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Rioja’s Battle Between Tradition and Modernity Rages On

Inside the growing movement to redefine Spain's benchmark wine

James Lawrence By October 4, 2021
photo of the vineyards of Rioja, Spain
The vineyards of Rioja, Spain. Photo by Salima Senyavskaya/iStock.

Entering the cobweb-filled cellars of Rioja stalwart R. López de Heredia is a journey back in time, with bottles dipped in molten wax, walls black with mold, and over 15,000 oak barrels. The owners have stuck two fingers up at modernity, keeping to the traditional practice of aging their red wines for at least five years in old American oak, before release. This is despite a growing movement to redefine how Rioja tastes; winemakers like Benjamín Romeo from Bodega Contador champion a much shorter period of maturation, in new French oak, insisting that ripe black fruit is more seductive than flavors of vanilla and lemon. The latter have always been associated with long-aged Rioja.

However, the López de Heredia family is unimpressed.

“Our bodega will never change its approach, for two reasons,” says co-owner María José de Heredia. She says that, “people constantly tell us that they like our historical approach to long-aged Rioja production and the resulting wine style it gives.” She also believes that old oak barrels should be used purely to stabilize wine, “rather than using new French barrique to impart aromas or flavors that trample over the fruit.”

Winemakers in Rioja have been arguing about this issue for more than 15 years. But the divide isn’t just about attitudes to oak; modernizers are pushing for a number of reforms, including a Burgundy-like classification of the best vineyards. 

Long maturation

Yet, ironically, it was De Heredia’s ancestor, Don Rafael López de Heredia y Landeta who helped to formalize the Rioja recipe of long-aging in wood. He founded the winery in 1877, with the single aim of producing red wines the likes of which Spain had never seen. The catalyst for his decision was the vineyard-munching louse, phylloxera, which arrived in Europe in the 19th century.

At the height of the phylloxera epidemic that devastated vineyards across France in the late 1800s, Bordeaux’s enterprising merchants were forced to seek out new sources of wine and soon arrived in Rioja. It is during their business dealings that the traders famously imparted their knowledge about the value of long aging, inspiring pioneers like López de Heredia and the Real de Asúa family of Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España.

“Before the concept of maturing wines for several years in oak was born in the 19th century, there were no wineries as such in Rioja, and the wines were made for quick drinking, without a thought for aging,” explains CVNE’s fifth-generation owner, Victor Urrutia.

This tradition is still cherished by many producers in Rioja. Unlike their Bordeaux counterparts, the Rioja traditionalists eschew new French oak, preferring to mature their wines in weathered American barrels that gently oxidize the wine, but impart no powerful toasty flavors. The result is a velvety and soft style of reds with gentle tannins.

People want authentic products and experiences, and that’s what old style Rioja can offer.

Victor UrrutiaCVNE's fifth-generation owner

Crowd pleasers

Rioja has always been marketed in accordance with a strict quality hierarchy, with Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva wines being priced in ascending order. Silky Gran Reserva reds represent the cream of Rioja’s crop. According to the rules, they must be aged for a minimum of two years in oak barrels and then three in the bottle. They are primarily based on the Tempranillo grape, that’s generally blended with smaller amounts of Grenache, Mazuelo, and Graciano. Until relatively recently, Rioja’s winemakers seldom talked at length about their dirt. The region’s unique way of aging, or seasoning, red and white wines was the marketing hook. For many, this is still the right approach.

But not everyone is on board with tradition; winemakers like Telmo Rodríguez, of the winery of the same name, have spent more than a decade campaigning for more emphasis on individual vineyards and shorter aging. He argues that it’s time to re-evaluate old ideas. “I believe Rioja needs a pyramid soil classification; this is a region full of nuances, villages, great vineyards, and we need to focus on the exceptional, rather than the generic,” he says. “Modern drinkers want to understand a wine’s origins and discover a sense of place.”

Bodegas Contador, Remelluri, Roda, and Contino’s Viña del Olivo all agree; their wines are concentrated and fruit-driven, with pungent aromas of cedar, damson, sour cherry, and tobacco. They are often based on single-estate vineyards, as opposed to the practice of using grapes sourced from across the region, a practice fiercely defended by the old guard.

“Traditional is on-trend right now; we’re the real thing, so for once let’s enjoy our moment in the sun. People want authentic products and experiences, and that’s what old style Rioja can offer. It is flattering, soft, low in alcohol, and complex. Drinkers are tired of concentration and extraction,” says Urrutia.

As it happens, many sommeliers agree.

“The mild tannic structure of a developed wine often makes it more of a crowd pleaser. The Rioja Gran Reservas are so popular now, mainly because they provide value for a wine with considerable age and those crowd-pleasing characteristics,” says Kristen Goceljak, wine director at SAGA restaurant in New York.

Matt Cirne, beverage director at Quince restaurant in San Francisco, says that while bigger, juicer Rioja may appeal to the contemporary Californian Cabernet or Aussie Shiraz drinker, “these wines will hardly entice a younger demographic more keen on traditional styles that veer toward restraint and exhibit the distinctive Rioja-like character.”

Still, it’s hard to get agreement in a widespread region; more than 45 wineries in a district called Rioja Alavesa have threatened to remove the word Rioja from their labels. Arguments about how Rioja should present itself to a millennial audience have also split the region, with traditionalists and modernizers rarely seeing eye to eye.

Modern drinkers want to understand a wine’s origins and discover a sense of place.

Telmo RodríguezRioja Alavesa estate, Bodega Lanzaga

Yet there are those who advocate a third way.

Embrace it all

“The traditional aging culture is very important — people love the Gran Reserva style,” says Rodolfo Bastida, chief winemaker at Ramón Bilbao, though he adds it doesn’t mean bodegas can’t produce a variety of styles. “We started thinking about our Lalomba range of single-vineyard wines around 15 years ago. Lalomba is a collection of three wines from three plots, each with its own distinct personality.”

The clear winner from this measured philosophy is the Rioja buyer, who gets to explore an unprecedented range of styles and flavors. As the Spanish say, that’s worth a copa or two.

3 Rioja wines to try:

bottle of Ramón Bilbao Rioja Reserva 2015

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Reserva 2015 ($26)

A Rioja that really punches above its price point. The 2015 is a standout example from this celebrated vintage, produced by respected winemaker Rodolfo Bastida. Expect silky, supple tannins married to aromas of strawberry, plum, and spice, with blackberry and mocha on the palate. 

bottle of CVNE Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva 2016

CVNE Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva 2016 ($44)

There is something very comforting about Imperial’s aromas of vanilla and red berries, underpinned by a velvety texture and soft, supple tannins. CVNE has always made traditional Riojas; occasionally derided as passé, they are currently achingly in-fashion. This bottle proves why.

bottle of Bodegas Fernando Remirez de Ganuza Rioja Reserva 2011

Bodegas Fernando Remirez de Ganuza Rioja Reserva 2011 ($70)

A powerful and yet refined style of Rioja, Remirez de Ganuza’s signature Reserva has real class. Expect heady aromas of coconut, cedar, and strawberry on the nose, juxtaposed against a palate defined by its linear precision, racy acidity, and sumptuous flavors of coffee bean, sour cherry, and tobacco.