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Higher and higher: La Rioja Alta continues to climb

The venerable La Rioja Alta has spread its wings in recent years, even venturing into Ribera del Duero. Sarah Jane Evans MW considers how a single producer working with a single grape variety in one part of northern Spain can yield such diverse styles

Words by Sarah Jane Evans MW

Photography by Lorena Martinez

la rioja alta vineyards
The Collection
The 2021 harvest at La Rioja Alta's second estate, Torre de Oña

I will start with a confession. When studying for my Master of Wine blind tasting exam, Tempranillo was the variety I always found hard to pick. It should be easy, what with that low acidity and cherry fruit character. But in fact, the clue was rarely in the grape itself. No, what should have made it even easier to identify was the winemaking. Back then, Tempranillo was invariably a variety that was blended with others or carried the character of American oak ageing. If you could spot the oak, or a blend of grapes, then it was very likely you were in Rioja with a Tempranillo blend. I passed my MW tasting paper in 2004. Things have moved on a long way in Rioja and in the world of Tempranillo since, and catch-all generalisations no longer apply. For a start, there’s a good quantity of the variety in Australia, as well as in Portugal and Argentina, and even Texas. But Spain will always be Tempranillo’s home, under its many regional aliases, and Rioja and Ribera del Duero are still the two most famous denominations for the variety. Today, though, each render very different expressions.

rioja vineyards
'La Rioja Alta stands somewhat grandly apart'

Some Riojanos have set up shop in Ribera del Duero, and a few in Ribera have gone in the other direction. In my view, none has so far outshone their home wineries, which should perhaps not come as a surprise: they are in different places; they make different wines. I frequently find myself wondering why they even bother. La Rioja Alta, though, as so often, stands somewhat grandly apart – and shows why they do. Steadily and successfully, the venerable producer has polished its wines and its vineyards. But it has also diversified, driving 20km up the road to Rioja Alavesa and launching a different, more ‘modern’ style of Rioja. Not content with that, it travelled two hours down the highway to Ribera del Duero to set up camp there. As such, it makes an absorbing case study of a winery that has ventured outside its homeland while remaining a guardian of classic Rioja and one of the region’s bastions.

La Rioja Alta has polished its wines and its vineyards. But it has also diversified, launching a different, more ‘modern’ style of Rioja

La Rioja Alta has always had feet in various camps. It was founded in 1890 by five families – three Basque and two Riojan – who, like their neighbours in Haro’s station quarter, profited from shipping wine to phylloxera-devastated Bordeaux. A key influence was the French Monsieur Vigier, the estate’s first winemaker, who taught them all about barrel ageing, an art that his successors have refined ever since. Take the winery’s two most famous bottlings. La Rioja Alta makes not one but two outstanding gran reservas. Both, as with all La Rioja Alta wines, come from their own vineyards, and each has a loyal following. Indeed, one of the pleasures for fans of La Rioja Alta is to hear winemaking director Julio Sáenz describe the differences between 904 and 890. For Sáenz, the key to their character lies in the management of ageing. While 890 (first made in 1890) has six years in American oak and six years in bottle, 904 (dating from 1904) has four years in American oak and four years in bottle. 890 has a little Graciano and Mazuelo; 904 has at least 11% Graciano. Your choice: the structured, full-bodied, explosive 890, or the elegant, delicate 904.

Julio Saenz
la rioja alta bottles
La Rioja Alta winemaking director Julio Sáenz has refined the blend, oak treatment and ageing of the renowned 890 and 904 gran reservas

Under Sáenz, 904 has evolved subtly. In a reflection of vineyard management, optical selection in the winery and the changing climate, the alcohol level has crept up. La Rioja Alta chairman Guillermo de Aranzabal points out that people seem to like a little more colour in their wines, so they omitted the (small amount of) white grapes. They also gently reduced the amount of cask-ageing to retain the fruit character. The nearby Torre de Oña winery in Páganos, a stone’s throw from the excellent Héctor Oribe restaurant, came into the group’s portfolio in 1995. But why have two Tempranillo bodegas in the same denomination? Aranzabal gives the corporate answer: ‘We wanted to grow as a company, but we also wanted to increase the quality of our wines at La Rioja Alta.’ The way to do so without jeopardising La Rioja Alta was to launch other wineries and grow their quality, too. But Sáenz provides a more telling, romantic insight: ‘The difference in just 20km is amazing. You find such different versions of Tempranillo in the two.’

