Tradition and Innovation: Rioja to Campo de Borja

The Frank Gehry designed hotel and Michelin-starred restaurant at Marques de Riscal winery.

Apologies are in order for the lack of blog posts recently. Our European tour continues but Spain was a whirlwind of constant activity leaving no time to write. France gave me a few days of welcome downtime to prepare for the food aesthetics conference in Wroclaw, Poland which was wonderful but demanded my full attention. We are now enjoying the stunning architecture of Prague where I may find the time to reflect on the flurry of flavors that have passed my lips these past few weeks.

To be honest, I find the activity of documenting travel impressions to be incompatible with the need to be fully present when having the experience—I just don’t have the journalist’s gene that seamlessly integrates documentation and enjoyment.

When I last posted we were leaving the Spanish wine region of Ribera Del Duero heading toward Rioja.

If you spend much time seeking quality wine at good prices you know premium wine from established Spanish wine regions usually offers reliable value. The reason for this consistent quality can in part be traced to the aging requirements for Rioja (and Ribera) wines. The lowest premium quality level, Crianza, must see at least 1 year in barrel and 2 years of total ageing before release. The Reserva level requires 1 year in barrel and 3 yrs of total ageing; Gran Reserva gets 2 years in barrel and 5 years of age.

The benefit to  consumers is a carefully aged wine ready to drink upon release, which takes a lot the guess work out of buying and holding wine for a public that drinks most wine shortly after purchase. The drawback is that Spanish wineries must spend a lot of money on oak barrels and storage facilities. But if Spanish wines are to maintain market share they must keep prices low. The solution is high production. The margin on each bottle sold is small; you have to sell a lot of bottles to make a profit.

The Spanish wineries we visited, especially Protos and Marques de Riscal, were enormous with most of the space devoted to various stages of the aging process—barrels and glass in underground caves as far as the eye can see.barrel storage (2)

We also saw lots of high-tech machinery such as the optical sorter at Marques de Riscal and Baigorri’s underground, 5-level gravity flow facility.

Baigorri gravity flow

Gravity flow fermentation tanks



Traditional Spanish winemaking is industrial winemaking at its best.

But there are signs of change. Many of the better wines I tasted lacked the traditional vanilla and dill pickle flavors from American oak reflecting the increasing use of French oak. Recent vintages are also more fruit forward with slower fermentation, careful extraction of color and tannins and more freshness exposed through a quieter oak treatment.

And recently (2003), Spanish wine laws have changed to create a category, DO Pago, to indicate a wine in which grapes are sourced entirely from a  single estate, reflecting an increasing desire to demonstrate commitment to terroir.

Change and innovation are constant buzzwords here.

I suspect that going forward, the Crianza level will not depart much from tradition. Crianza Rioja is the wine of choice for the tapas bar culture because it’s inexpensive and the earthy flavors pair well with everything from charcoal grilled pork to mushrooms and garlic. But at the Reserva and Gran Reserva level bigger wines with more overt fruit characteristics are on the increasingly common.

What were the best wines we tasted? Baigorri was impressive throughout their whole lineup and the stunning lunch, with several courses paired with their wines, showcased them well. The panoramic view of the valley didn’t harm the overall positive impression.baigorri view

But as we moved into the hot, dry region of Aragon, the visit to Alto Moncayo in Campo de Borja was the show stopper. Winemaker Chris Ringland is a bit of a rock star in the wine world earning several 100 Pt. scores for his flagship Alto Moncayo bottling as well as being celebrated for the Monestrell-based Clio wines and his own Australian brand of Shiraz.untitled (3)

He had finished the final blend of his Alto Moncayo 2014 the morning of our visit and pulled barrel samples for us to taste. I suppose being the first consumers to taste this wine is some sort of distinction. At any rate, this is the richest, most complex Garnacha (from 40-70 year-old vines) you are likely to taste even before it undergoes bottle aging. He uses a mix of 100% new French and American oak for 24 months.That is a lot of oak—so much for the earlier referenced restraint. But the fruit from these old vines holds up well and these wines emphatically express the paradox of power and elegance, the mark of all great wines.

It seems Spain is all-in on the trend toward highly extracted, powerful wines that will attract high scores from critics. But will they lose their distinctiveness in the process?

Cross posted on Edible Arts on 6/23/2016.

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