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Oak in Riojan Wine: Fundamental or a style choice

Oak and Rioja WineEditor’s Note: In exciting anticipation of the #EWBC (#DWCC), which will be held in Rioja in just 3 weeks, Quentin Sadler explains how the success, the aromas and flavours of Rioja wine all revolve around oak.

The red wines of Rioja are the first love of many wine drinkers. I think that is because they have a very clear identity which makes the flavors accessible. That identity quite clearly comes from oak aging, long aging in oak barrels, more specifically aging in American oak barrels. Modern Rioja is better made, riper, fuller and fruitier than Rioja of the past, but those vanilla aromas and flavors from aging in oak barrels is still the defining characteristic of the region’s fine red wines.

Rioja does make unoaked wines – officially categorized as Joven – but they have only been around since the technology made such fruity and supple wines possible after stainless steel tanks and cold fermentation arrived in the 1960s. What’s more none of the wine makers that I spoke to believed that is was possible to make a fine red Rioja without oak. A nice wine yes, but not a fine wine with that Rioja identity.

It seems to me that the history of Rioja wine, the success of Rioja, the aromas and flavors of Rioja wine all revolve around oak. Without oak we simply would not have the Riojan wines that we know and love.

We are so spoilt with good quality wine from across the globe today that we forget the development of fine wine has been slow and sporadic. It started in Bordeaux in the seventeenth century and a glance at a map will show you that Bordeaux and Rioja are not really that far apart

It took time, but eventually in the late 18th century people in Rioja noticed that wine did not  all have to just be simple stuff, stored and served in hog’s skins, that rapidly went off as soon as it was made. Not only was Bordeaux making wines that were stable and could be kept, but they were commanding premium prices.

Possibly if The Peninsular War and the various Carlist or Civil Wars of the early nineteenth century had not got in the way Rioja might have found its style sooner. Certainly a priest called Manuel Quintano made barrel aged Rioja in the 1780s and ‘90s. He was quite successful and even exported some, but he was ahead of his time and fell foul of the authorities who decreed that all Rioja wine must be sold at the same price. This  made the cost of barrels and cellar aging prohibitive and Quintano gave up.

It was not for another 50 years that similar things were tried again. Both Luciano de Murrieta – later the Marqués de Murrieta – and The Marqués de Riscal fell in love with the fine Bordeaux wines of the day and went there in 1850 to see how they were made.

Both of these men then came to Rioja and put what they had learned into practice. Crushed grapes and fermentations under hygienic conditions helped to make better, brighter and more stable wines, but the fundamental difference was ageing in barrel.

Barrel ageing was not some sort of style choice, but fundamental to making good wine that lasted. Barrel ageing caused a slight evaporation, which concentrated the wine. It also allowed a trickle of oxygen in through the pores of the wood which softened the tannins and developed a more silky texture. This difference in mouth-feel between thin everyday wines and finer wines would have been immediately obvious at a time when alcohol levels struggled to get above 11%.

French barrels were hard to come by and so the Riojans bought their wood from America whose oak was cheap and plentiful. It must have helped that much of Spain’s overseas trade was with Cuba and her newly independent American colonies.

In many ways it was this happy accident that created Rioja’s clear identity as it is the American oak that adds that sweet vanilla flavor which has become Rioja’s hallmark. In the 19th and early 20th centuries it would have given the wines a richness they otherwise lacked.

Oak and Riojan Wine

What’s more this oak aging gave Rioja’s wines the secret of long life as the wood contains a polyphenol – or type of tannin – called ellagitannins that helps to protect the wine from oxidation.

Never again would Rioja wine have to be drunk in the year of production, these wines could be bottled by the producer and stored in the customer’s cellar to be enjoyed at a later date.

It took a while for everything we know about Rioja to evolve, but by the 1860s they were up and running.  Many of Rioja’s most famous producers were created over the next 50 years and are still with us to this day.

Wealthy Spanish consumers loved the wines as did rich Mexicans and Cuban grandees, but Rioja might not have enjoyed anything like the success they had in the 19th century if disaster had not hit France and Bordeaux. Oidium and phylloxera devastated France’s vineyards between 1850 and 1890 and Bordeaux in particular did not have enough wine to sell. Luckily their new Spanish protégé did and what’s more it had been made in a way that perfectly suited the French market.

