.”

So which is the more “traditional” approach, Tempranillo vinified alone or featured in a blend? The consensus is perhaps clearer in Rioja, where monovarietal wines are still a rare exception. Some Rioja producers, however, still counter that argument—especially those who focus on single-vineyard wines (more on that in a moment). Carlos López de Lacalle of Artadi, for example, is one such vintner. “When you’re in Laguardia, you go to vineyards over 50 years old and they have Tempranillo and Viura [a local synonym for the white grape Macabeo].” Graciano, Garnacha, and Mazuelo are absent, and from López de Lacalle’s perspective would be less historically accurate when producing a single-site wine.

An answer proves more nebulous, though, in Ribera del Duero. While Vega Sicilia has long been a leader for the region, if not the whole of Spain, in the grand scheme of European wine, 150 years hardly qualifies as historical convention. But, Ribera del Duero remains a relatively young region. Since 1990, the region’s planted acreage has roughly tripled, and with that, expansion and influence of accessory grapes has diminished. In most regions, a return to indigenous varieties would signify a move toward tradition. Here, it proves a shift away from the vinous landscape that existed at the appellation’s founding.

CVNE Contino Rioja Gran Reserva 2009

While Jesús Madrazo’s varietal Graciano is exceptional, its presence is palpable in the Gran Reserva as well. Here, it constitutes 10% of the blend, alongside 85% Tempranillo and 5% Mazuelo and Garnacha. Despite the wine’s ripe tannic structure, it finds a finessed drive, much thanks to the Graciano’s acidic lift—tasting of cold red berries, thyme, and crushed stones. Contino is also notable as one of the two wineries in Rioja, alongside Remelluri, to first focus on an estate model, rather than relying upon assemblage across the region. “When I started in Contino 30 years ago, I was considered a modern winemaker. Now people consider me traditional,” Madrazo explains of the bodega’s idiosyncratic position.

Sierra Cantabria Rioja Reserva 2010

Sierra Cantabria is a quintessential Rioja Alavesa winery, inhabiting ideologies that make this corner of Rioja singular (more on that soon, too), without sacrificing a profile that adheres to many of the traditions of the region at large. One such divergence is their frequent release of varietal wines, with Marcos Eguren finding these northerly terroirs too cold for Mazuelo and Garnacha. He also remains less awestruck by Graciano than some of his neighbors, finding its profile too dominant and only using the grape in small percentages in a handful of vintages. While entirely Tempranillo, Sierra Cantabria’s 2010 Reserva still tastes complete, touching upon the same flavor and structural attributes one expects in a Rioja wine that adheres to long barrel aging. With a rusted, stony backdrop and a plush tannic through-line, the wine tastes of cold raspberries and leather.

Hacienda Monasterio Ribera del Duero 2013

“I soon realized that the most complex wine was Vega Sicilia by far,” Peter Sisseck recounts of his arrival to Ribera del Duero in the 1990s, hired to oversee the vineyards and cellars at Hacienda Monasterio. While Sisseck makes Pingus as a varietal Tempranillo, for Hacienda Monasterio, where he continues to oversee winemaking, Sisseck enjoys the influence of Bordeaux varieties, in this case 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot. While this wine represents the entrance to the Hacienda Monasterio portfolio, it has an intensely stoic structure, taking hours to truly open. Once it does, the wine moves past its inkiness and sings of sultry flavors: tapenade, anise, tarragon, smoke, dirt, and a distinctive (pleasantly) bitter bite on the finish.

Tinto Pesquera (Alejandro Fernández) Ribera del Duero Reserva 2012

Alejandro Fernández has always relied on 100% Tempranillo in crafting his iconic wines. Many trace Ribera del Duero’s Tempranillo boom to Fernández’s plantings in the 1970s, when he saw potential beyond the other agricultural crops covering the landscape. Tinto Pesquera consistently offers one of the most savory expressions of Ribera del Duero, and the 2012 Reserva is no exception. Aged for 24 months in neutral American oak barrels, it yields a brooding concentration with such flavors as sunbaked leather, tar, and blackberry.

Single Site vs. Assemblage

I once asked Pablo Álvarez, whose family has owned Vega Sicilia since 1982, if he believed Único represented the quintessential expression of Ribera del Duero, or something else entirely. He answered the latter, asserting that Alión, his second Ribera del Duero label, better captured the essence of the appellation. Why? Vega Sicilia Único derives from a single place: one glorious, contiguous vineyard. Alión, on the other hand, sources its fruit from various sites across the DO.