With a wine like Finca Martelo, the task is to get the best expression of the vineyard. As a result, there will be more vintage variation

Within that 20km journey to Torre de Oña, you also cross into a different subzone – Rioja Alavesa. The issue of subzones has become politically charged in recent times, in particular because lava is part of the Basque Country, with its own language, its own winemaking traditions and a reputation for generous wines. Aranzabal explains that La Rioja Alta is about producing a consistent style from year to year through blending, while with a wine like Finca Martelo – the top selection from Torre de Oña – the task is to get the best expression of the vineyard. As a result, there will be more vintage variation. In a similar vein, while the La Rioja Alta wines have seen gentle evolution, the work on Finca Martelo (first vintage 2012) is actively continuing. This is not a single-vineyard wine, so it doesn’t qualify for one of the new categories in DOCa Rioja. It is made from three vineyards, with vines over 60 years old, and effectively blended in the vineyard; the ‘recipe’ is 95% Tempranillo with a field blend of 5% Mazuelo, Garnacha and Viura. The wine is aged in 80% American and 20% French oak, and they expect to make it six years in every ten. As a wine it has more colour, structure and tannin than its sister wines, partly from the new French oak, as well as American oak, in which it sits for 22–24 months.

winemaker alejandro lopez
finca martelo vineyards
Left: Alejandro López is the winemaker for the site-specific Finca Martelo; La Rioja Alta’s 904 and 890 releases, meanwhile, are blended from a range of the group’s vineyards (above)

There was uncertainty about such a highly rated bodega’s ability to do something different and good just down the road. Finca Martelo has proved itself. Then again, for these fine wines, the terroir isn’t just about the soil and climat – it’s also the people. There are three key Tempranillo terroirists in the team at La Rioja Alta SA (the cumbersome group name that we’ll shorten to RASA from here on). Sáenz joined in 1996, initially to oversee quality control; ten years later he took on the top winemaking job. Aranzabal, a member of one of the founding families, joined the business in 1987 and became chairman in 2005. Together, they have consistently evolved the wines. The newest member of the trio is Alejandro López, who walked across the road from his post at Bodegas Bilbaínas to join La Rioja Alta in 2019. López is Sáenz’s assistant director of winemaking, as well as the winemaker at Torre de Oña and the group’s Ribera del Duero offshoot Áster. He’s quick to point out that he’s not an innocent when it comes to handling Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero. In his old job, he worked closely with Jorge Bombín, technical director at Legaris, which, like Bilbaínas, is owned by the conglomerate Codorníu. Bombín, like a growing number of others in the region, is focusing on specific vineyard expressions and lending a much more diverse image to the all-powerful Ribera del Duero.

rioja vineyard with alejandro lopez walking
The higher altitude in Ribera del Duero brings the benefit of cooler days during harvest than in Rioja

I say ‘all-powerful’ to highlight the potential intensity of Ribera’s 100% Tempranillo wines. In Rioja, by contrast, the Tempranillo is blended and seasoned with Graciano, Garnacha and Mazuelo. That’s not the only difference. In terms of hectares of vineyards, Ribera is one third of the size of Rioja. It’s younger, too, only having become a denomination in 1982, some six decades after Rioja. Ribera is higher, colder, hotter and generally more extreme than Rioja, and while Tempranillo still dominates, it has a different name here: Tinto Fino (aka Tinta Fina or Tinta del País). It’s enough to confuse any student of the variety. It was in 1999 that RASA branched out into Ribera. It started by buying vineyards, hence the full name of its estate, Viñedos y Bodegas Áster. The move represented an ambitious change of direction for the group. For a Riojano, the Ribera climate will seem much more extreme: much colder winters and much hotter summers, with a risk of late frosts. There is one advantage, in that by October and the harvest, the days are getting cooler. The altitude helps: Áster is at 800–850m.

torre de ona rioja grapes
Last year’s crop at Torre de Oña

López points out that while the grapes at Áster and Torre de Oña are harvested at the same time, the vines at Áster bud three weeks later – but they catch up. ‘There’s so much heat here that the grapes mature faster,’ he says. The thick-skinned berries – ‘you don’t need to demand extraction, it just happens’ – make for far more structured wine, which needs different treatment in the winery. At Áster, they use only French oak, and they age the wine for a much shorter time than in Rioja, just 16 months. As at Torre de Oña, it’s a work in progress: they are currently trialling bigger barriques for ageing and then managing all their parcels separately in smaller deposits. ‘It’s a continuous work of questioning everything we do,’ says López, who points out another distinctive characteristic of the Áster wines: ‘The evolution is so much slower than in Rioja.’ These are not wines to buy today and drink tomorrow.

RASA has brought a little bit of Rioja with it to Ribera. It grafted 1ha of Garnacha from its excellent Tudelilla vineyard in Rioja Oriental. Will the variety, a key ingredient in La Rioja Alta’s much-loved, more accessible Viña Ardanza, adapt? Or will it freeze in the hard winter? It could be just the thing to soften those Ribera tannins – and cause further confusion to anyone trying to pigeonhole the increasingly nuanced Tempranillo.