Tag Archives: Tempranillo

La Rioja

It is difficult nowadays to imagine the impact that Rioja had on the wine drinker when it burst into our consciousness some forty years ago. Let me set the scene. For starters, Bordeaux and Burgundy, our favourite tipple, had started to escalate in price. Whereas in the 1960s the difference in cost between a merely respectable and a good bottle was only a pound or two, the gap had started to widen, putting the better wines beyond the reach of the average drinker. Then there were the great scandals – the revelation that, in a poor year, some of our hallowed names had souped up their wines by a judicious admixture of grapes from The Midi impacted on our confidence. The humorous magazine Punch summed it up rather well with a satirical guide to wine labelling that included ‘Mis en bouteille au chateau – there is a picture of a castle on the label’.
Rioja was undoubtedly given a boost by the well-propagated myth that its wine industry had been started by the French – ‘myth’ because wine had been made in the upper Ebro valley by the Romans. The French connection came about because of an outbreak of mildew in Bordeaux vineyards in the 1840s. Bordeaux wine brokers went south in search of reliable supplies and hit upon La Rioja. Wine makers and French technology followed in their wake although, remarkably, and with one exception, they did not bring with them their Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vines, being content to work with the local variety, Tempranillo. With the devastation caused by phylloxera in the 1860s, the procession South intensified. Rioja gained an unprecedented boom which lasted until the turn of the century when the dreaded louse arrived in the region to cause the same havoc it had earlier caused in France. This and the loss of a lucrative market as Spain’s colonial interests dwindled sent the industry into decline.Then, in the late 1960s, Rioja was rediscovered, re-born as “affordable claret-style wine.” Boom time once again.
Though Rioja was the first and is still the most highly regulated area in Spanish winemaking, the regulations haven’t always worked in the region’s favour. The emphasis on barrel maturation has led to some faded, heavily oxidised wines – if you are subjecting a wine to extended barrel ageing then the base product has to be pretty good and that hasn’t always been the case. Nevertheless, the best reds are sublime and you have a choice between the old-style, matured in American oak, silky, aromatic and medium bodied and the new upfront ‘fruit bombs’ made in that international style that the market seems to demand. Names to try include my favourite, Muga; Monte Real; Olarra; the two Marqueses, Murrieta and Riscal; also that runaway commercial success and Ireland’s choice, Faustino.

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