Neither Rioja nor Ribera del Duero are small appellations, and assemblage has long been the lifeblood of their wines. Rioja grows more than 55,000 hectares of grapes, while Ribera del Duero cultivates more than 20,000. For each region, that great expanse subdivides into a seemingly countless number of small vineyards. Rioja, for example, is home to nearly 20,000 winegrowers. “All the vineyards of Rioja are like a patchwork of the small families selling their grapes to the local village,” explains Telmo Rodríguez.

Historically, that’s how both regions operated, with families supplying their local cooperatives with fruit from their small plots of vines. That tradition was further solidified during the phylloxera crisis, upon the birth of Rioja’s centenary wineries. “Rioja in the 19th century became a region, like Champagne, run by merchants,” continues Rodríguez. Alongside the cooperatives, these historic wineries purchased their fruit from an assortment of local growers. Today, that model is being challenged from several sides.

In one corner, the historic bodegas of Haro continue to purchase vineyard property, becoming less reliant on outside fruit sources. La Rioja Alta, for example, in 2017 released its first Viña Ardanza vinified entirely from estate grapes for the bottling’s 75th anniversary, including the contributions of Garnacha from Rioja Baja. In Ribera del Duero as well, the Consejo Regulador has similarly observed a transition to estate vineyards from many of the region’s prominent names.

A handful of producers, however, are doing away with assemblage altogether, instead crafting wines of a single place. The practice isn’t entirely new to Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Vega Sicilia, of course, has been cultivated from a single vineyard since its inception in the 19th century, and the great “traditionalist” López de Heredia releases its single-vineyards Viña Tondonia and Viña Bosconia as individual bottlings.

But in the 1970s, two Rioja Alavesa producers revolutionized the model Rioja producers had historically followed. Contino and Granja Nuestra Señora de Remelluri (or simply Remelluri) both sought to create self-sustaining Rioja estates, in line with Bordeaux’s château system. Instead of purchasing grapes from across the appellation, Remelluri and Contino deal solely with fruit from their own contiguous sites. “It’s a risky philosophy,” admits Jesús Madrazo. That insurance policy of having multiple fruit sources is lost in the château model. In 2013, Madrazo recounts, disaster struck and Contino lost 99% of its crop—and that wasn’t the first time the estate faced such challenges.

Some producers, like Artadi, approach their single-vineyard wines with a more Burgundian ethos, crafting a portfolio of different sites to highlight the diversity of Rioja’s terroirs. “Why should we be blending if we could be enjoying completely different wines by not blending them?” questions Carlos López de Lacalle.

The drama, however, lies in the ability for Rioja wineries to communicate these places on their labels. In January 2016, Telmo Rodríguez spearheaded a “terroir manifesto,” calling upon the governing Consejos to create a pyramid model à la Burgundy, where wines are classified by the region, village, and single vineyards. A month prior, Artadi left the Rioja DOCa outright, prompting political upheaval in the region. “We will be happy to return to Rioja, but if Rioja creates smaller appellations on top of Rioja—for sure we will be inside there. We believe in terroir, but we believe in truth in real appellations,” Carlos López de Lacalle tells me.

In 2017, Rioja’s Consejo Regulador approved certain measures to help ameliorate these perceived shortcomings. Rioja growers can now petition the Consejo to certify their property as a single-vineyard site. The Viñedos Singulares designation is available for longtime-owned family vineyards of at least 35 years of age. Successful applicants must harvest their vineyards by hand and limit yields to 20% lower than the regional allowances, and earn approval from a tasting committee.

“The single-vineyard designation was meant to be a progressive move to permit another form of expression and more information for the consumer, but by no means follow any form of pyramid model,” explains Ana Fabiano, the North American Trade Director and Brand Ambassador for Rioja. Exactly what the new category will mean for consumers remains to be seen until vineyards achieve this certification and their wines hit the marketplace.

Still, several producers question the strength of these initiatives. One vintner says, “They are fooling everybody.” In particular, he finds fault that the new regulations do not limit the size of a single vineyard: “It can be 200 hectares or half a hectare.” Some fear this will effectively benefit the larger firms, rather than smaller, family-run operations.

