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November 13, 2021updated 02 Nov 2022 11:34am

Single-vineyard Rioja: Shifting horizons

By Simon Field MW

Simon Field MW introduces an instructive, heterogenous tasting, shared with Tim Atkin MW and Andrew Jefford, of red single-vineyard Rioja—including examples of the new official Viñedo Singular category. For full coverage of the tasting, including notes on all 67 wines, subscribe to The World of Fine Wine.

I have been privileged to participate in many excellent World of Fine Wine tastings since 2004. Among the very best was a comprehensive panorama of great mature Rioja of both colors going back to 1964 and (way) beyond. It was like walking from one gallery to another in The Prado, the riches on display only embarrassing by dint of their timeless generosity. Here, I thought, was the essence of Rioja, its USP, if you will pardon the neologism. Not much reason to change things.

Well, yes and no. Things do change, and not every Gran Reserva on the shelf today will ever taste like Riscal 1955. Evidently. Rioja has the vertical perspective tied up, it seems, the self-identification in terms of time and what Andrew Jefford describes as “human gestures.” What about a more horizontal stance; a portrait of the artist through the prism of the soil, the single vineyard, and, yes, we had to come to this word, through the terroir itself? No amount of alchemy in the bodega, surely, can make up for qualitative differences in the rawest and most sinewy of raw materials—the ground itself… the vineyard. Maybe it is possible to combine these vertical and horizontal perspectives… Mondrian depicting a skyscraper… or does extensive wood-aging in itself undermine the benison of the land? A big question, and one for another day, perhaps.

Testing a radical innovation

Today, the issue is how to couch the question. Ideally, the tasting would be an assessment of the radical innovation of 2017—the introduction of the new formulation of the Viñedo Singular—but in reality the take-up of this new category has been patchy… “strangled at birth,” some have said, or, more generously, still getting into its stride in a famously conservative enclave. With, as always, an eye on the qualitative imperative, The World of Fine Wine therefore decided to ask leading producers to submit wines that they felt best demonstrated an adherence to the philosophy of the single vineyard—whether or not the wines are formally categorized thus.

Importantly, there was no specification as to style or vintage, nor aging regime; and although Tim Atkin MW is correct to point out that the results were somewhat heterogeneous and therefore, in a sense, of limited use, the counter-argument would posit first, the impressive quality of virtually all of the wines; and second, the fact that the overwhelming majority of the submissions were the children of specific vineyards, even if few (Marqués de Vargas Pradolagar and Cerro la Isa from Juan Carlos Sancha among them) were accredited as Viñedos Singulares. This is not to deny the extent of the stylistic variation on display. One may initially baulk at the apparently incongruous Zaha Hadid structure in the forecourt of López de Heredia, all the more so as it houses an original Belle Epoque stand from the Exposition Universelle de Bruxelles in 1910; but with time, one comes to love its curved anachronistic charm. The Spanish have always been edgy when it comes to juxtaposition of the modern and the traditional, and so it has proved with their wines.

Squaring the circle

Let us step back a little. Rioja has usually been in the vanguard when it comes to taxonomy; its DO dates from 1926 and it was the first to gain the DOCa in 1991. In 2007, international grape varieties were added to those permitted, albeit in moderation. Then significantly, in 2017, the formalization of a new three-tier categorization, based on provenance, its creation specifically couched so as not to contradict what was already in place (Genérico-Crianza-Reserva and Gran Reserva). The putative pyramid is easy to understand: Vino de Zona (Alavesa, Alta or Oriental, as Baja is now known), then Vino de Municipo/Pueblo (145 individual villages qualify), and finally Viñedo Singular. Strings, as always, are attached—to some, strings pulled too tight (single vineyards have to be over 30 years of age, often problematic in a region where only 10 to 15 percent of the 10,000+ vineyards are over 35 years of age), or not pulled tight enough; the designation outlines territory but not style. In theory, a single vineyard could make sparkling Rioja (another recent designation), even if making sparkling Rioja is not necessarily the best way to exploit the terroir in question.

