Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Site vs Elevage

A view down to the barrel rom at Cune's Viña Real winery in Laguardia, Rioja Alavesa

I attended a seminar this morning titled, "Tempranillo: Site vs Elevage." It preceded a De Maison Selections trade tasting, and was conducted by the erudite, always interesting Andre Tamers. You may recall that he was one of the people I had briefly interviewed last year for a piece on the state of Spanish wine. Without getting into too much detail, Andre pointed out that Rioja was traditionally based on the premise of house style, a la Bordeaux, or even more so, Champagne. Just as in Champagne, in Rioja there are some larger companies who both grow their own grapes as well as purchase fruit from all over the D.O. Then, different bodegas have different methods of vinification and aging; traditionally in a slightly oxidative manner involving extended aging in American oak, a few rackings a year, and bottle aging. In Andre's view, this type of blending and aging process creates wines that are overly oxidized and lack individual personality. OK, he did not explicitly say that so as to let attendees make up their own minds, but reading between the lines (as well as tasting through his Rioja portfolio) that is most likely where Andre stands.

Perhaps, according to Andre, the future of Rioja lies not in a bodega's skill at blending fruit from different sites, even different sub-zones separated by many kilometers (as has been the traditional model) but rather in estate bottled, village and vineyard designated wines. As Andre said, "Gevrey doesn't taste like Chambolle. " That is obviously due to differences in soil types, climate, aspect and a whole host of other factors - in short, terroir, or "terruño" in Spanish.

So the point was to show 3 flights of Rioja of various ages (joven, crianza, and reserva) based on which villages the wines were from, and to try to taste the different character of each site. Thing is, though, it was very difficult to do this given, you guessed it, the wine's dramatically different elevage. Was the 2005 Viña Real Crianza's spicy, strawberry fruit characteristic of Tempranillo from Laguardia, or of fruit that is perhaps picked a bit earlier than is fashionable these days? And the sweet, black cherry and fruitcake flavors of the 2006 Luberri "Biga" Crianza were because the wine's fruit hails from Elciego, or due to the French oak, some of it new, and possibly other methods in the winery? Maybe the grapes were picked later and riper? There was at least one surprise as well, at least in terms of fruit sourcing for the 2005 Bodegas Muga Reserva. Andre had picked it to show what a Tempranillo based wine from Haro tastes like, though it turns out that one of his producers disputed the grapes exclusive Haro, Rioja Alta provenance, as he regularly sees the Muga truck in villages in Rioja Alavesa.

As with any academic learning experience, far more questions were generated than answers. Some questions I pondered after the tasting:

Is extended aging in American oak, when well employed with good quality fruit, an intrinsic part of Rioja's terruño? Is that a good thing?
Is it realistic for Rioja, which lacks the tradition of village and vineyard branded wines practiced for centuries in Burgundy, to try to re-brand itself in this way?
Why is Rioja either traditional or modern?
Is anyone experimenting with different sizes of oak for aging and fermenting, larger foudres for example? Or perhaps new barrels without any toast?
Is 100% tempranillo based wine from Rioja the best vehicle to express the region's diverse terruño, and is it the best path to take for the region's many crianza and reserva bottlings?
What constitutes good, reasonable and attentive farming and viticultural practice in Rioja versus elsewhere?

Thank you to Andre Tamers of De Maison Selections, as well as his staff and the folks from Estate Wines for putting this together. In particular to Andre, whose knowledge of Spanish wine country, paired with a real curiosity and sense of humility, made for a terrific seminar which emphasized learning about a region over merely pushing product.