But, to many, the greater frustration lies in between the single vineyards and the Rioja appellation at large. The “village” concept is relatively new to Spain, first adopted in Priorat in 2009. Rioja is home to 144 villages, and the 2017 changes allow their names to feature in as large of type on a label as the word “Rioja.” Nonetheless, a number of producers still express concern as to whether these new regulations are enough.

“I always compare Rioja with the Côtes du Rhône region,” says Carlos López de Lacalle. “Inside the Côtes du Rhône, you have the Northern Rhône and the Southern Rhône, and then you have smaller appellations that define unique sites. We’re missing the smaller appellations.” Telmo Rodríguez, who has reacted positively to the amendments in other interviews, echoes the necessity of the village level. “I think today it will be very interesting to understand the profile of the different villages… Instead, we created an appellation that doesn’t mean anything,” he says. Similar conversations on single-vineyard and village categories have also arisen in Ribera del Duero, but remain in more nascent, and seemingly less charged, stages.

Returning to the conversation of traditionalism versus modernism, does a single-vineyard wine represent a more contemporary approach? From a historical perspective, one would argue yes, although wines such as López de Heredia Viña Tondonia and Vega Sicilia Único complicate such generalizations. Perhaps the more controversial ideology is one that places Rioja and Ribera del Duero wines in a hierarchy, with assemblage wines at the bottom. “We are totally pro classification, and that encompasses single vineyards. What we have a problem with is saying a single vineyard is the top of the pyramid,” says Víctor Charcán, the supposed “modernist” black sheep among Haro’s Barrio de la Estación. That would be, he says, “turning back our history.”

CVNE Imperial Rioja Gran Reserva 2009

María Larrea bottles an impeccable, age-defying Rioja in CVNE’s Imperial. Based in Haro, the Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España, or CVNE, also owns Viña Real and Contino in Rioja Alavesa, but Imperial is often viewed as its most “traditional” offering. Matured in a combination of French and American oak, and consisting of 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, and 5% Mazuelo, the wine’s structure is built on a through-line of acidity that gathers its flavors to an ethereal, pointed finish. Linear and precise, its oxidative, medicinal tones taste of raspberry extract and wild herbs.

Artadi Valdeginés Single-Vineyard Laguardia Rioja Alavesa 2013

While Artadi bottled this wine before officially exiting the DOCa, the estate’s wines no longer feature the name “Rioja” on their labels. Artadi vinifies four single-vineyard wines: Valdeginés, La Poza de Ballesteros, El Carretil, and the flagship Viña El Pisón. Valdeginés is grown from a clay-limestone vineyard in Laguardia, and is crafted from 100% Tempranillo. Aged for one year in French oak barrels, the wine is structured entirely differently than the CVNE. Luscious tannins coat the palate with no hints of oxidative character whatsoever. It’s unctuous and fresh, yet so many of the typical Rioja descriptors still emerge, just in a different rhythm: smoke, dust, red licorice, and black sesame.

Alión Ribera del Duero 2013

More representative of Ribera del Duero than Único, according to Pablo Álvarez, Alión hails from selected vineyard sites across the appellation, including its own property near Peñafiel, as well as Vega Sicilia’s younger vines. Aged for 14 months in new French casks and made from entirely Tempranillo—both unlike the Único formula—Alión offered a dark-hearted, gripping wine in 2013. Tannic, yet accessible, it balances more opulent flavors of huckleberry and blackberry compote, with tauter tones of polished, fresh leather and cut stones.

Vega Sicilia Único Ribera del Duero 2007

I went through all my former tasting notes of Único before tasting the 2007 vintage. Beyond my sheer awe of this wine, my notes were all over the place—but I think that gets to Único’s essence. Its flavors are ephemeral, constantly shifting and teasing, yet the wine’s timelessness, structure, and balance are unyielding. Never released before the estate deems ready, the wine is already pleasurable upon release, despite its decades, if not a century, of aging potential. In this vintage, I kept circling back to the wine’s umami character. It dabbles in leather and game, plum and spices, yet there’s some sort of otherness to its flavors. That’s Único—a wine so singular, it leaves me grasping for a way to describe it. A sublime encounter, but inevitable frustration for a writer.

