In pursuit of excellence: 130 years of La Rioja Alta

Since the first Phoenician settlers arrived in 11th century BC, Rioja has had a long and colourful winemaking tradition. As early as the late 13th century there is evidence of Rioja’s wine being exported into other regions and from the 15th century on, the Rioja Alta was particularly well-known for wine growing. As is the case across most of Europe, viticulture in Rioja can be traced back to the Roman empire and continued there even during Moorish occupation. As a result of the phylloxera epidemic, during which the French were the first and hardest hit, immediate and insatiable demand for all the wine Rioja could produce swept across France. By 1890, the influx of French négociant and winemakers, who had brought with them extensive knowledge, techniques and experience, had brought about a period of unprecedented growth for the region’s industry. That same year, five Riojan and Basque families founded the ‘Sociedad Vinicola de La Rioja Alta‘ which would later, after merging with the Ardanza winery, become La Rioja Alta S.A. 130 years later, La Rioja Alta, as well as being the only winery in Rioja to make 3 Gran Reserva, is globally recognised for its age-worthy, quality-driven, and consistently overperforming wines. To celebrate this laudable anniversary, and to mark the release of the 2014 Viña Arana, I discussed some of the estate’s most impactful changes in recent decades with La Rioja Alta winemaker, Julio Sáenz.

Though their vineyard holdings total in excess of 425ha, only 60-90ha of these holdings contribute toward the estate’s trio of Gran Reserva. Roughly 25 plots in total make up Gran Reserva production, each one varying in what it adds to the final assemblage of any given wine. Each of the Gran Reserva bears a set of defining characteristics, it is with these characteristics in mind that individual plots are selected each year to maintain the intended style of each wine.

890, the wine which marks the estate’s first bottling in 1890, is defined by more pronounced tannins than its counterparts, more alcohol, and a fresher palate. 904, which marked the merging of La Rioja Alta and Ardanza in 1904, is fresh, more delicate and elegant than it’s bolder brethren, with a marked change in acidity, derived from plots planted at higher altitudes. Viña Arana Gran Reserva, introduced from the 2012 vintage and launched in 2019, is sourced from lower-lying plots, is more intense than 904, and has superb ageing-potential, something which is relative in a trio of wines characterised by this potential.

At La Rioja Alta, concentration is not so much the goal as is balance. The philosophy for the estate’s Gran Reserva is first and foremost the health and quality of its raw material. Sáenz points to a shift in the approach of the technical team in recent decades, the winemaker no longer simply receives fruit but instead recognises the origin of his or her wine starts in the vineyard and through to the harvest.

With each Gran Reserva claiming its own distinct characteristics, understanding the sites from which grapes of varying vine age are selected paints a more comprehensive picture of the origin of these broadly different styles. For Vina Arana, Tempranillo (95%) comes from Las Cuevas (a cooler site influenced by the Atlantic) El Palo and Las Monjas vineyards in Rodezno with the remaining 5% of Graciano coming from the Montecillo estate in Fuenmayor. For 904, Tempranillo (89%) is sourced from 60-year-old vines planted in Brinas, Rodezno and Vallalba. The remaining 11% of Graciano is from the Montecillo vineyard in Fuenmayor. Finally, for 890, Tempranillo (95%) and Mazuelo (2%) come from estate-owned vineyards in Brinas, Labastida and Villalba with the remaining 3% Graciano from the Montecillo vineyards.

In most of these vineyards, vine age varies from between 22 years old and in some cases can be as old as 70 years. Quality is extremely high across the board with the majority of vines in what Sáenz refers to as a ‘sweet spot’, where they find themselves producing low but healthy, yields. Although the team have some ideas, the rootstocks and clones are mostly unknown, when replanting is occasionally required it is done by massal selection.

A shift has been made in recent decades, one requiring huge investment, to 100% ownership of all vineyards. Which in the past was not possible, with the estate having to purchase a percentage of their total fruit. This shift has allowed La Rioja Alta more immediate and precise control over viticulture and selection. In the vineyard, they are working hard to maintain a healthy, functional and utilitarian canopy whilst also seeking to cultivate healthy, rewarding soils.