And so it goes on… and on…until, inevitably, one enters a political cul-de-sac. The most pressing political issues include the fact that the Alavesa vines are, at a macro level, part of the Basque jurisdiction, and many of them cleave to a strategy of independence and autonomy. This is a worry, because some of the best villages (the Côte d’Or of Rioja) are located here, Laguardia and Labastida among them. Another political issue is that the powerful Grupo Rioja (comprising 55 large bodegas) thrives on a DNA of cross-regional blending. Think Champagne but without the creative nous of LVMH et al, some of the more cynical observers have decided.

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So… the new system is challenged, with only 100 or so vineyards signed up and their wines only gradually coming to market. This, I suspect, was not what Telmo Rodriguez had in mind when he launched his wonderfully named Matador Manifesto in early 2016, or Juan Carlos López de Lacalle from Artadi when he formally left the Consejo because he felt that they were restricting his aspirations to show the best of the best, uninhibited, as it were.

The best of the best

The best of the best indeed, and we were lucky enough to have wines from both of these inspirational growers. My analysis shows that there were a good number of high-scoring wines, with 18 of the 67 notching up an average of 92 or over; and also that the vast majority of the wines, traditional or modern, were built on the concept of the single vineyard, including some of the most famous names, Ygay and Contino among them—to many, the sine qua nons of the single-vineyard movement. In terms of style, it was a dead-heat (nine each) among those top 18 wines when one pitched the modern against the more traditional styles.

Very exciting, too, to see traditionalists such as La Rioja Alta presenting a new single-estate wine—Finca Martelo Reserva—and also to sample no fewer than four individual parcels from that great innovator, Benjamín Romero. The same can be said for the ebullient Miguel Angel de Gregorio at Finca Allende, with the telling differences in style demonstrated between his Gaminde and his Calvario, his Aurus and his Mingortiz, single vineyards all. Likewise, Juan Calos Lopez de Lacalle with El Carretil and El Pison. Ditto Telmo with his Beatas and Estrade.

In short, this was an instructive and revealing tasting. It is maybe interesting to conclude with a sentence from Rodolfo Bastida from Bodegas Ramon Bilbao, one of the key members of the “conservative” Grupo Rioja. “There is nothing mutually exclusive,” he maintains “about championing blended styles at the same time as promoting the best of Rioja’s richly diverse terroir.” Once Rioja squares this circle, harmony will be restored and primacy reaffirmed.

The top five: The best of red single-vineyard Rioja

Marqués de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial 2010 (85% Tempranillo / 15% Mazuelo; 14% ABV)
Tim Atkin MW: Wonderfully complex, mature, graceful Rioja. Subtle spices, sweet and floral with vanilla top-notes, scented wood, and very fine tannins. Long and refined with further aging potential. | 97
Simon Field MW: Ruby core with brick at the rim; soft ruby rim; the nose is evolved, truffle, spice, toffee apple, and a hint of licorice; soft autumnal palate, ripe plum, late-season strawberry, hints of fennel and lemons; a soft, elegant grip, a touch of salinity, a brambly character, and soft, slightly lean finish. | 92
Andrew Jefford: Deep, dark black-red, just easing off opacity. There’s a slightly rough-and-ready style to the aromas but much to enjoy, too, including cigar box and hayloft warmth and glowing fruits. Deep, concentrated, and long on the palate, with singing fruits dominating the palate; still some tannic force underscoring the fruits, while the acidity is glowing and not over-dominant yet. A well-preserved and vital wine that, with more refined aromas, would win a higher score still. | 92