Rioja Alta vs. Rioja Alavesa

Taking one step back, before considering single vineyards and villages, some would argue more broadly that Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa serve as bastions for traditionalism and modernism, respectively. One can find some truth to the generalization. Rioja Alta finds its heart in Haro, the birthplace of Rioja’s centenary wineries, many of whom uphold what we perceive to be the most “classic” expressions of Rioja. Rioja Alavesa, on the other hand, is home to such producers as Artadi, Remelluri, and Contino—thought leaders who challenge preconceived conceptions of what Rioja is supposed to be. Such ideology even finds itself reflected in Rioja Alavesa’s architectural landscape, one that incorporates such contemporary masterworks as Frank Gehry’s hotel at Marqués de Riscal and Santiago Calatrava’s rippling Bodegas Ysios.

Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa do exhibit variances in terroir. Rioja Alta sits almost entirely on the southern banks of the Ebro River, taking root in a diverse tapestry of soils where grapes ripen roughly a week later. Rioja Alavesa nestles itself in the Sierra Cantabria mountain range, blanketed predominately by clay and limestone. But dirt and climate hardly account for the divergence of these two subregions. “I think the soils, the terroir is different, and maybe the philosophy, too. Sometimes we say that maybe Rioja Alta is more Atlantic, Alavesa is more Mediterranean. But I don’t agree with that—it depends on the vintage,” admits María Larrea, winemaker at CVNE.

Instead, Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa’s differences are primarily cultural. Rioja Alavesa doesn’t lie within Spain’s larger autonomous community of La Rioja; rather, it is part of the Basque Country, and vintners will often make a point to share their pride in that heritage. The formulas of varietal and regional blending prove less pertinent in Rioja Alavesa. “What you will see is many Rioja Alta wineries will buy fruit from Baja or Alavesa, but you will not often see Alavesa properties crossing the Ebro or going south to look for fruit,” explains Ana Fabiano.

Furthermore, amid the discussions of single-vineyard and village classifications, several vintners in Rioja Alavesa sought to break off from Rioja entirely. While the movement is now defunct, the Viñedos de Álava organization aspired to form a new DO within the boundaries of Rioja Alavesa. Ultimately, their petitions proved unsuccessful, but Rioja Alavesa’s idiosyncrasies are clear, both in the people who inhabit the area and the wines they produce.

La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Rioja Reserva 2008

Despite the bodega’s name, La Rioja Alta sources fruit from across Rioja, which in a way more closely aligns the winery with the ethos of its Haro compatriots than if it were to craft wines solely from within the subregion’s bounds. Nonetheless, like many of Rioja’s most historic enterprises, La Rioja Alta has increased its estate holdings. This 2008 Viña Ardanza is the winery’s first under this label to be vinified entirely from estate grapes, after securing a vineyard for Garnacha in Rioja Baja. Viña Ardanza consistently represents a tremendous value for high quality Rioja. The 2008 captures all the essential flavors we associate with the wineries of Haro—briny olives, pomegranate, ash, and vanilla notes from the used American oak barrels that here integrate beautifully into the wine. Chalky tannins appear on the mid-palate, but the wine ends clean, with a precise focus.

Remelluri La Granja Rioja Gran Reserva 2010

In an amphitheater beneath the Sierra Cantabria range, Remelluri, like Contino, embodies the idea of a self-sustaining, single-estate winery in Rioja Alavesa. The property was acquired by the Basque-born businessman Jaime Rodríguez Salís in 1967. Today, his daughter and son Amaia Rodríguez Hernandorena and Telmo Rodríguez run the certified-organic estate. Aged for 26 months in primarily French barriques and constructed from 75% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha, and 5% Graciano, the Gran Reserva strikes a stylistic middle ground between the centenary wineries of Rioja Alta and its more recent neighbors in Rioja Alavesa. Vibrant and piercing, it finds a savory profile of gunflint, pine needles, pomegranate, and rosemary.

Oak: Old vs. New, American vs. French

I was once told the Spanish palate has a higher forgiveness for the taste of oak than most any other wine-drinking culture. I still grapple with what that person meant. Was she referring to the vanillin imparted by new American oak? The oxidative texture developed by aging in old oak? Indeed, the most tasteable marker of a Rioja or Ribera del Duero wine’s philosophical leanings may well be its usage of barrel. No other classic wine regions are so reliant on long-term aging in oak for unfortified dry wines as these two—particularly Rioja. Yet, the landscape for élevage in Rioja and Ribera del Duero is complex and has never been more diverse than it is today.