In addition to working in a more environmentally-friendly manner, 10 years ago the estate began mapping, in detail, all of their plots in order to better understand both the climate and their individual climat in order to adopt a more precise approach to viticulture. This improved understanding has given them the ability to predict future problems and work with a changing climate. Furthermore understanding each parcel more specifically reduces the need for indiscriminate use of synthetic products, treating each plot as an independent entity. Sáenz notes that 20 years ago there was very little understanding about the weather, now they are able to work intelligently in the vineyard, knowing when to undertake specific vineyard tasks (think pruning, spraying, etc.) means a more intelligent use of resource and more accurate application of the method.

Acknowledging the already-obvious impact of climate change, Sáenz tells me that 20 years ago harvest usually begun in the middle of October, now mid-September is a regular beginning. Whilst this is currently manageable, there is a fear that the grapes will begin to lose acidity, negatively impacting both immediate structure and ageing potential.

Further respecting the fruit, all work in the vineyard is completed by hand, which requires a great deal of physical labour, made even more difficult this year by COVID-19. All in all harvest at La Rioja Alta requires around 150 people and takes place over 4 weeks. Fruit for the Gran Reserva is harvested in small boxes in order to maintain the integrity of the fruit. Larger tanks are transferred in cold storage to the winery in order to maintain freshness.

Representing a significant investment and highlighting the estate’s commitment to quality, at the winery, La Rioja Alta has invested in two new grape entry lines which cool down the grapes before destemming. They are then passed through a state-of-the-art optical sorting machine, introduced in 2015, which analyses each individual berry, discarding those which do not comply with the winery’s quality parameters. Each vintage roughly 10% of grapes passed through the machines are discarded. Having seen a marked increase in berry quality, a further 3 machines were purchased. Sáenz credits this as being the most important decisions of the past decade.

These investments are not standalone, an R&D department has recently been created to control and foster development of new projects, all aimed at improving the quality of La Rioja Alta wines. New, dedicated facilities have been built next to the current quality and winemaking laboratories, here new instrumental methods and techniques such as gas chromatography, used to control the production of undesirable compounds during all stages of winemaking, are refined and readied for practical use.

Oak barrels form a fundamental component of Rioja. Longstanding Spanish trade routes allowed a cash-strapped Spain to look toward its colonial holdings in the Americas to source a solution to excessively expensive French oak. The union between Tempranillo and the more affordable, flavorful American oak led the way to a renaissance of Spanish wine. Whilst long ageing in oak defines Gran Reserva, it can be problematic for the quality and integrity of the wine.

Since 2001, La Rioja Alta has entirely reevaluated their approach to oak. Whilst they still opt for American oak (despite an emerging trend elsewhere in Rioja) they now import oak staves from the US and construct the barrels in-house. Bringing the production in-house has given them more control over both the production process and hygiene management. As well as bringing production in-house, the overall age of the barrels is now much younger. In the 80s the barrels were 18/19/20 years old, now they are on average 4.5 years old, reducing the age of the barrels has meant better control over quality. Previously some of the Gran Reservas have been a little tired with high amounts of VA, now the wines are both cleaner and fresher in age.

In addition to reducing the average age of the barrels, maintenance practises have also been revised. All barrels are cleaned with hot water and steam and are maintained more intensely than ever before, ensuring the steam reaches at least 5mm into the pores of each stave. This removes both bacteria and yeast, directly impacting the integrity and quality of the wine. Fill levels are also more closely monitored to avoid oxidation and/or bacteria development.

Although Graciano makes up at most around 11% of any of La Rioja Alta’s Gran Reserva, equally as much care is taken in growing, selecting and vinifying this crucial component. To the tempranillo-dominant blend, Graciano adds colour, a boost of acidity, underpins elegance and helps maintain overall freshness. Though one may consider it a minor component, Sáenz notes that it contributes a great deal to the overall ageing capacity of the Gran Reserva. Though climate change has not yet turned viticulture on its head in Rioja, it has made an already-complicated, difficult to grow, low-yielding variety even trickier.

Succeeding over the space of 130 years is no stroke of luck, the technical team at La Rioja Alta are forever experimenting both in the vineyard and the winery. Embracing technology they balance a traditional understanding of terroir and viticulture with the tools of modernity. Precision viticulture, optical sorting and a refreshed approach to both the barrels and their maintenance programme have resulted in quality that has never been better. Sáenz tells me that whilst now the wine could be fantastic, in the future, this may not always be the case. This acknowledgement that things may not always be as they are now, keeps the team on their toes, inspiring them to consider the future and make wine for the next generation, strengthening their customer appeal and continuing to please drinkers the world over.

Wines available in the UK from Armit Wines.

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