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Rioja’s prime single vineyards, where terroir is king

For years, Rioja has relied on an outdated, indiscriminate hierarchy that values ageing above all else. Today, the emphasis is on terroir – so, which are Rioja’s finest single vineyards, asks Simon Field MW

Words by Simon Field MW

Photography by Lorena Martinez

muga grapes in rioja
The Collection
Grapes on the vine at Muga, which is a proponent of Rioja's single-vineyard concept

In four years’ time, Rioja will celebrate its 100th birthday as a denominación de origen. One of the most widely known names in the world of wine, it has a stylistic expression that tends to veer on the side of creamy indulgence and sensual satisfaction. Happy days, one might think. And yet Rioja is in the throes of an identity crisis – and the grumbles of discontent are getting louder. They are fuelled by philosophical aspiration and political ambition, each pulling in a slightly different direction, each built on the apparently solid axiom that Rioja is one of the very greatest wines in the world and should, finally, be hailed as such.

rioja fields
Rioja’s patchwork of vineyards spans 10,000 sites and 32,000ha

How, though, does one achieve this in a liminal region beset by a latent schizophrenia? The rolling calcareous hills around medieval villages such as Laguardia and Labastida may look a little like Burgundy, and they may aspire to Burgundian fame, but the modus operandi here more closely resembles Champagne, with output driven by a hegemony of cross-regional blending and a matrix of brand recognition. Even the annual production – around 320m bottles – approximates that of the famous fizz. A cross between Burgundy and Champagne can’t be too bad, though, can it? Well, it can if the former is merely topographical and the latter plays mainly to the lowest common denominators. In Champagne, there is a general understanding that the big players – LVMH in particular – serve to shore up reputation; in Rioja, by comparison, there appears to be a race to the bottom.

remirez de ganuza bottles
Muga and Remírez de Ganuza are among high-profile names moving to embrace the importance of site
muga vineyard, rioja

Jose Urtasun at Remírez de Ganuza is adamant that the current system, which cleaves to a veneration of age above all else (crianza, reserva and so on) can only be described as ‘corrupted’, with bodegas using old and often filthy barrels to churn out a mediocre, volatile wine that is allowed to scale the highest rank of recognition – namely gran reserva. And then the wine is sold for a pittance in a supermarket. Time for a change, then? Seemingly so, and the local Consejo Regulador – having already successfully negotiated Rioja’s promotion, in 1991, to become the first DOCa (denominación de origen calificada) – made another significant move in 2017. Three new site-specific categories were announced: the broad vino de zona (Alta, Alavesa and Oriental, the latter until recently known as Baja); the village-based vino de pueblo/municipal (there are 145 ‘recognised’ villages); and, most importantly, the birth of the single-vineyard classification, the viñedo singular. Et voilà! Burgundy here we come…

jose urtasun of Remirez de Ganuza, rioja
Jose Urtasun of Remírez de Ganuza says Rioja’s traditional hierarchy, based on a wine’s ageing, is ‘corrupted’

Or maybe not. The strings attached to such status, such as they are, focus on the age of the vines (a minimum of 30 years old), the yields, manual harvesting and the density of plantations. Nothing too challenging, one may think. José Luis Lapuente Sánchez oversees the Consejo Regulador and is positive about the development. ‘There is,’ he says, ‘a fundamental difference in quality between those who submit to our certification, especially in relation to yields and to organoleptic assessment, and those who do not.’ So, four years on, how has this radical new scheme evolved in elevating what we see in the bottle? A slow burn is the best way to describe it. At the moment there are 121 certified viñedos singulares, their vines covering 2,014ha and represented by 74 stakeholders. Given that Rioja’s patchwork of some 10,000 vineyards spans more than 32,000ha, this is modest progress. These are early days, though, and accreditation takes time; it is definitely also worthy of note that there are some venerable names on-side (including Riscal, Urbina, Torres, Marqués de Vargas, Carlos Moro, Eguren Ugarte, Ysios and Luis Cañas) and that the fruits of their labours are only now coming on-stream. The counterargument points to the fact that most of the very biggest names are hitherto absent and, for all the posturing and philosophising, show little sign of joining the club. Ygay, Calvario, Las Beatas… where are you?