The oak barrel was first introduced to Rioja by Don Manuel Quintano in 1786, a Labastida-born priest and winemaker of noble ranks, who returned from two harvests in Bordeaux with a series of new winemaking practices. Less than a century later, several of those techniques, particularly the maturation of wine in oak casks, were cemented into the new Rioja recipe as French influences reshaped the region at the onset of the phylloxera crisis. By law today, Rioja wines are aged in 225-liter barriques, the same size as in Bordeaux. Nonetheless, Rioja winemakers strayed from Bordelais traditions with the adoption of American white oak as their primary material, due to their longstanding transatlantic trade partnership.

Historically, the wood would be assembled into barrels in on-site cooperages at the bodegas. Several of Haro’s wineries continue to maintain cooperages, including La Rioja Alta, Muga, and López de Heredia. But the coopers serve not only to create new barrels, but also to repair the existing ones that for some are even more greatly prized. “We do more barrel repairs than we do new barrels. We are continuously restoring them. We use new oak less than 10%,” explains María José López de Heredia.

Vega Sicilia, too, operates its own cooperage, and Ribera del Duero’s history with oak barrels is often thought to originate here. The complicated combination of American and French élevage at Véga Sicilia was introduced by Domingo Garramiola Txomin, the cellar master who further propelled the estate to international stardom in the first decades of the 20th century. Before this time, local traditions encouraged winemaking for everyday consumption, and wines were thus aged in larger vats, from any given wood. Vega Sicilia continues to employ coopers, but only for the assembly of its American oak barrels. The finished French oak barrels are purchased from cooperages in France.

Beyond the nationality of the oak, one must also consider the age of the barrels and the amount of time a wine spends in them. Vega Sicilia famously released the 1968 and 1982 vintages of Único in the same year (1991), and we are still enjoying the newly released wines of the 1990s from López de Heredia, while decades of wine sit in their labyrinth of barrels. Many of the benchmark characteristics of “traditional” Rioja and Ribera del Duero wine derive from the years, decades even, of micro-oxidation experienced in barrel—even more so if the barrels are old to begin with. Peter Sisseck finds a happy medium with year-old barrels. “They hadn’t gone into this vanilla phase yet, and they still had good micro-oxidation,” he explains.

When did winemakers in Rioja and Ribera del Duero begin to diverge from these oak formulas? In Ribera del Duero, several wineries continue to follow Vega Sicilia’s lead and age their wines in a combination of American and French oak barrels. Yet other pioneers, such as Alejandro Fernández, have proven more loyal to one or the other (American oak in the case of Fernández at Tinto Pesquera). Perceived modernists such as Peter Sisseck may rather rely on French oak, but the Pingus grand vin hasn’t touched an inch of new oak starting with the 2012 vintage. Even Vega Sicilia, which changes the exact percentages of French versus American oak for each vintage of Único, utilizes entirely new French oak for its sister label, Alión. The Consejo for Ribera del Duero has noticed decreased interest in the markers of oak altogether, noting recent reliance on larger or older vessels, as well as experimentations with Hungarian oak.

In Rioja, the first real push for new French oak is suggested to have begun at Marqués de Cáceres in the 1970s. In the final years of Spain’s struggle under the Franco régime, Enrique Forner hired the famed Bordeaux professor Émile Peynaud to help him restore his family’s winery—and in a way, the region, whose reputation had suffered in the decades following the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Peynaud’s advancements included a shift away from old, worn-down American oak casks and the introduction of new French oak.

But many consider the advent of “modern” Rioja to have dawned with the arrival of Michel Rolland in 1987 as consultant to Bodegas Palacio (incidentally, Txomin’s employer prior to joining Vega Sicilia). The wine Rolland created, Cosme Palacio y Hermanos Reserva Especial, is thought of as the original vino de autor, or “author’s wine,” where the winemaker’s stamp is its defining character. Rolland’s most notable development? Shorter aging in entirely new French barriques. In the 1990s, Rolland inspired a new wave of vino de autor bottlings—or alta exprésion, meaning “high expression,” as they’re also called—a suite of more “international” wines that earned early praise.

Several of those wines have now fallen from fashion, but their imprint on Rioja remains. Old-school producers such as Muga and Marqués de Murrieta craft their own “modernist” wines, aged in new French oak in the forms of Torre Muga and Dalmau, respectively. Even CVNE Imperial, a textbook example of “classic” Rioja, matures in a blend of French and American barriques, and for a shorter duration than it did a few decades ago. While not quite as vague as it is in Ribera del Duero, the use of oak in Rioja as it applies to a bodega’s style is not as transparent as it once was. “For me, long aging in barrels is just a process. It doesn’t have anything to do with tradition or modernity,” asserts Carlos López de Lacalle of Artadi.

