In Rioja, High-Design Wineries Are Producing Even-More-Tempting Tempranillos

There’s a rebellion underway in Rioja, the Spanish wine region famous for its reasonably priced, aged red wines. Classicists—devoted to the old ways of aging Tempranillo (the dominant red grape) into restrictive categories (Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva)—are being challenged by modernists inspired by French techniques. The upstarts are excavating for the best terroir, using pricey French oak barrels, and aging their wines just long enough to express the grapes’ true personality. Their revolution has parallels among the Italians in Tuscany, who defied their established system, daring to blend French varieties with indigenous Sangiovese to create the Super Tuscans.

I took stock of Rioja’s seismic shifts during a recent whirlwind tour, hitting 15 wine properties in a week. My stops ran the gamut, from small family wineries and high-design temples (Ysios, Baigorri) to centennial icons (R. López Heredia, Riojanas) and behemoth commercial endeavors like Pagos del Rey. During my total immersion into the land of Tempranillo, I even bathed in wine extract at the spa inside the spectacular Frank Gehry-designed Marqués de Riscal winery.

At Viñedos del Ternero, I found an enchanting nature reserve located on the former site of an 11th-century monastery. Ternero is a mix of the old world and the new, with a line of cypress trees—welcoming pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago—and steep vineyard sites planted in the French style with low-yield-per-acre grapes. “The future of Rioja is the French chateau system,” explains Jonatan Perez, Ternero’s manager. “It’s about terroir. If I want to sell premium wines, I want low yields, not mass-produced industrial-quantity grapes.”

Another modernist at Viñedos Gómez Cruzado, winemaker Juan Antonio Leza, vinifies each vineyard plot separately using concrete egg-shaped fermenters. “Rioja needs to be recognized for its top-level fine wines and its terroir,” he says. In a nearby village that existed since Roman times, at Vinícola Riojana de Alcanadre, a 100-member cooperative in Rioja Baja, winemaker Cristina Alesanco is making outstanding Viura-grape whites and Garnacha rosés. “The new style is to pick fruit at maximum ripeness,” she says, “bringing on fresh fruit-forward flavors. The old style is unripe and acidic.”

Pioneering work is underway at Campo Viejo, a stunning gravity-fed winery extending many stories underground, with a laboratory of mini-tanks where varietal experimentation is in full swing. At the garagiste Tierra Agrícola Labastida, I toured medieval tunnels and found more of those extraterrestrial-looking egg fermenters. And at Bodegas Baigorri, a modern box designed by a Basque architect extending seven stories below ground, I heard about studies they’re conducting to find healthy compounds in their wines. Clearly, Rioja, with its high-design wineries and contemporary techniques, has reinvented itself.



If these exact wines are not available, look for single-varieties and blends from these Rioja wineries.

Dinastia Vivanco Blanco A blend of Viura, Malvasia, and, uniquely, Tempranillo Blanco (only about 250 acres grown in Rioja), the wine has lovely tropical aromas and green apple freshness. $14,

Vinicola Riojana Alcanadre 'Aradon' Rosado This rose is made from 100% Garnacha, fruity with good acidity and beautiful aromas of strawberries. $15,

Bodegas Muriel Marques de Elciego 2010 A single vineyard Tempranillo from 43-yr-old vines, aged in French old. Beautiful minerality, earthiness, cassis notes, and big tannins like a Super-Tempranillo. $45,

Campo Viejo Dominio 2007 A blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha and Mazuelo, aged in French oak from the Tronçais and Bertranges forests, the wine has concentrated cherry, cranberry and plum flavors with hints of minerals and toast. $28,

Vina Salceda “Conde de la Salceda” Reserva 2009 A modern style Tempranillo made in small batches from old vines from a high altitude winery in Rioja Alavesa.  Balsamic and tobacco notes on its long finish. $40,