Rioja Part 2; Alavesa

First up for those that missed it, a quick wrap of last week’s piece on the importance and significance of the Rioja region. Rioja was the first Spanish region to be awarded DO (Denominación de Origen, a classification of quality) status, back in 1933, and in 1991 became the first to be upgraded to the top-level DOCa (which stands for Denominación de Origen Calificada). Today, only Rioja and Priorat hold this highest-quality classification. The region’s winemaking history stretches back to Roman times and has continued almost unbroken ever since. Production flourished between 200 B.C. and the sixth century A.D., as evidenced by amphorae and other wine-related artefacts uncovered by archaeological excavations. It slowed during the Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula (but never fully stopped!), chugging along for several centuries until the Christian Reconquista of the late Middle Ages. CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE

We learnt last week that the Rioja Alta sub-region is important for producing good quality wines in large volumes, and is the home to several globally-recognised names. The Rioja Alavesa on the other hand is the smallest of all sub-regions, and focuses on small volumes of very high quality wine. This is due to factors climactic, geographical and political. The sub-region is located in the very northern part of the Rioja region, based around the town of Laguardia, and the Alavesa has the highest altitude vineyards in the Rioja region, with all vineyards sitting between 400-1200m above sea level. This elevation gives the sub region a cooler climate, which assists in retention of acid in the berries, as well as moderating alcohols in the final wine by restricting the accumulation of fermentable sugars. Just like in the Rioja Alta, wines from this sub-region will also usually have a lighter blue/garnet colour, which is a direct effect of the lower alcohol- a solvent that strips colour from the skins during fermentation. Also just like in Alta, soils are similar clay topsoil covering a layer of limestone- in all honesty; there really isn’t much to differentiate the Alta and Alavesa from each other. In fact, the main reason for the differentiation between these regions is more administrative; rather than being based in the Rioja province, the Rioja Alavesa is in the Álava province (hence Alav-esa). This province is part of Basque country, and locals here enjoy celebrated cuisine, strong cultural traditions and a distinct language that predates the Romance languages, hence the differentiation from the Alta despite their similarities. The capital of the province is Bilbao, a major commerce centre, and historically, the province has done well financially out of trade with France due to their strong pro-French connections and history. This wealth would have trickled down to the Alavesa region over the centuries, as would have the French influences.

I alluded last week to the importance of the French Oak Barrique in Rioja, and nowhere in the region is it more important than in the Alavesa. All top-end red Rioja is matured in new oak barrels, and as a large percentage of Alavesa production is higher-end, this means a lot of new oak barrels (or barrica, as they are known here) are used here. Whilst in the past only French oak was used, today American oak is the preference, however many wineries use a mix of American and French oak to increase the complexity of the final product. This contact with virgin oak is what gives Rioja wines their distinctive notes of coconut, vanilla and sweet spices. Oak usage is so important in this region that it has become the way quality designations for wine are allocated- it is not the specific plot of earth or grape variety that matters here. The amount of time that a Rioja wine spends in barrel dictates whether it is categorized as Joven, Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva. Rioja Joven wines, which are intended for consumption within two years of vintage, spend little or no time in oak (jóven is Spanish for “young’). Rioja Crianza wines are aged for one year in barrel, and one year in bottle. Rioja Reserva wines spend a minimum of one year in oak, and cannot be sent to market until a full three years after vintage.

Rioja Gran Reserva wines are the region’s very finest (and most expensive) wines. These undergo a total of five years’ aging, of which at least two years is spent in oak. These top wines develop a brick-red colour from the slow oxidation in barrel, as well as a complex mix of rancio aromas; savoury spices, cured meats and stewed dark fruits. The time before release also gives the tannins in the wine time to soften into the wine, giving a rounder mouthfeel. Notable producers from this sub-region who produce these top-end products include Marqués de Riscal, Domecq Bodegas, Bodegas Palacio and Remelluri.

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager