In an effort to stir up a bit of interest in their wines, the rioja producers put on a tasting recently here in London to which each exporter submitted one wine. I ploughed my way through more than 50 reds (and two whites) and left with my previous confusion about the current style of rioja only reinforced.
These are some of my comments.
Do you see what I mean? There are wines here made with nothing but Tempranillo. The Garnacha (Grenache) component was as high as 50 per cent in some - though is generally much lower. I tasted two that were 100 per cent Graciano, Rioja's own aromatic vine (of which one was delicious but the Contino 1998 disappointingly flabby). Other wines were dominated by Cabernet, some by French oak, some by American oak, some by the rubbery smells of carbonic maceration, some by the warm tomato smells of barrel fermentation. Colours were all over the place, even within the same vintage. Clearly some wines are left in old oak for ages, others made like classed growth red bordeaux.
Admittedly prices varied enormously too, from about £5 to £50. But then price variation has been a characteristic of rioja for as long as I can remember. This is the problem with a wine region where the activities of winemaking and vine-growing are so separate. Every time there's a good or a short vintage, the growers are able to jack up the prices. And it is all too rare for bodega owners to have enough control over grape quality. Within Spain, Rioja has for so long been respected as the quality wine region that I think it has led to dangerous complacency - particularly now that so many exciting wines are emerging from elsewhere in Spain. The most impressive rioja producers, many of them relatively small, new outfits such as Allende, Roda and Artadi, tend to be those who are able to grow their own.
See tasting notes for my favourite wines.