French wine companies set about reserving barrels of good Rioja wines. These wines were stored longer in wood before being shipped north and I have been told that this was the origin of the term Reserva that, like Gran Reserva, started appearing on Rioja labels in the 1920s.

So, you can see that oak has been very good to Rioja. Without barrel ageing Rioja would not have been able to become Spain’s first region capable of exporting wines around the world. What’s more they had wide appeal because of the rich, smooth characters that the oak brought.

Using oak was not some sort of whim or optional extra for Riojan wine makers, it was what made good Rioja possible.

I think there was another unexpected benefit from oak – the near demise of estate made wine in Rioja. The sheer cost of equipping new wineries and buying barrels forced most of the region’s grape growers to stop making wine themselves and instead sell their grapes to the new, well equipped bodegas.

Nowadays we often assume that estate wines are better, but this separation allowed Rioja’s farmers to concentrate on growing better fruit while the winemakers could put all their energies into turning them into good wine. It also allowed for the creation of some very strong and long lasting brands which might not have been the case if every grower had been marketing their own wines – after all it can be argued that the French fightback against the new world has been hampered by her relative lack of strong wine brands.

Not one of the bodegas that I spoke to were in any doubt that oak had served Rioja well.

Of course there are rules that control the minimum ageing, in cask and bottle, that a Rioja receives before it can be sold as a Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. It is also undeniable that some producers find this classification system a little limiting as it only deals with ageing and not quality, but most seem to feel that the benefits of such a strong identity outweigh such constraints.

Oak and Riojan WineMany producers though are choosing not to be totally constrained by the system and instead are often defining their top wine as a Vino de Autor or signature wine and not as a  Reserva or Gran Reserva. That way they do not have to make it fit the rules and are free to change the ageing regie from vintage to vintage.

The rules stipulate that casks or barrels of 225 litres must be used for ageing Rioja, but they do not specify what type of oak must be used. American is the most traditional and dominant, but some producers have always favoured French oak and its use has definitely increased in recent years.

French oak produces wines with a much firmer, tighter and spicier character than the American oak that is so emblematic of Rioja. Most French winemakers I have ever asked consider American oak to be a little vulgar, or obvious, and some Riojans also believe that French oak makes more elegant and restrained wines. Some Riojas are aged solely in French oak, but it is more normal to find bodegas aging their wines in a combination of American and French oaks – at least one producer use barrels made with staves of both types.

Wine makers are always trying to do something different and make better wine, but it must be hard to tamper with a wine that has such a clear identity that so many consumers enjoy. I always think it must be like a rock band working on that difficult second album – how do you ring the changes and yet still keep your distinctive sound?

Much is subtly changing in Rioja. The fundamental winemaking has never been better, which is why enjoyable joven wines can be made without oak and why great Vino de Autor wines can be produced with much less oak aging than the more traditional styles. There is also more emphasis on fruit source with it being much clearer to the consumer when a wine is made in one of the 3 sub-zones of Rioja; Alta, Baja or Alavesa. What’s more since 1973, when Contino led the way, there has even been a resurgence of estate production with many growers now marketing their own wines rather than selling their grapes to the large bodegas.

As you find with so many wine regions around the world, this new trend of boutique growers making their own wines means that the new generation is now in charge. More often than not they have been trained as winemakers and are ambitious. They want to make their mark and so experiment with styles and winemaking techniques. The Rioja recipe is being played around with by bodegas producing more pure varietals, Riojas made from pure Tempranillo, Mazuelo, Garnacha or Graciano are all now available. Many of these winemakers are also experimenting with other oaks, Hungarian, Slavonian and Russian oak can all be found in Rioja today. Stylistically they lean in a similar direction to French oak but give less spice character and, like French, are normally used in small proportions together with American oak.

So nothing stands still. Wine making evolves and the Rioja style evolves with it, but still at its heart there is a clear identity. The great majority of Rioja is still aged in American oak and everyone I spoke to seemed clear that oak – especially American oak – will continue to play as important a part in Rioja’s future as it has in its past.


Quentin Sadler

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