The Oak Debate: Rioja’s great divide

by Christina on November 20, 2012

This piece first appeared as a post on Harpers Wine and Spirit website:

wine with christina

View of La Rioja from the Sierra de Cantabria mountains

“My favourite wine is Rioja.”. It’s a line I hear a lot. Despite the UK’s frequent absence on Rioja’s top five list of most important export markets, the British have had a long standing love affair with wines from this notoriously wealthy Spanish region.

But whenever I hear the praises of Rioja sung, I always wonder which Rioja they mean. The past 25 years have divided Rioja into two camps; those making ‘modern’, ‘drink now’ wines laden in new French oak and ripe jammy fruit, and those sticking to their traditional guns by distinguishing their Crianzas from their Reservas and Gran Reservas based on the lengthy periods of time the wine spends in used American oak barrels. (Actually, there is also a third camp: those who have taken the middle road and are making a mix of both.)

There are many techniques in making a Riojan wine ‘modern’, starting with the hiring of a flashy consultant from Bordeaux, to picking riper grapes and giving them very long periods of skin contact, to micro-oxygenation, full-blown malolactic fermentation, a short ageing period, etc etc. But the real distinction between modern and traditional Rioja boils down to oak.

wine with christina

French oak barrels being made at the Radoux cooperage

The Riojans are slightly obsessed with oak. In fact their passionate (if conflicting) war cries over the use of it in its many forms seems to be the only thing they all have in common.

While traditionalists believe American oak is and always has been the most suited for Tempranillo, those in the ‘modern’ camp would argue that oak was initially introduced to Rioja in the early 19th century by the Bordelais who used their home grown variety.

As French oak became too expensive, the cheaper American variety was substituted. Since the mid-1800s, the use of American oak has dominated and helped define the classic Rioja we know today. In a top ageing Reserva or Gran Reserva, the distinctive vanilla and sweet spices of the oak become a subtle backdrop to Tempranillo’s dusty raspberry potpourri qualities.

“It used to be a defect if the wine smelled or tasted too much like the barrel,” Mercedes López de Heredia, winemaker of the famously traditional Viña Tondonia, told me deep in her family’s labyrinth cellars. “Nowadays wood is sometimes used to cover other defects. If it smells like wood, you can’t detect other components. The wine gains intensity but not purity. My Grandfather used to say, ‘wood in a wine must be like perfume on a woman-it must enhance, not mask the natural beauty’.”

wine with christins

The entrance to López de Heredia's iconic cellars

Jesús Madrazo, chief winemaker at Contino winery, and fifth generation family member of the founders of the Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España (CVNE), agrees. “The secret to a classic Rioja is older oak and lots of time. [With new oak], instead of drinking wine, you are eating tables. When you are eating wood, you are eating wood. The fruit will disappear over time. New oak is popular right now. But before me were 40 years of winemaking using old oak at Contino. Why would I change something that works?”

Introduce new French oak to Tempranillo and those delicate red fruit characters suddenly seem a lot darker and denser. The powerful coffee and tobacco qualities of the oak dominate, and the distinction between a Riojan wine and, say, a Chilean or Californian wine blurs. Indeed, it was the success of New World wines coupled with the decline in popularity of Gran Reservas in the late 1980s and 90s that made many Riojan winemakers change their tune.

“A few winemakers started making modern wines in Rioja. They got very good ratings from the press and because of that, most of the bodegas changed their style and began to make more modern wines,” says Mikel Martinez, export manager at Bodegas Hermanos Peciña, a 20 year old winery making organically grown traditional style Rioja. “The modern wines became so popular that all the bodegas felt they needed to make these style of wines if they wanted to stay in the market.”

wine with christina

In the 1980s, one of the first to usher in this ‘new era’ of modern winemaking (although Bodegas Palacio also lay stake to the claim thanks to the help of French consultant Michel Rolland) was Marqués de Riscal, who age their Baron de Chirel wines (a blend of Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon) in new French oak barrels. “We showed the world that you could make a style of wine that’s very different from Rioja,” said Riscal’s head winemaker Pedro Aznar.

“We thought [French oak] made better quality wines. It has been shown that Tempranillo marries well with French oak and creates a different character. These wines have their own style and place in the market.”

Over the years, Aznar has gradually increased the French oak for the Baron de Chirel. “We had to move in stages. In 2004 we used only 33% French oak. In 2005 that increased to 60%, and in 2006 to 100% French oak.”

The use of French oak in Rioja is now common practice. I met with Ramón Cendoya, general manager of the Radoux Group, the large French owned tonoleria (aka cooperage) at their factory in Rioja. Cendoya told me there’s been a significant increase in the use of French oak over the last 10 years.

“People are wanting more precise things for their barrels. They’re going away from vanilla flavours and towards the more expensive but more complex fruit-preserving French oak.”

wine with christina

a barrel being toasted

Indeed, French oak, which is tighter grained and older than American oak (cut at about 150-180 years as opposed to 75-80 years) can run a winemaker up to 750 euros per barrel for the most premium ones. In addition to the kind of wood used, the level of toasting has a huge influence on the flavours the barrels will give to the wine. “The toast is like the secret ingredient in Coca Cola”‘ said Cendoya. “The way in which it’s toasted plus the level of toast…we have a whole team working on temperatures and times of toasting.”

It seems ordering barrels is like choosing your own mixed bag of sweets. You want coffee flavours in your wine? The barrel will need to be toasted with a slow increase of temperature and then a sharp rise at the end. Vanilla? That’s a standard level of toasting. How about chocolate? Like coffee, but with even higher temperatures.

While the art of barrel making is seriously impressive, this formulaic method of influencing a wine is a far cry from the commonly held belief that wine is simply fermented grapes. Of all the myriad tools and gadgets at the winemaker’s disposal, oak seems to have the most influence on the final outcome of the wine. If producers around the world can order chocolate flavours into their wine like they can their hamburger at the drive through, the individuality of the wine is lost, along with much of what makes it interesting and enjoyable in the first place.

Rioja has spent over 150 years carving out its unique place in the wine world, with wines that reveal their haunting unmistakable beauty only through years of ageing. So does this new style of Riojan wine, on the scene only for a few decades and hardly recognizable as the style that made the region famous, make those in the industry worried about Rioja’s future?

wine with christina

wine ageing for a long time in old American oak barrels in Heredia's cellars

“There has been a revolution of modern winemaking in Rioja. But wine is not immune from fashion and trend,” says Aznar. “There is a trend in Rioja influenced by a certain American critic at the moment. I have friends who are greatly influenced by him, but I still like their wines.”

Indeed, many Riojan winemakers proudly declare the points their wine received in certain publications and openly admit they make their wine for the American market. But guessing the palate of a critic or an entire nation of people is limiting and risky and shifts the focus onto the ever-fickle consumer rather than trusting the grapes, land, and traditions that have seen Riojans through so many years.

wine with christina

Beronia's cellars, where the music of chanting Gregarian monks plays to the ageing wine

“I believe that it is totally necessary to maintain the traditional wines of Rioja, because they are our history, present and future, and because they are unique to our region,” says Peciña’s Martinez.

He, along with many others, believes things are changing. “Hopefully for Rioja, consumers are now becoming fed up with ‘bomb dark wines’ and are looking for more elegance.”

“Rioja has been a sleeping lion,” says Madrazo, referring to the shape of the region’s protective Sierra de Cantabria mountain range. “Now, the lion has woken. It’s saying, hello! I’m awake!”

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: