The Rioja Renaissance

An old Spanish wine takes on new life

Spanish wine has been heading into the future in something of the same way that Spanish food has, though not at the same torrid pace.

As with food, the “faults” Spanish winemakers have needed to correct in order to catch up to the modern world can be considered virtues. True, the system for making wine in much of the country was, until well into the twentieth century, literally antique: grapes were crushed in stone troughs, using methods not far evolved from stomping, and were then stored in concrete amphorae, whose imperfect seals led to a Spanish taste for oxidized rancio wine. A national ban on irrigation, lifted only in 1996, accounted for a lower yield per vine, and so did unimproved grape varieties. (Spain has more land planted with grapes than any other country in the world, but it produces less wine than France or Italy.) The virtues, of course, were intensely flavored grapes, little to no use of fertilizer and herbicides, and old and strong vines not yet torn out for the merlot of the moment.

Even if many of Spain’s wine-making methods were unchanged for millennia, some parts of the country nevertheless had a head start in catching up to the rest of the wine world—most notably Rioja, the best-known Spanish wine region. Thanks to its relatively cool and dry climate and its location in north-central Spain, just over the Pyrenees from France, Rioja winemakers looked to Bordeaux as the closest analogue from which to draw lessons on how to make better wine—and get more money for it. When the phylloxera blight went through Bordeaux, in the 1870s, French winemaker-merchants suddenly needed Rioja more than Rioja needed them. Their own vines devastated, they began working in Rioja vineyards and selling Rioja wine. By 1900, the Rioja norm became long aging in new oak barrels, often American oak. Many of the wines were superb, and up to Bordeaux standards. But after Bordeaux vineyards recovered, Rioja returned to being al-most completely overshadowed.

There things remained until the 1960s, when new and young wine fans discovered in Rioja a wine they could afford—and one they could drink right away, without the space- and time-hogging tedium of cellaring. A large advantage of Spanish bottling and labeling laws is that any red reserva wine has to have been aged at least three years, two of them in oak and one in the bottle. (Gran reserva red wines, aged five years, are made in especially good years.) There was no need to wait, even if some wines would improve with age. Rioja began to develop an international reputation for producing well-priced reds comparable to Bordeaux.

The Spanish wine industry is going in for some fairly radical innovation today—no surprise, given Spain’s national pursuit of the avant-garde. Stainless-steel fermenting tanks, with their pinpoint temperature control, arrived as early as the 1960s, brought by the forward-thinking Miguel Torres to the Penedès region of Catalonia; now they are nearly universal, and Barcelona exports them. Many winemakers are giving in to the (Robert) Parkerization of wines, using big-name red grapes that will make high-alcohol, knockout wines rather than the more-subtle, lower-alcohol wines—which come from a wide variety of little-known indigenous grapes—that have been traditional. (Naturally, Frank Gehry has been called in. At Madrid Fusión, and later in New York, at a show of new Spanish architecture, I admired his plans for a spectacular new inn—all undulating strips of colored titanium—at Marques de Riscal, a long- standing and innovative Rioja winery.)

But some winemakers are taking a more moderate view, respecting tradition while carefully innovating. This is the approach championed by Gerry Dawes, a writer, photographer, and all-round expert on Spanish food and wine who visits the country often. He pointed me to the Rioja maker Contino—a relatively new (1974) winery that was one of the first in Rioja to sell single-estate wines—as an exemplar of the best of the old and new. Its winemaker, Jésus Madrazo, grew up tasting the best vintages of Rioja thanks to a family in the wine-making business for several generations. Dawes told me that his El Olivo, made mostly from Contino’s old vines of Tempranillo, the classic Rioja grape (and the most widely planted in the country), “may be greatest single ‘modern’ wine I’ve ever tasted.” By “modern” he meant made by a young winemaker (Madrazo is forty) using modern equipment like stainless-steel fermenting tanks; he did not mean the overpowering oak flavor now all too common in red wines, nor did he mean the new practice of producing wines so powerful and full of alcohol that I find it impossible to drink more than a small glass at a time. El Olivo averages 13.5 percent alcohol by volume, and Contino’s reserva wines even less (around 13 percent), as compared with the 14 percent and 15 percent and even higher that winemakers now go to, hoping to win the Parker stamp of approval.

You can call Pasternak, the U.S. importer of El Olivo, at 914-630-8200, to find where the wine is sold near you; prices are upward of $100 a bottle. On a recent visit to the Berkeley branch of the Spanish Table, a store I very much like that sells all manner of Spanish food, wine, and cookware, I was unable to find a bottle of El Olivo, but I did find a Contino Reserva from 1999, a vintage nearly as good as the 2001, which Dawes and others say will go down in history (it cost $39.99; the Web site is

Reserva is the workhorse of Contino and other premium winemakers—the wine by which most consumers will judge it. I found Contino’s much like the Riojas I have often admired, with the complexity and depth of Bordeaux but less heft (the Tempranillo grape is often compared to Pinot Noir), and the lower tannin that historically characterizes Rioja. Clove was prominent, along with bright berry and an agreeably mottled flavor palette (Dawes also tastes cocoa). I happened to drink it with a plate of meaty, dark-grilled squid with a chopped-olive sauce—just the sort of traditional but beautifully made tapa I might find in Spain, and a pairing that seemed perfect for a modestly excellent Spanish wine.