Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Light on La RIoja

"We must be in Haro; you can already see the lights," the saying goes in the town where La Rioja's wine trade is centered. The bon mot dates from the 1890s, when Haro was one of the first towns in Spain to get electricity thanks to the success of its wine merchants, who prospered by selling wine to the France after its vineyards were devastated by phylloxera in the 1860s and 1870s. La Rioja, which is in north central Spain just below Basque country, remains one of the country's leading wine-producing regions, and one whose winemakers are often influenced by the foreign markets they try to sell to. Spanish wine writers Jesus Barquin, Luis Gutierrez and Victor de la Serna offer a solid introduction to the region in The Finest Wines of La Rioja and Northwest Spain, which includes Navarre to the east and Galicia and Bierzo to the west.

The easy, and familiar, organizing principle to the book is the tension between old-style Rioja - lighter in color, usually aged in older American oak and often the product of grapes sourced from different vineyards - and avant-garde wines that are bigger, richer, higher in alcohol, tend to be aged in new French oak and come from grapes of a single vineyard. It's a familiar story in a wine world that's become increasingly international over the last generation. Many winemakers fall into one of the two camps. Lopez de Heredia is the classic traditionalist; Contador, whose wines rocketed in price after the American guru Robert Parker gave one of them a 100-point score, is what the new wave hopes to become.

As always, the more fascinating parts of the story are the ones that scramble this picture. Sometimes efforts to imitate more successful competitors can backfire. Winemakers in Navarre ripped out much of their Granacha, or Grenache, in the 1980s in favor of Tempranillo, the dominant red grape of La Rioja, as well as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and chardonnay but were largely unable to replicate La Rioja's success. On the other hand, growers from Bierzo have started making a name for themselves with wines from Mencia. The coffee connoisseur and Mr. Marathon have both enjoyed Mencias in the mid-teens (the Pedrolonga and the Brezo Tinto, respectively), and another member of the sales crew raved this week about the 2009 Ultreia St. Jacques from Raul Perez, a winemaker and consultant born in Bierzo who now seems to be all over Spain. The authors argue that Bierzo could be the next Priorat - a region that could become hot with wine buyers and see a spectacular increase in prices.

The authors also offer fascinating glimpses of La Rioja's past. They note in passing that Marques de Riscal's 1945 Cuvee Medoc, named for the most famous region of Bordeaux, is perhaps the greatest red wine ever produced in Spain even though more than 60% of it is cabernet, the Bordeaux grape par excellence. Going even further back, in the 1890s Gustav Eiffel designed the cellar for CVNE, Compania de Vinicola del Norte de Espana, which is next to Lopez de Heredia on the banks of the Ebro. Far from being extraneous bits of trivia, these touches suggest that Raul Perez and the winemakers of Bierzo and other emerging regions follow in a long line of Spaniards who's had to interpret the desires of the international wine market in their own distinctive ways.  

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