In the current issue of The Wine Spectator, big cheese Tom Matthews reports on Spain and praises a new genre of wine for Rioja called, “vinos de alta expresion,” Rioja’s answer to the super-Tuscan.
He writes, “Most are matured in new French oak and few are aged in bottle before release. In other words they abandon many of Rioja’s traditional approaches. This has caused a backlash among some critics, who accuse the wines of being too international in style…. I strongly disagree. … . In my opinion, the traditional approach obscured the true character of terroir.”
I remember when Matthews was a strong and passionate believer in terroir.
When people like Matthews parrot the old saw, “Terroir is just an excuse for bad winemaking,” wine-life gets dangerous. Matthews slams traditional methods without having a clue what makes a traditional wine. And yet he is taken seriously by the Spectator’s adoring public …the poor shlumps.
To set the record straight, techniques used to make these alta expresion wines are also used in the modern crianzas and reservas of Rioja and insure that all aspects of terroir or Riojan identity will be obscured from the wine. To be sure, yeasts, enzymes, micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis and of course new barrels and new barrel fermentation have taken over this region. For example, when I tasted the Gloria from a new and heralded winery, Ostatu I wrote, “ Why come all of the way here to smell a wine that is like a new-fangled Bordeaux?” I had the same reaction to the wines at Campillo and their much-heralded 1995 Reserva. My note read, “Smells like oak water- infused merlot.” Ah, it was the same mostly everywhere.
It’s enough to make one sit shiva.
Matthews article was timely as I was just back from Rioja for a few days when I read it. The region seems more concerned about their new architectural wineries and the new enotourist than with making wine that expresses their gorgeous region. So, along with the new concentrated wines are concentrators and micro-bubblers, yeasts and enzymes and the very pervasive malolactic fermentation in new barrique.
I was lucky enough to drink some good stuff, such as the 1995 Miguel Merino, great wines like the 1973 and 1981 Beronia (their new wines, however are caustic), and sublimes ones such as 1981 Bosconia from Lopez de Heredia Vina Todonia (amazingly beautiful stuff. “ Dried yet juicy Queen Anne cherry. Bloody. Elegant. Cinnamon. Grip. Slate.) And the wine that I had at the lounge at the airport? The basic, non-vintage Cune Vina Real, dirt cheap and in screwcap? Delicious.
The only truly traditional house at this point is Lopez de Heredia Vina Todonia.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sound of the wine—probably the only left in Rioja that was still fermenting (a month after harvest). The sound of the slish and slosh in huge, old wooden fermentation tanks was like the flapping of angel's wings. This house leaves their wine to age up, bottles getting swaddled in mold
only to develop and emerge Sleeping Beauty-like, and exuberantly so. This house makes wine that will forever haunt palates, but one of Matthew’s favorites from Bodegas Lan (where they are very proud of being so mechanized you don’t see anyone in the winery) which he describes as blackberry jam on brioche? That’s as memorable as Smuckers on an English muffin at the local greasy spoon.