A more practical answer may also illuminate a winemaker’s decisions regarding barrel régime. The old-school bodegas of Haro treasure their stocks of nearly-antique American oak barrels, but the newer estates haven’t had a century of winemaking to build up the same supplies. This holds particularly true in Ribera del Duero, a young region that only counted a handful of wineries upon achieving DO status in 1982. Peter Sisseck suggests that Alejandro Fernández’s barrel program at Tinto Pesquera was less an infatuation with new oak, and more a realization that a young growing winery had to buy new barrels with each vintage. Subsequently, the strong influence of new oak encouraged shorter aging periods than what had long been standard. When developing the winemaking strategies for Hacienda Monasterio, Sisseck’s goal was to create a wine with the barrel program of Tinto Pesquera (except with French oak), and the blend of Vega Sicilia.

López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Rioja Reserva 2005

No winery in Rioja, if not the whole of Spain, champions the practice of long-term aging in oak barrels like López de Heredia. Even the Rosado spends years in barrel, the 2008 released just this year. López de Heredia maintains a stockpile of used American oak casks, constantly restored on-site at their cooperage. But despite the extremes of its cellar practices, López de Heredia also owns some of the most distinguished vineyard property in Rioja, namely Viña Tondonia and Viña Bosconia. On the palate, the two sites supposedly diverge by embodying a Bordelais and Burgundian aesthetic respectively (and their bottles are shaped accordingly). French comparisons aside, the 2005 Tondonia Reserva captures everything one can love about this bodega. Powerful, yet remarkably restrained and elegant, the wine finds a rusted patina that complicates its vibrancy and drive—dried rose petal, game, mint tea, potpourri, and chaparral. These wines are seemingly eternal, only growing fresher with decades in the bottle.

Roda Roda I Rioja Reserva 2009

Roda holds a peculiar position in the tapestry of Rioja wine. The newcomer to Haro’s Barrio de la Estación, Roda clearly differentiates itself from its from its neighbors with the contemporary aesthetic of its wines, informed by a reliance on new French oak barrels, among other advancements. Yet, it doesn’t squarely fit within the group of producers emerging simultaneously in the late 1980s and 1990s. The 2009 Roda I Reserva proves just that—a wine that demonstrates a fleshier expression of Tempranillo, but never quite too much. Víctor Charcán distinguishes Roda (formerly Roda II) and Roda I by sorting which lots demonstrate a red- or black-fruited character, respectively. Suave and bold, the 2009 Roda I achieves gratifying breadth in both its tannic structure and juicy flavors of sweet sage, blackberry, black cherry, and cassis. Yet it never loses sight of Tempranillo’s more corrupted overtones—black pepper, smoke, sweat—like James Bond after he’s done the job.

Dehesa de los Canónigos Solideo Ribera del Duero Reserva 24 Meses 2012

Rather than separating its lots into American and French oak barrels, Dehesa de los Canónigos lets both influence the entire blend of its Solideo Reserva. The wine begins its life spending 20 months in American oak barrels, before being finished for the final 4 months in French. A blend of 85% Tempranillo, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 3% Albillo (a local white variety), the wine finds a plush frame of tannin, augmented by such secondary flavors of vanilla and sweet spice. It tastes of fig jam, crushed violets, and Earl Grey.

O. Fournier Ribera del Duero 2005

Founded in 2000, the O. Fournier group operates wineries in Ribera del Duero, Argentina, and Chile. This wine represents the flagship from its Spanish estate, where they farm 105 hectares. Aged for 20 months in new French oak barrels, the O. Fournier bottling, like the entire portfolio, forfeits any aging classification on its labels, resorting to “cosecha.” The 2005 tastes remarkably sleek—fennel and black plum meet a backdrop of more lifted, stony character. Only the second vintage of this bottling, O. Fournier offers a freshly polished expression of Ribera del Duero with just enough rustic flavor to maintain its intrigue.

Cosecha vs. Aging Classifications

On a similar note, the aging classification systems in Rioja and Ribera del Duero are no longer as reliable in their progression of wine quality as they once were. At one time, crianza, reserva, and gran reservarepresented the apex of quality in Spain in increasing order. “Historically, to be a crianza it needed six years, and that was the guarantee of the perfect aging… For a wine to be able to last six years in bottle, you needed to have high quality grapes,” notes María José López de Heredia. Now, the pyramid has been turned on its head, as a quorum of top producers are foregoing these labels altogether. This holds particularly true in Ribera del Duero, but also in Rioja among such bodegas as Finca Allende, Contador, and Abel Mendoza Monge.

