There are wines that spring to mind when you think of specific countries. The mere sight of a candle in an empty bottle of Mateus Rosé conjured up Portugal. And for Germany it was Liebfraumilch, helped or hindered by rumours it was the Queen’s favourite wine. Greece is simply Retsina, while France has always been trickier because of its diversity, though at one point, I suppose, it would have been Mouton Cadet, the mass-market product of Château Mouton Rothschild. Australia has to make do with the quotidian Jacob’s Creek and as for Italy, for decades it was synonymous with Chianti Classico. And Spain? A no-brainer: it has always been Rioja.
Although it remains the dominant Spanish wine, other wine regions have become known internationally for their quality wines, especially Ribera del Duero on the northern plateau of Castile and Leon, while Priorat, in south-west Catalonia has also gained serious notice.
Like many other wine lovers, I haven’t really taken Rioja seriously, especially not the bottles sold in supermarkets, with fruit that struggles against excessive oak. However, my prejudice took a jolt while dining with one of Spain’s greatest chefs, who illicitly served me woodcock, which is forbidden in French and Spanish restaurants. That in itself was special enough, until I tasted the accompanying Rioja — a bottle of Bodegas Riojanas Albina Reserva ’42. I was familiar with the vintage through drinking Romanée-Conti’s La Tâche and Richebourg, but while they were celestial and delicate, this was robust and vibrant and could have easily lasted another decade or so. Curiously, the subsequent offerings of Bodegas Riojanas are not noteworthy, but the ’42 remains one of the greatest Riojas ever produced and is still available in Spain for around £200 a bottle.
My next encounter with Rioja was with the new wave, such as Roda and Artadi, which are small producers that grow their own grapes. That’s quite different from most Rioja, which is made either by co-operatives who buy them in, or by mega-producers, such as Campo Viejo, which sell 15 million bottles of the stuff to UK supermarkets annually. On a recent trip to Basque Country, I hired a car in Bilbao and drove south to look in on Artadi, which made the first Rioja to gain 100 points from wine guru Robert Parker. Juan Carlos López de Lacalle is a slightly built, bespectacled wine maker in his early 60s who has the air of an exasperated intellectual. He has more in common with a Burgundy wine maker, as he is passionate about giving full expression to the individual parcels of vineyards he tends, rather than simply lumping them together under a single category. His wines are powerful, but not jammy, and from my experience the top ones, such as El Pison or Pagos Viejos, need at least two decades before they reveal their true greatness. The Consejo Regulador of the D.O.Ca Rioja, the region’s governing organisation, refused him permission to mention the specific location of his vineyards, so last year he simply left the organisation. It means that from now on his wine can no longer be called Rioja. Juan Carlos has no regrets. ‘There are thousands of different producers in Rioja, yet they can only be described with a single name,’ he says. ‘It is ridiculous to categorise such diversity by a single denomination… also, it is very boring.’
He has 18 different parcels of vines interspersed in a beautiful valley close to his headquarters in Laguardia. Some are perched precariously on the side of steep gullies; others occupy land that centuries earlier held a thriving village until it was wiped out by the plague. The denomination system is dominated by the huge producers, such as Campo Viejo, that do not want to disrupt a process that allows them to blend grapes from anywhere in the region without having to explain it on the label. Twenty years ago, the average price for bought-in grapes was €3; now it is less than one. Production then was around 80 million bottles. Now it is 500 million.
As Juan Carlos points out: ‘Rioja is the second largest wine category in the world, but what does it mean? It is only suitable for the supermarket or discount wine store. I am interested in different wines with different personalities but here we only have one brand for everything. This is a big mistake.’