Urbina Gran Reserva Especial 2004 (Tempranillo; 14% ABV)
TA: Wonderful. Complex, mature, savory, sweet, with autumnal, balsamic intensity, fresh acidity, tobacco leafy undertones, subtle oak, and complex finish. Delicious, mature, delicate Rioja. | 96
SF: Russet crepuscular coloring, chiaroscuro, and rust; diamonds and dust; a nose of seaweed, soy, quince, and late-season leaves, the touch of volatility acceptable; the palate is evolved, fascinating, meaty, and gently powerful, graceful in its development, and brimming with gastronomic potential. Finely rendered and firm on the finish. | 92
AJ: Dark, brick-red but still deep, though translucent. Gentle, resonant, deeply harmonious, serene, and seamless aromas: A calm, creamy pool of warm fruits, earth, forest floor, plants at summer’s end, and root spices. Sublime aromatic finesse here. Ample, soft, cossetted, and expressive on the palate, teased to perfect maturity and with barely a hair out of place. Magnificent subtlety of expression and gentle, pliant warmth: Splendid wine. | 95

Valdemar Balcón de Pilatos 2017 (14% ABV)
TA: Sweet and a little grassy on the nose. Some Graciano or Maturana Tinta? Lots of mocha oak, some balancing acidity, ripe, dense, and late picked. Good wine, if firm, with a slightly angular finish. Needs time. | 93
SF: Bold squid-ink black; dense and foreboding; oaky nose of graphite, pencil shavings, and cedar; expensive inclinations, with plenty of dark fruit in support. The palate has a beautiful pashmina texture, the foreboding in recession, the fruit character suddenly gleaming with resplendent focus and exciting potential. Balletic and aerian, a fascinating example. La force tranquille! | 94
AJ: Dark, dense, saturated black-purple still, and impenetrably opaque; a black-purple rim. Very fine aromatics here, and classical, too: Soft, tender, plum-damson fruits with vanilla and tobacco-leaf complexities. Serene, rewarding, seductive. Can’t wait to sip. There’s great weight, depth, and density of blackcurrant fruit on the palate: We’re suddenly in a different dimension from every other wine thus far, and this certainly needs more time to show at its best. It’s had oak, but the fact that the fruit provides all the energy and carriage in the wine bodes well. The tannins, in fact, are relatively soft and submissive. Excellent, pure, long, expressive: Worth seeking out, and a limpid expression of great vineyards. | 95

Finca Allende Calvario 2010 (14% ABV)
TA: Mature, but with some grip and tannins for a 2010. Extra backbone from Graciano or Mazuelo? Complex and savory, with balsamic complexity. | 93
SF: Deep raven-black, ruby red at the rim; nose of charcuterie, late-season apples, and a whisper of black chocolate and tapenade; figs and white pepper, and a firm tannic profile. The tannins dry a little, but there is plenty of gastronomic potential, a little volatility, and an elegant, poised finish. Good to go now! | 91
AJ: Very deep black-red, still, and firmly opaque at the core. Dark red-garnet rim. The preserved-plum fruits have some menthol now and some animal warmth, too, but in general the aromas are enticing, fruit-dominated, and expansive: Clean, frank, and inviting. On the palate, the wine is ample, round, still textured, with some cocoa dusting on the fruits: Warm, deep, long, supple, textured, and long. Sumptuous and almost voluptuous older Rioja which has really come into its own. It doesn’t quite have the aromatic refinement, sublimity, and purity of the very best but it’s an absolute treat to sip and to drink. | 94

CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva 2015 (mostly Tempranillo; 14% ABV)
TA: Spicy, sweet, and balsamic with fresh acidity and good structure. Herbal, nice finesse with a chalky finish. Stylishly oaked. | 92
SF: Deep episcopal purple, a modest garnet fade; a softly spoken but articulate nose; raspberry, plum quince, and a modestly volatile lift; walnuts, verbena, and a hint of briary; gunpowder and mace; encyclopedic, allusive characters abound; then the palate is pleasingly soft, poised, not overbearingly complex, yet finely judged and resonant with a sense of place and direction. | 93
AJ: Dense, dark black-red, just inching off opacity. Earthy, deep, warm, sweet scents with lots of sunlit warmth of oak: Creamy, resonant, and good. Deep, dense, and firmly structured on the palate, with ample tannins packing intense, pungently ripe plums; elegant yet masterful. Outstanding close-textured Rioja of purity, intensity, and assured classicism. | 95

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