Rioja: Breaking boundaries

The winemakers of Rioja are doing exceptional things in their attempts at diversification. Hamish Smith reports

"At the end of this project I will probably become a carpenter,” says winemaker Oscar Tobia, sitting before a line of white wines aged under four types of wood – acacia, chestnut, ash and American oak. The experiment has been an involved one, taking two years to get to sample stage. At his Cuzcurrita de Río Tirón winery, Tobia has worked with a cooper to produce 120 barrels using the experimental woods for wine which will be used to create a new blend, Tobia Blanco. Cherry wood had also been part of the plan but in the end this was a step too far into the exotic, even for Tobia.

That this is the work of a rioja winemaker is no longer a surprise. The region may have a tradition for oak-aged, older red wines – still 65% of red output, according to the Consejo Regulador DOCa Rioja – but diversification and innovation are well established terms in the winemaker’s repertoire. A homogonous identity is perhaps the goal of an emerging region with a reputation to form, but rioja is established and can afford to branch out.

Tobia calls his approach ‘I&D’ – investigation and development. “I like to do things that are a bit different to stand out,” he says. He was the first to produce a barrel-fermented rosé wine and later convinced the DOCa to change its rules to accept it.

For his fruit-forward but barrel-aged reds he uses an Intelligent Tank, which allows gentle but deep extraction in an anaerobic environment. “Oxygen ages the skin and it’s the same with wine. To make young wine you need maximum fruit.” Tobia can’t understand why more producers don’t use the technology in the region but concedes the downfall of his wines is that “they are not for everybody”.

This is much less of a problem than it used to be. Rioja now has scope beyond the traditional and Tobia has found interest for his wines in the Caribbean, Mexico, the UK (through Barwell & Jones), Belgium and Germany – exports make up 80% of his sales.

At the consejo the strategy has diversified in line with production and is far more sophisticated than just promotion of a region. “Rioja has done a great job diversifying from traditional to modern wine,” says Ricardo Aguiriano, marketing director at the consejo. “Rioja can offer on all categories – young wine, modern wines with a hint of oak, reserva and gran reservas, single estate and single varietal. We now have to promote not only the big players but the smaller players too. Our key messages are that rioja wines are value for money, ready to drink and are food friendly.”

Innovation is not only the pursuit of the small. Campo Viejo’s huge operation hides its own laboratory of invention. The Experimental Winery has just released its first tests under the banner Cata Cero – four white wines, two of which are the winery’s first foray into Tempranillo Blanco.