Clive Platman on how Spain's famous wine region is changing with the times.
Rioja, easily Spain’s most famous red wine region, has a proud tradition.
As a brand, Rioja is regarded as one of the great classic regions, ranking in many ways alongside Bordeaux in France or Chianti in Italy. It is seen as the great custodian of the tempranillo grape, yet in a style that has undergone long cask-ageing.
Rioja, though, is fully conscious of the New World threat from South America and Australia, and over the last 30 years the style has undergone an evolution, rather than revolution.
Oak and structure still remain the Rioja signature, but the modern trend is for a higher fruit content. Wood retains a prominent role and, here, the traditional preference is for American oak, which by virtue of its coarser grain offers more assertive qualities of vanilla, spice and cocoa.
However, there has been a significant increase in the use of French oak in recent years and this allows a more fruit-driven style, albeit supported by fine tannins and more pronounced toast.
Red wine accounts for 90 per cent of the total wine produced, and roughly 75 per cent is from tempranillo. Other native varieties allowed in the blend are garnacha (grenache), mazuelo (carignan) and the very fine, tough-skinned graciano.
Sheltered by the Cantabrian mountains to the north, the two finer sub-regions of Rioja Alta and Alavesa are cooler, influenced by both altitude and the Atlantic climate. The third zone, Rioja Baja, is more Mediterranean and here the garnacha grape has prominence.
Traditionally, Rioja was not simply a blend of grapes, but also a blend of all three zones. Bodegas would buy in grapes from anywhere within the DOC and blend them to sell on under their own label. In the past, some bodegas did not actually own any vines, but times have changed.
With this background, I was recently invited to a Vina Pomal tasting put on for Majestic store managers, presented by winemaker Diego Pinilla-Navarra. Now part of the Cava giant, Codorniu, it is one of several labels produced by Bodegas Bilbainas, one of the oldest estates in the region and having the largest vineyard holding in the Rioja Alta sub-region.