Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Easyjet and the Gentleman's Club

Easyjet and the gentleman’s club: modernity versus tradition in Spanish wines

There was a neat illustration of the clash of tradition and modernity at a seminar at last week’s annual Wines from Spain tasting. Telmo Rodriguez, an arch moderniser unafraid to explore new wine regions and wine-making techniques, was very nearly late for his speech because his Easyjet flight was delayed. At the other end of the table, Javier Hidalgo, whose family has been making sherry in pretty much the same way since the time of Napoleon, was going to be making his way to his gentleman’s club in London that evening, to dine on beef cheek.

Spain, for many UK wine drinkers, is synonymous with a single classic wine region: Rioja. Rioja’s wines are traditionally made of a blend of grapes, dominated by Tempranillo, which is then aged in oak barrels and in bottle for an amount of time prior to release. The longer a wine spends in oak and bottle before it is sold determines its rung on the quality ladder of Rioja: Joven (or young wines) have no oak and little time in bottle; a Rioja Crianza must spend a year in oak and a year in bottle; Reserva a year in oak and two years in bottle; at the top of the ladder is Gran Reserva, which must spend two years in oak and three years in bottle. In the UK we are most likely to see Crianza and Reserva wines. Don’t worry too much about the details: even Telmo Rodriguez, who has been making wine in Rioja all his adult life, says he can’t recall exactly what all the regulations are!

This illustrates one of the complexities of Rioja: not all Riojas abide by the rules and a growing number of winemakers are ignoring the Reserva/Gran Reserva framework and simply making their wine in the way they wish, with just the word “Rioja” on the label. Even within the traditional quality labels winemakers are striving to make a different style of Rioja: using 100% Tempranillo instead of the traditional blend, using 100% new oak barrels to give a more intense vanilla gloss to the younger wines. To further complicate matters, the Spanish wine authorities are planning to allow an additional three grape varieties to be added to the traditional blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache), Graciano and Mazuelo. You probably haven’t heard of those last two varieties – and I can guarantee you won’t have come across any of the new varieties either. In today’s environment, it’s getting harder and harder to predict the style of wine you’re going to find in the bottle when you see the name Rioja on the label. Is Spain in danger of over-complicating its most famous wine and in the process driving away wine-drinkers?

In the past Rioja was one of the most distinctive and easily understood wine styles. The blend of grapes, coupled with barrel and bottle ageing give a soft and harmonious wine with distinctive strawberryish fruit and a vanilla edge from the oak. Progressing from the younger, more fruity, Crianza styles, the vanilla, leather and spice flavours come to the fore as you move onto the Reserva and Gran Reservas. You can still find Riojas in this style if this is what you’re looking for: Marques de Murrieta is probably the best known of the traditionalists: their Reserva is around £13 and up, depending on the vintage, while Marques de Riscal’s Reserva 2002/3 is at Majestic for £13.99. Cune is also a reliable name to watch out for: their Crianza 2004/5 is stocked by Majestic for £6.99, or £4.99 if you buy two. Waitrose have the consistently enjoyable Vina Herminia Crianza 2003 at £7.49.

If you’d like to have a try of the more “modern” styles of Rioja out there have a look for Muga’s Rioja Seleccion Especial 2003, £18.99 at Majestic. Telmo Rodriguez’ Riojas are available at Adnams (www.adnams.co.uk) starting at £6.99.

So why has Rioja become more complex to buy and, arguably, more interesting to drink? Humans are curious creatures, prone to experimentation and competition – it’s only natural that winemakers should feel the urge to push the boundaries of their wines and not simply slavishly copy the practices of their fathers and grandfathers (not many female winemakers in Rioja) simply because they are “traditional”. If a winemaker feels they can make a better wine by using more new oak, or ageing for less time in barrel, wine laws alone are not going to stop them.

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