"We need to destroy this system & start over"

A new generation in Rioja is reshaping Spain's most famous wine

The concept of terroir has never been particularly important in Rioja. Ask most wine people what they know about Rioja, and they will mostly talk of aging classifications: crianza, reserva, gran reserva. So what most people talk about when they talk about Rioja is…wood. Which makes Rioja feel sort of anachronistic in a contemporary wine scene that values less oak, more freshness, and more than anything else, a sense of place.

Rioja is a machine, churning out 270 millions liters of wine each year. There are nearly 600 wineries spanning more than 66,000 hectares. Yet only 40 wineries produce 80 percent of the region’s wine.

“Rioja has become a flavor, not a region,” says Roberto Oliván of Tentenublo Wines, among the exciting new generation of winemakers shaking things up in Rioja.

Ah yes, the new generation. It’s what always happens in the world’s classic, established wine regions. A reigning style has always gotten the critical acclaim. But at some point, it becomes stodgy, outdated — your grandfather’s wine. A restlessness among the younger generation happens. Ideas and innovation come in from the outside. A new philosophy emerges. That’s what’s going on right now in Rioja (and some say it’s about time).

I have been a Rioja skeptic for years. After spending a couple weeks in the region, I’m now all in on the new style.

So what is the new generation is seeking? Freshness, vineyard sites at higher elevations, organic farming, grape varieties other than tempranillo, low-intervention or natural-wine techiques, eschewing heavy new oak for concrete, and a focus on white wines. There’s even a movement of making young, foot-trodden, carbonically-macerated reds.

All in all, this is a dynamic time in Rioja. 2019 is considered by many to be the best vintage in a decade. In 2017, the D.O.Ca officially started allowing producers to list the name of the local village on the label. Now, important wine-growing towns on the north and west sides of the Ebro River, such as Laguardia, Labastida, San Vicente de la Sonsierra, Lanciego, or Villabuena are getting their due attention. There’s also starting to be a clearer geographic divide between Rioja Alta on one side of the Ebro river and Rioja Alavesa on the other — the latter being in Basque Country. Right now, some larger producers in Rioja Alavesa want to break away from Rioja and create their own Basque appellation.

At the same time, the governing body unveiled a new system of “grand cru” single vineyards — Viñedos Singulares — about which there has been a lot of disagreement and griping. There are insinuations that the Viñedos Singulares favor sites of the larger, established wineries.

But with all the revolution and dissent in the air, the most important factor is Rioja’s new blood. Along with Oliván of Tentenublo, younger winemakers to watch include Sandra Bravo of Sierra de Toloño, Arturo and Kike de Miguel of Artuke, José Gil, Olivier Rivière, and numerous others. Additionally, some of the more established houses, such as Pujanza and Gomez Cruzado are working more in this so-called new style. New, of course, being a term that’s also up for debate.

“People say ‘Oh you’re the new style of Rioja,’ but we’re actually the real classic style,” says Arturo de Miguel of Artuke. “People think new oak and vanilla is the classic style. But it’s not. You can consider us as the traditional way they worked a hundred years ago. We need to start speaking of the two different ways in Rioja. We need to explain this to people.”

Higher Elevation and Site Specific

Sandra Bravo of Sierra de Toloño took me to visit several of her vineyards, many of which are over 2,000 feet in elevation. “Now with climate change, everyone is climbing the mountains,” she says. The reason is simple: This is not Austria or Germany. Rioja is a hot-weather region. I heard a lot of talk about the semantic division between “Mediterranean” wine (big, ripe, powerful) and “Atlantic” wines (freshness, acidity, drinkability). Winemakers like Bravo are after this so-called Atlantic quality. So the only way to go is up.

One 92-year-old vineyard Bravo showed me was called Malpuesta, meaning “badly located.” It is an area of small plots that had been avoided by the traditional large wineries. “These were the plots of poor people, who planted where they could,” she said. Now, sites like this are the key to Rioja’s future.