These bodegas largely align with the same group of producers who rose to prominence in the 1990s, relying on shorter aging in new French oak. In most circumstances, their wines would at least qualify as crianza, if not reserva, but to their mind any label below gran reserva would prove a disservice in marketing these high quality, and highly priced, vinos de autor. Instead, they opt for the basic “cosecha” label, where the vintage is dated and nothing more. Historically, the cosecha tier is vast, encompassing the most entry-level wines of a region. So, the inclusion of such trophy wines in the category muddies its definition. In Ribera del Duero, for example, roughly 60% of all wines carry the cosecha label. But, only around 6% of those represent icon wines such as AALTO, O. Fournier, and Pingus (although Peter Sisseck reportedly has a gran reserva wine in development).

Marqués de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Rioja Gran Reserva Especial 2007

Founded in 1852 and located in Logroño, on the eastern edge of Rioja Alta—already past Rioja Alavesa—Marqués de Murrieta upholds many of the same principals as the centenary wineries in Haro. From the sprawling 300-hectare Ygay estate, Murrieta cultivates a diverse portfolio, including one of the most treasured whites in Rioja. For its red Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial, Murrieta ages the wine for 28 months in American oak barrels for the Tempranillo (86%) and French oak for the Mazuelo (14%), the first 10 months of which are spent in new barriques. Subsequently, the wine ages a minimum of three years in bottle, but typically much longer (2007 is the present release). The wine embodies the same oxidative flavors you might expect with Viña Tondonia, for example, but as is typical with Murrieta, it finds a broader, meatier mid-palate. Plush, expansive flavors of muddled strawberry, roasted game, fresh figs, and chocolate lead to what some find a more pleasurable wine when compared with the other old-school properties over in Haro.

Muga Torre Muga Rioja 2011

Like Marqués de Murrieta did with Dalmau, Muga created Torre Muga as a second flagship to appeal to the contemporary aesthetic that was sweeping Rioja in the 1980s and 1990s. The first vintage released was 1991, and since that time, Muga lovers are often divided as to whether they prefer Torre Muga or the more classically built Prado Enea. In truth, both can yield fantastic results. Whereas Prado Enea spends 16 months in American oak vats, followed by 36 months in predominately French casks, Torre Muga’s élevage is reduced to 24 months—18 in new French oak barrels, the remainder in oak vats. The blend doesn’t stray too far from Prado Enea’s (75% Tempranillo, 15% Mazuelo, 10% Graciano), but Torre Muga is always labeled as cosecha. Torre Muga is typically more closed upon release than Prado Enea, and in the 2011 vintage, it’s utterly stoic. Inky and concentrated, this is a polished wine that gains more perfume with some air, conjuring aromas of black licorice, blackberry, and gingerbread.

Pérez Pascuas Viña Pedrosa Ribera del Duero Gran Reserva 2011

Pérez Pascuas counts among the select few wineries that helped found the DO in 1982, the bodega itself only born two years prior. The estate’s wines yield entirely from the family’s own property, planted entirely to Tempranillo. The Viña Pedrosa Gran Reserva adheres to the exact measurements of a Ribera del Duero wine in this aging category: two months in barrel (in this case a combination of French and American) and three months in bottle. A heady, high-toned expression of Ribera del Duero, the wine captivates with its blue, floral aromas, complemented by earthier flavors of olive and tar. Classically built, the wine captures that dark concentration characteristic of Ribera del Duero, without losing its elegance.

AALTO Ribera del Duero 2014

Founded in 1999 by Mariano Garcia, winemaker at Vega Sicilia for three decades, and Javier Zaccagnini, AALTO focuses on cultivating old, massale-selection sites across the province of Burgos. For AALTO’s primary wine, Garcia uses a blend of 85% French oak barrels and 15% American oak barrels, only half of which are new. Barrel maturation lasts for 18 months, and the wine is labeled as cosecha. The 2014 finds an approachable, fleshy profile, juicy upfront with a lingering impression of red-fruit sweetness. Despite its hedonism, the wine enjoys a firm tannic backbone, a far cry from the basic Ribera del Duero bottles that also fall into the cosecha category.

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