Rioja has always been one of my favorite regions for red wine, and this love affair began with the good fortune of sampling some very old and incredible vintages from the esteemed estate of López de Heredia many years ago! Rioja is rich in history, but to sum up its evolution a bit here, they traditionally aged their reds (based on the Tempranillo grape) in American oak which is less expensive than the French oak that was introduced to them by Bordelaise winemakers fleeing the phylloxera epidemic which ravaged their vineyards in the late nineteenth century. This usage of American oak lent a distinct vanillin note to the wine and created a unique regional style which was fairly pale and delicate with notes of strawberries, stewed fruit, dusty earth and warm, vanillin undertones. Wines made in this style from top producers could age for decades and won many fans amongst non-Spanish wine drinkers, especially with incredible vintages such as the extremely sought after 1970! In 1991, Rioja was the first Spanish region to be awarded DOC status or ‘Denominación de Origen Calificada’ which laid out guidelines for aging in oak barrels from the priciest and age-worthy ‘Gran Reserva’ wines which spend at least two years in oak casks and three years in bottle before release to the ’Reserva’ and ‘Crianza’ styles which age for at least three or two years respectively, of which at least one is in oak.
More recently, many producers have traded in their traditional methods to align themselves with a more modern, concentrated and readily drinkable style that doesn’t necessarily require years of cellaring. Many have also began using French oak for greater structure and a more subtle oak influence. Outside of the incrementally pricier styles of Rioja, there is also an ocean of value wines that were formerly known as ‘vin joven’ or ‘young wine’ which this ‘La Bicicleta’ Rioja featured in our Red Wine Club is a perfect introduction to. This base level style now simply labeled ‘Rioja’ spends less than a year in oak barrel and more and more recently sees no oak at all (which is the case with this juicy, crushed raspberry-scented version we selected for club). While there still remains traditionalist winemakers who adhere closely to the more delicate, American-oak aged styles, Rioja has increasingly become a multifaceted region offering an endless variety of wines, and we didn’t even touch on terroir (so yes, there is a lot more complexity to explore)! And while I adore the older, softer, ‘nostalgic’ style that first caught my eye, I can’t get enough of these extra pure, vibrant and expressively fruity versions! Cheers to enjoying the old and the new, Rioja! –Jayne