Bravo’s first vintage was 2012. Before that she worked in Bordeaux, Tuscany, New Zealand, California, and then seven years in Priorat. She did not inherit her vineyards. Her winery is in Villabuena, a village of 300 residents and 40 wineries.

As we tasted her wines, I wondered why she didn’t use the traditional crianza, reserva, gran reserva designations. “If you put the wine in a barrel as long as the regulations say, you will lose all the fruit, all the freshness, everything that’s interesting about the wine,” Bravo said. “No, we have to destroy this system and start over again. It’s so prehistoric.” Most of the new generation mostly chooses to bottle as cosecha or genérico, rather than the traditional classification.

“The problem is that most people in Rioja never get out from here,” she says. “For instance, they’re not adapting to the weather we have now. Climate change is real but they still do it like they always have.”

My guess is that more established wineries will soon follow suit, as they see which way the wind is blowing. At Pujanza, Lorena Corbacho drove me to their Norte vineyard, at nearly 2,400 feet above sea level. Pujanza’s Norte bottling is a gold standard of this emerging “Atlantic” style. It comes from the sort of world-class vineyard that would be a grand cru in many regions. But Pujanza hasn’t even applied for Norte to become a Viñedos Singulares because they disagree with the D.O.’s parameters.

“We don’t ever use crianza, reserva, gran reserva. That talks only about the barrel,” Corbacho says. “Years ago, El Norte was 18 months in oak, but we keep decreasing the amount of time in oak. Now, it spends less than 12 months in oak and is finished in concrete.”

Beyond Tempranillo

Among the godfathers of this movement is Abel Mendoza, who has been making wine in San Vicente de la Sonsierra with his wife Maite in the “new style” since 1989. In 2020, they sold as many bottles as they did in the beginning. “The difference in 1989 is we made only one wine,” he says. “Now we make 17.”

Mendoza took us on a several-hours vineyard tour in a bouncy old Land Rover with a bench seat in the back — he has 21 hectares split into a patchwork of 51 parcels over three villages. Many of them over 1,500 feet elevation. We crossed back and forth between Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. Though he works completely organic, it’s impossible to certify since so many of his plots abut neighbors who use chemicals. You could see Mendoza’s vineyard one side, vibrant with grasses and herbs and flowers in the rows, next to a plot with dead, dry soil where the grower uses pesticides and herbicides. “They used to call me ‘El Hierbes’ (basically, The Weed),” he says with laugh.

“Decades ago, they decided to plant all this tempranillo as a monoculture,” he says, referring to the 1960s and 1970s when cooperatives tore out the old vineyard and replanted with tempranillo to meet market demand. The late 20th century is when tempranillo became king. Since it was mostly the same clone of tempranillo that was planted during that era, there’s a lot of sameness in flavor.

“We wanted to get back to the sort of grape varieties my grandfather planted.” Mendoza is committed to what he calls “minority varieties,” which in Rioja means red varieties like garnacha (aka grenache), mazuelo (aka carignan), graciano, and white varieties like viura, tempranillo blanca, garnacha blanca, and torrontés.

“The great richness of wines in blending,” he says. “It’s certainly important to know how a variety grows in certain soils. But the real beauty in wine is in blending things. Who can tell me that the way I make my rosado is the wrong way? They say I should make my rosé with garnacha but I make mine with mazuelo. And it’s beautiful.”

This was one of the most fascinating twists for me. I assumed my tasting in Rioja would be dominated by tempranillo. And yes, I drank plenty of that. But what was most surprising was how much amazing garnacha and graciano was also being produced. Blending with all these grapes had always been the traditional in the old days, and the oldest vineyards generally had a diverse mix. In fact, the Rioja D.O.Ca. allows a great deal of flexibility in using tempranillo, garnacha, graciano, and mazuelo. Producers can bottle any blend or single-varietal they want.

