Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Rioja's modern winemaking





 Photo: Rioja winemaker Chema Ryan

Spanish winemaker Chema Ryan, the technical director for Muriel Wines in Rioja, will make his 21st vintage this fall.

Despite his surname, he is thoroughly Spanish. His great-grandfather came from Ireland, married a Spanish woman and stayed. Chema represents the fourth generation of Spanish Ryans.

“Since I was a teenager, I always wanted to be a winemaker, or I wanted to do something related to wine,” Ryan says. “I studied chemistry; then I did a PhD in wine; and then I studied enology.” And there was a job for him at the winery, which had been founded in the 1920s by a maternal grandfather. Like many Rioja wineries, it still is family owned and operated.

Ryan’s career may well have paralleled one of the most dynamic times for Rioja, arguably the most famous “brand” in Spanish wine, both around the world and in Spain itself. Rioja table wines are sprinkled on restaurant wine lists throughout Spain.

It reflects the volume of production as well as the historic reputation. With 65,000 hectares of vineyards, Rioja is the second largest appellation in Spain. Indeed, it is sad to be the second largest appellation in the world, after La Mancha (also in Spain).

“If we look back 40 years ago, I can assure you there were 10 times fewer wineries than now,” Ryan says. “The vineyard surface was half of what is now planted. The concept of viticulture was different. The local viticulture was a complement to income. It was not their profession.”

The winemaking style also was different. When I first visited Rioja about 25 years ago, I tasted both red and white wines that – for a New World palate – had been aged too long in barrel. It has long been a Rioja tradition not to release wines until they are ready to drink. Given the tannin-heavy traditional winemaking, it took the wines considerable time to smooth out in the bottle.
Today’s Rioja wines still get the time they need in barrel but the aging appears less excessive than it once was. The Rioja wines on display at the recent Vancouver International Wine Festival invariably showed more fruit than barrel flavours, making for altogether more satisfying drinking.

One of the Muriel group’s top wines is Conde de los Andes. The red, which would sell for $70 is listed here, is from the 2001 vintage, a very great year in Rioja. The wine, made from Tempranillo, still displays fresh flavours. Its only concession to age is its velvet texture. This is also a good example of contemporary winemaking in Rioja.

“Rioja today has tried to adapt to the different demands the market asks of us,” Ryan says. “Today, the wine culture and knowledge of the consumer is greater. People are beginning to ask what is the grape; has the wine been aged; where is it from. The customer has begun to be a judge.”

Forty years ago, he suggests, Rioja winemaking was not nearly the professional business it has become.

“Wine was produced as it was,” Ryan says. “We had the vineyards, we had the terroirs, but we were not conscious of them. Then it came to the 1970s and the 1980s, and Rioja started to be strong in the markets. That is when Rioja started to go out to the international markets and be known. The concept of Rioja in those times was just Rioja. Nowadays, we have reached the point where we are talking about 65,000 hectares, a production of 400 million bottles, of which 120 million go abroad.”

There are major moves in Spanish winemaking to give more recognition to individual terroirs and sub-appellations. There are producers in Rioja now carving out their individuality, differentiating their wines from the vast ocean of Rioja.

Current classifications of Rioja wines are based on traditional aging. If the label reads just Rioja, the wine will have aged less than a year in oak. Crianza on a Rioja label means the wine has been aged two years (one in barrel). Reserva means the wine has been aged three years (including one at least in barrel). Gran Reserva means the wine will have been aged at least two years in barrel and three in bottle before release.

“Nowadays, the aging times have been lowered,” Ryan says. “There will still be a few wineries that age their wines for a long time. In our case, it depends on the style of the wine we want to produce. We have wines we age up to three years in barrel and we have wines we just age six months to a year.”

Rioja producers now are going beyond the historic classifications. “The changes we are having now is that we are going to be able to differentiate the different qualities in Rioja,” Ryan says. “The top classification will be the single vineyard Rioja. It is a demand we made and 2017 will be the first vintage when we will start applying this concept, to differentiate Rioja.”

The more flavoursome Rioja wines in the market reflect significant improvements in viticulture (in Spain as in the rest of the wine world).

“From a viticulture that what the vineyard gave was welcome, we have moved on to productive viticulture and we are looking at the vineyards and saying, be careful,” Ryan says. “It is a question of how we produce. Now we see, not just in Rioja but all over the world, what we take care off is the vineyard. At the end, wine is made with grapes.  Many years ago, I heard people say, don’t worry, just bring the grapes and I will make the wine. No, the wine is made in the vineyard.”

He believes that the Tempranillo grape variety, the base of most Rioja reds, is also an advantage. “Tempranillo is a consumer-friendly grape,” he says.

The Spanish take pride in the belief that Tempranillo is a Spanish variety rather than a French one. The ampelography is extremely complex but it basically supports that belief.

However, Jancis Robinson and her colleagues, in Wine Grapes, could not resist telling the romantic story.

“Legend has it that Tempranillo was brought to Spain from Burgundy by Cistercian monks from the Abbaye de Citeaux and could be related to Pinot, suggesting a link via the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela that crosses Rioja …” the authors write. “However, this hypothesis can be rejected by DNA analysis.”
“A good Tempranillo has to be friendly from when it is born,” Ryan says. “It is a wine that, even in fermentation, before malolactic, you already have that nice drinking sensation. And throughout its evolution, the wine rounds up even more.”

Conde de los Andes and the other Muriel wines are available in private wine stores. Only one is currently listed in BC Liquor Distribution Branch: Muriel Vendimia Seleccionada 2012 Rioja Reserva at about $25 a bottle.

Meanwhile, the BCLDB lists 33 Rioja wines out of a total of 164 Spanish wines and beers. The includes one well-aged Rioja from historic Bodegas Faustino (established in 1861). Faustino Rioja Gran Reserva 1964, at $210.99 a bottle.












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