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Traditional Rioja! Modern Rioja! What does it Matter if it all Tastes Good?

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Editor’s Note: This is our last, and one of our most controversial, posts on the difference between modern versus traditional wines of Rioja. Our intention has been to share a variety of perspectives beyond our own as to what Rioja winemakers perceive when they use the terms traditional and modern Rioja wine. Hopefully, you feel a little more grounded in this concept, but if you are still floundering, please let us know. We have plenty more eager Rioja winemakers happy to share their views.

You will first hear from Carlos Rodríguez, the oenologist at Bodegas Ondalan, located in Oyón in Rioja Alvesa, who was elated to answer our question. We would like to thank Michael Grisley of P. R. Grisley, an importer out of Salt Lake City, for helping us get in contact with Carlos. We’d also like to thank Rafael Vivanco and Maria Jose Lopez Heredia for taking the time to share their perspectives.

Question: How would you define the difference between a traditional Rioja wine and a modern Rioja wine and what do you think are the pluses and negatives of each style/philosophy?

Both are two completely different styles of wine from both the organoleptic (tasting) level and from the standpoint of viticulture and enology. Therefore, it’s difficult to summarize the differences between them in only a few words.

“Traditional Rioja” is a wine that shows a lower intensity of color and marked with notes of aging (as seen in the color orange). On an aromatic level, aromas are predominately tertiary originating from the evolution of the wine in cask where the fruit takes on more subtle nuances embedded in the wood. In the mouth, the wine at first feels fresh (well-integrated acidity) leading to round tannins crafted by barrel aging. Overall, these wines are seeking elegance and finesse.

“Modern Rioja” is an intense colored wine with hues less evolved from aging (maintaining its brilliant blue-purple hue). Aromatically, the wine is perceived as more concentrated as a result of the powerfully integrated fruit and wood notes, showing more expressive and intense aromas, rather than notes of oxidation. In the mouth, the wine is big with more structure and firm tannins. Generally, you can expect this wine to be more expressive and intense throughout every moment of tasting.

The main difference between the two, however, is in the method of production where with “Traditional Rioja” wines are macerated for less time (usually pressed before the end of the alcoholic fermentation), and “Modern Rioja” wines are looking for a greater extraction with longer and more intense macerations. Aging is also considerably different; “Traditional Rioja” wines are seeking for the evolution of the wine, whereas, “Modern Rioja” wines are looking for the seamless integration of the wood into the wine, while closely monitoring it so as not to lose the wines aromatic intensity from the fruit. However, in order to carry out these oenological variations between both Modern and Traditional Rioja, during the elaboration of the wine, we need to manage the vineyards differently in order to achieve specific maturation in the grapes. Essentially, the main difference is in the level of phenolic maturity. To be able to extract more from grapes enduring a longer maceration, we need grapes with greater intensity and mature tannins. In addition, we need to control production yields through green harvesting (trimming off grapes) and through regulating and balancing between the canopy and production.

I do not believe that there are solely positive or negative aspects in either of the two styles; it is possible to find great wines in both and in my opinion, it depends on the tastes of consumers. Personally, I think there are positive aspects in both and that the ideal is to seek their combined values. I believe we have to create wines with more personality and expression of both the Rioja region and of our indigenous variety, Tempranillo, but without sacrificing or losing elegance. For example, in Rioja, we have a native grape called, Graciano, which is not only an interesting variety, but helps to increase the personality of our wines either by itself or mixed with Tempranillo.

Generally, we have tools and varietal “terroir” to be able to create wines that are more intense, expressive and original, but at the same time, more elegant. They must produce more pleasure and should evoke more emotion.
~Carlos Rodríguez, the oenologist at Bodegas Ondalan