At the top end, Rioja should not be about ageing, or oak, or anything extraneous to the terroir itself, says CVNE’s Victor Urrutia. If it thereby loses ‘identity’, so be it

To find the answer, we revert to the push and pull between philosophy and politics. Politics first, since it’s straightforward and focuses on the fact that a key part of the region, namely Alavesa, falls within a different department. Here some of the most beautiful vineyards – Rioja’s Côte d’Or, if you will – pivot towards Basque jurisdiction, temperamentally removed from their more overtly Castilian neighbours over the River Ebro. Their talk is about setting up a separate coda, namely viñedos de Álava, which would be completely removed from DOCa strictures, especially those that are nascent and somewhat fragile, such as the viñedo singular. Add to this resentment towards the hegemony of the influential Grupo Rioja – which lobbies for the biggest players and is sometimes seen to fall short of the highest qualitative aspirations – not to mention more precise objections to the strictures of viñedo singular (which some say, for all its claims, does not fully respect the actual terroir), and there is a maelstrom of inactivity and confusion. Not the healthiest ingredients for progress…

telmo rodriguez
With his renowned, though unclassified Las Beatas, Telmo Rodríguez remains a champion of single vineyards in Rioja

And what of our pace-setters, the names behind the most famous plots? Hitherto, if asked the most prestigious wines in Rioja, consumers may have cited either brand names such as Riscal or blended wines such as 904. Very few actual vineyards would make the grade, Ygay and El Pisón among them. This is a far cry from the models of either Burgundy or Bordeaux and is indicative of a vacuum at the very top of the denominación, precisely where one should be able to identify the most eloquent ambassadors. I canvassed opinion from several of the key players. One of the most fluent voices belongs to Telmo Rodríguez, author of the influential so-called Matador Manifesto and whose de facto (but not accredited) single vineyards (including Las Beatas and La Estrada) sit close to the top of the pile. ‘The recognition of single villages and single sites in Rioja dates to the Middle Ages,’ he says. ‘It was only undermined by merchants in the 19th century. There is a framework in place, as in Jerez, to recognise individual sites, and approximately 1.9% of vineyards are worthy of grand cru or equivalent status.’ He describes the viñedos singular movement as a starting point but one that now needs to focus more on sites themselves.

French oak is favoured over its American cousin, in the name of purity of expression – another example of the scaffolding of tradition gradually being dismantled

Victor Urrutia, who runs CVNE, makes the point that despite the emphasis on ageing above all, vintage variation is an increasingly discernible and fundamental factor in the ascent of the category. One would always select a Rioja from 2004 over 2003, for example. ‘The Spanish,’ he says, ‘are less keen on the rigours of classification than the French. We were the first to show the door to Napoleon,’ he jokes. And yet in essence he is supportive of the principle of further taxonomy of single vineyards. CVNE’s Contino plot, along with Murrieta’s Ygay, is probably the longest-standing and best-known such site in Spain, its terroir following the serpentine flows of the Ebro all the way into modern barrels. French oak, indeed, is favoured over its American cousin, in the name of purity of expression, providing another example where the scaffolding of tradition is gradually being dismantled. Rioja at the top, according to Urrutia, should not be about ageing or about American oak or about anything extraneous to the terroir itself. If it thereby loses ‘identity’ and a commercially useful calling card, so be it, say some. Others are not so sure.

lalomba in rioja
The cellars at Ramón Bilbao, whose single vineyard Lalomba Finca Ladero wine sees no American oak, being fermented in concrete and aged in a combination of French and Hungarian oak

The debate rages on. Supportive words come from many other names in the region; Manu Muga sees the single-vineyard category as further recognition, within Rioja’s armoury, of its appeal to the customer, but he does not plan to change the profile of his excellent Prado Enea, which is blended across several sites, in any way. Over the road in Haro, the ebullient María José López de Heredia reminds us that Tondonia is, technically at least, a single plot, albeit a large one. Hence her philosophical stance shies from the empirical. ‘Humans are obsessed with classifications, and we believe that classifications are essentially restrictive in the face of facts, experience and human savoir faire.’ This approach is more than amply vindicated by the quality of the wines. Even La Rioja Alta, seen by some as the head prefect of the old school, is venturing into new territory, as articulated by owner Guillermo de Aranzabal. ‘The immortality of our classic wines, based on blending different grapes from different vineyards, is the present and the future of Rioja, but the region will benefit from really outstanding single vineyards,’ he says. As evidence he cites his single-vineyard wine, Finca Martelo.

benjamin romeo in contador
contino, rioja
CVNE’s Contino (above) and Benjamín Romeo at Contador (left) are benchmarks for individuality

Conceptually, then, there is great support for the formal classification but, thus far, not a great uptake. Early days, of course, but it is worthy of note that none of the wines in my selection (which you can find inside Issue 10 of Club Oenologique magazine), despite cleaving to the principle of the single vineyard, has yet joined the category. That said, we will need to wait a couple of years to give a fair assessment to those who have joined the new club. But most growers wish for the vineyard to speak for itself, beyond the red tape, its putative framework seen as almost redundant. Indeed, at Artadi, they were so frustrated that they left the DOCa altogether. Its winemaker, Juan Carlos López de Lacalle, bemoans those ‘economic models of large volumes that do not consider terroir’. For him, ‘the reputation of our region should not be based on models such as the Bordeaux blend, the Champagne brand, the Burgundy plot or indeed the current classification of crianza, reserva and gran reserva’ – which begs the question, on what should it be based?