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Friday, Sept. 12, 2008
Rioja on the rise
Special to The Japan Times
Next month sees a radical change in the look of the Rioja logo regularly embossed on bottles of the Spanish vintage. La Rioja Denominacion de Origen Clasificada authorities have chosen to throw out the rather fusty image of a stamp (complete with wobbly lines) and replace it with something altogether more modern: a stylized rendering of a Tempranillo grape plant atop some funky lettering.
Symbolizing not only "heritage" but also "creativity and dynamism," the change is aimed at appealing to a younger market.
The move is not simply a superficial marketing ploy, though. It reflects a real break from tradition in Spain's most illustrious wine region. Where once stood cloistered bodegas (wineries) whose subtle stone architecture blended inoffensively in with the surrounding scenery, there have now sprung up several stunning constructions of glittering steel and concrete. These new buildings, the most notable of which constructed by world-famous architect Frank Gehry, are testament to the growing fortunes of a region that has not stuck to a traditional formula but has sought to experiment with and improve upon its wine style.
A crisis in Bordeaux was the catalyst that led to real worth being put on the wines of Rioja. When the philloxera (an aphid-like insect that attacks grapevines) outbreak hit wine stocks in France in the late 19th century, Bordeaux looked to Rioja to bulk up their reserves of blending wine. The French winemakers were particularly attracted to wines created by Marques de Riscal and Marques de Murrieta in the area, which, because of its meteorological extremes, had not previously been seen as an ideal wine-making region. The north's harsh winters can cause frosts and mildews that threaten the vine crop, and the south's tendency for exceptionally hot summers can produce over-ripe grapes.
Rioja does possess a geological boon: The Sierra de Cantabria mountain range protects the region from strong Atlantic winds, ensuring that it is possible to grow grapes in an otherwise unforgiving climate. The region is divided into three parts: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. Rioja Alavesa lies in the Basque country, which has its own language and distinct cuisine. Alavesa is currently receiving government grants designed to regenerate the area. As a result many new bodegas have sprung up in this region. Since the 1980s, the number of bodegas overall in Rioja had stood at around 50; these days the figure is an astonishing 200, with much of the growth in Rioja Alavesa.
What was once a rustic and rather roughly-made wine has, with the strengthening authority of the Rioja Denominacion de Origen Clasificada — which introduced various controls over how the wine could be produced — become a wine of quality and renown. It was the French who introduced the Spanish wine makers to aging wines in oak, laying the foundation for the distinctive vanilla flavors of the wine. Many makers, though, have now moved away from using French wood in favor of American oak, which produces a deeper, fruitier and more modern style. While oak-aging remains popular for the reds of the region (which make up 85 percent of the area's output), bodegas have abandoned its use for whites: oaked whites, being oxidized in taste, have proved unpopular to the international palate.
Rather than being a single varietal, red Rioja is a blend of various grapes, with an emphasis on Tempranillo, which makes around 60 percent of the blend. The remaining grapes tend to be Garnacha Tinta, Graciano and Mazuelo. While maceration — the soaking of the grapes before they are fermented — used to be rather fast, now more time is taken so that the Tempranillo can produce a fuller fruity flavor.
For an excellent example of this newer style, Marquis de Varges Rioja Reserva 2002 (¥5,007 from Rakuten.com) is a good bet. Although the family have been in the business for four generations, they have updated their bodega to include state-of-the-art technology and employed world-famous winemaker Michel Rolland to oversee things. Full and rich, Reserva 2002 is ready to drink now and would be great with a rare steak.
For a more affordable baseline Rioja, aged in American oak to give it that vanilla edge, try Siglo Rioja 2005 (¥1,480 from Oozeki). For something that again uses American oak but is more traditional in style, try Marques de Riscal 2003 Reserva Rioja (¥2,100 from Nissin World), which has a good tannic structure and ages well.
M arques de Riscal is one of the biggest players in Rioja. The winery commissioned Gehry, the designer of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, to construct on the grounds of their bodega a hotel that was unveiled in October 2006. The building is one of many high-profile projects that are aimed at cashing in on the growing trend for wine tourism. It's an extravagant affair built out of reams of gold and pink titanium that reflect the rolling vineyards and distant mountains. Gehry is said to have been inspired by the colors of a Marques de Riscal bottle. Visitors to the 43-room hotel can enjoy a meal at their Michelin-starred restaurant followed by a dip in the relaxing spa.
Another treat for budding architects and oenophiles is Bodegas Ysios in Santiago. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, the long squat building sits at the base of the Sierra Cantabria, its rippling corrugated roof blending in beautifully with the scenery. The building beneath is constructed from warm cedar wood and houses row upon row of oak barrels.
Providing a stark contrast to Bodegas Ysios' architecturally organic approach is nearby Bodegas Baigorri. Designed by Inaki Aspiazu, the bodega is a plain glass cube that aims to be as innocuous as possible in order to enhance the beauty of the surrounding countryside. Once inside, the views are splendid.
A mention should also be made of Bodega Lopez de Heredia, which commissioned U.K. architect Zaha Hadid to make a wine-tasting pavilion. The project is not yet finished, but the building, resembling a decanter if viewed from the side, is already looking impressive and the ground floor is open to the public.
If you're thinking of planning a trip to the region, while most bodegas now welcome visits, it's essential to make a booking ahead of time. Once you've done that, you're free to drink in the stunning scenery while imbibing Rioja's exhilarating wines.