Arturo de Miguel at Artuke suggests that growing a mix of grapes on various soils — and at various altitudes — was the best way forward. Tempranillo, for instance, he believed grew best at elevations of around 2,000 feet and higher. While garnacha, graciano, and mazuelo did better under 1,600 feet elevation.

And then there were the whites…

Rioja is a…White Wine Region?

Certainly wine drinkers who are fans of López de Heredia’s Viña Gravonia or Cune’s Monopole Classico (Rioja’s two most famous whites) are already acquainted with the potential of Rioja’s whites. But the embrace of these wines is relatively recent phenomenon. “When I first got here, nobody drank López de Heredia,” says Olivier Rivière.

(Yes, Rivière is French, born and raised south of Bordeaux in Cognac. Yes, he is one of the outsiders I was talking about. After working in Burgundy, he was lured to Spain by Telmo Rodriquez and started his own label in 2006.)

“This could be a great white wine region. There are a lot of sites that are planted for reds that should be planted for whites,” Rivière says.

Classic Rioja whites are full-bodied and based mostly on viura (aka macabeo) and can be a basket of orchard, stone, and even tropical fruit. It’s a tricky grape, with low acidity and aromatics, but it has the potential for long aging. “Viura was sort of neutral, sort of a boring grape. So what did winemakers do? They used a lot of oak,” says Corbacho of Pujanza.

What, exactly, will be a new-generation Rioja white is still a work in progress. But examples like Abel Mendoza 5 V (with viura, malvasía, garnacha blanca, tempranillo and torrontés), Gomez Cruzados Montes Obarenes, or Remelluri Blanco are excellent benchmarks.

Some of the most fascinating reds that I tasted in Rioja even had a significant percentage of white grapes in the blend. This, again, was traditional in the old times of Rioja (as it was in other hot regions such as the Rhône and even in old Barolo). Roberto Oliván of Tentenublo began adding whites to most of his red blends after the extremely hot vintage of 2012. A little bit of white may be the key to keep the big Rioja reds fresh and full of acidity as we move deeper into the climate change era.

More than anything else, the new style of Rioja is about independence and the beauty of thinking small, not big. These are, of course, virtues lauded in many parts of the wine world, but they’ve been slow to take root in Rioja.

“Maybe if we keep speaking about this, in 20 years people will finally understand,” says Arturo de Miguel of Artuke. “Maybe we are working for the next generation.”

Some favorites from my tastings in Rioja

Note: In all cases, I tasted current releases. What is available in the US may be lagging behind a vintage or so.

Sierra de Toloño Tinto 2019, $20

Start here, and leave your preconceptions of tempranillo behind. Fresh and light, with berries, purple flowers, and a cool, clay finish.

Artuke Pies Negros 2019, $20

Electric, popping with energy, fun but serious, full of bright blueberry and blackberry and balanced by a dark minerality. 80% tempranillo and 20% graciano.

Tentenublo Tinto 2018, $25

An old-school blend of garnacha, tempranillo, and 10% white varieties, it’s rich, fruity, chalky, with underlying tobacco

Olivier Rivière Rayos Uva, $18

Vibrant blend of garnacha, tempranillo, and graciano, aged less than 8 months in tank, concrete, and a small amount of large neutral barrel.

Pujanza Norte 2017, $45

Great illustration of thrilling high-elevation tempranillo, fresh and full of finesse, with lots of wild berry, mint, along with floral and forest notes.

Gomez Cruzado Cerro Las Cuevas , $75

Cool, complex, fascinating blend of tempranillo, graciano, garnacha, and mazeulo. Floral, dark minerality, fresh plum, a touch of spice. Both classic and modern.

Abel Mendoza Grano a Grano Graciano 2018

100% Graciano is rare, and this one is stunning, a powerful wine that drinks light, fresh and savory, with black cherry, green tobacco, and Loire cab franc vibes.

Jade Gross 2019

New project from the Chinese-American former head chef at San Sebastian’s Mugaritz, under the mentorship of Abel Mendoza. Her 2019 tempranillo shows a lot of promise and we’ll see the 2020s soon in the US.