Old-style Rioja

14th June 2018

Tags: Rioja, Production method.

I’m in Rioja Alavesa for a short tour before the Institute of Masters of Wine Symposium in Logroño.  All of my experience with Rioja has been with the traditional oxidative style, aged in American oak, or the new-wave versions trying to focus more on varietal fruit and shorter ageing, often in French oak (and increasingly, over the last few years, coming from single vineyard sites.).

However, this trip has introduced me to a new type of Rioja, more traditional even than the American oak version.  This is wine made by carbonic maceration.  You are unlikely to find these wines on the market in London or Sydney or New York; traditionally they were made for local consumption, often by the producers themselves – and primarily by growers and not the negociants who dominated the export market (although they too may at times have used a bit of carbonic maceration in their wines to add some easy-drinking fruitiness).  When I ask how old this way of making wine is, I’m told it dates to after the wars – but I’m not sure if that is the 12th or 16th centuries, or the Civil War.  There is even a local myth about how God first made wine this way.

The wine is made using whole bunches in the vats and pressed down after about 10 days. The vats are a standard local size – about 3.5 metres deep.  I’m told it is full carbonic maceration, but I suspect it was often semi-carbonic.  Importantly – as was traditionally the case in much old-style production, different varieties are co-fermented, including white grapes on occasion.  We tasted one – a 2017 Luberri .

So what was this about?  The money in Rioja was always made by the negociants; they had the money to buy the oak needed to age the wine and thus turn it into an aesthetic object, to be consumed for its refinement and quality.  Carbonic maceration was the growers’ way of defining their identity in what they drank; a more simple (so apparently more honest) style of wine.  And, of course, avoided the need to spend money they didn’t have on oak.

The style is dying out of course; it doesn’t fit with the contemporary view of what Rioja should be.  We visit Dominio de Berzal who explain that they were historically a producer of traditional carbonic maceration wines for local use, but under the influence of the current generation of three brothers are moving towards newer styles of wine.