Rioja Wines: Exploring the diversity of the Rioja region

Thursday, April 25, 2024. 12:00pm
Rioja Wines: Exploring the diversity of the Rioja region
Group tasting white wine at Izadi Wineries, Villabuena, Rioja Alavesa

Rioja Wine is inviting Ireland’s sommeliers and on-trade buyers to apply for a place on the very first Rioja Somm’er School – a three-day educational trip to the region.  In the lead-up, Liam Campbell is taking us on a journey around Rioja, exploring its 100km of Diversity.  To secure a place on the trip and experience Rioja in person, please sign up here.

This April edition continues the story of Rioja with a focus on diversity and the complementary synergy between Rioja’s wines and gastronomy, with endorsements from wineries and globally awarded sommeliers.

I caught up recently with Ferran Centelles, Wine Director at the elBulli Foundation and former Sommelier at elBulli, once acclaimed as the greatest restaurant in the world. Ferran is one of the most personable and approachable professionals in the wine world and I had the pleasure of being a judge at the same competitions with Ferran at Concours Mondial de Bruxelles and the International Taste Institute in Brussels for several years.

I asked Ferran to name a couple of the most exciting developments currently in Rioja’s wines.

“Liam, the Garnacha revolution is one of the new exciting things in Rioja right now, a much more ready to drink wine with great rounded fruit at the mid-palate. Najerilla in the Rioja Alta and Monte Yerga are special locations for it in the Rioja Oriental.

Great work is also done for the single vineyards, Viñedos Singulares, a category enhancing the terroir-driven wines that is starting to be popular in high-end restaurants.”

Rioja Wines: Exploring the diversity of the Rioja region
Poke and White Wine

I was reminded of an enlightening and engaging masterclass on Rioja given by Tim Atkin MW in Dublin in November 2022. Tim explained that the modern focus by winemakers is on single vineyards rather than periods of time aging in barrel and bottle before release.  Also, since the nineties, greater use of French oak is employed than the traditional American oak with its more overt spicy character. Tim qualified that for single vineyard recognition: the vines must be at least 35 years old, yield of the fruit must be 20% lower and hand-harvested, if the vineyard is rented it must be contracted by the same Bodega for at least ten years, and the wines produced must achieve over 93% of points annually by a tasting panel.

Marqués de Murrieta is one of the most prestigious Bodegas in Rioja, named after Luciano de Murrieta, one of the founding fathers of modern Rioja winemaking, who established the estate in 1852. Today, Vincente Dalmau Cebrian-Sagarriga, Count of Creixell, leads the family-owned company. With a vision of innovation and respect for tradition, Marqués de Murrieta is rooted in strong, historical fundamentals that shape the vision and philosophy of this iconic Spanish brand. The winery is near the southern tip of the Rioja Alta in the middle of the Ygay Estate, a unique 300-hectare vineyard that guarantees complete control over the grape source and is the key to the quality and style of Marqués de Murrieta wines.

Thanks to Marqués de Murrieta, I first experienced how magnificent a Rioja wine can age thirty years ago.  It was in London at the Dorchester Hotel at a winemakers’ dinner hosted by Decanter magazine and The Sunday Times in October 1994, with Hugh Johnson as the Master of Ceremonies.  I was studying in London for the Master of Wine at the time.  After thirty years ageing, the just-released Marqués de Murrieta’s 1964 Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial was presented by Vincente Dalmau Cebrian-Sagarriga.  As one of the few Irish at the dinner for 100, it was a proud moment to have this iconic wine from a vintage of the century, paired with a selection of Irish farmhouse cheeses.  I asked the waiter at the time if I could have an empty bottle.  I explained I collected labels of wines that greatly impressed me.  The Portuguese waiter, Luis returned after ten minutes and handed me a small white envelope.  It contained the wine label, iron-pressed.  I still have the label as a souvenir of a wonderful memory of an iconic wine and exceptional restaurant service.

Recently, I asked Vicente Dalmau Cebrián-Sagarriga, Marqués de Murrieta, for his views on the synergy between tradition and innovation in the Rioja region and what that dynamic delivers in the wines?

“The vision of Marqués de Murrieta oscillates between the concepts of modernity and tradition. Indeed, as the first winery in Rioja, we have an obligation to look respectfully at both the legacy and history.  At the same time, my continuous pursuit of the highest quality and constant analysis of all aspects of the business activity lead inexorably to explore all the most modern techniques in a theoretically endless process.

Rioja Wines: Exploring the diversity of the Rioja region
Peking Duck and Red Wine

This synthesis of seemingly opposite drivers brings, in the constant process of self-improvement, great harmony and elegance to our wines, which represent a fresh and contemporary interpretation of a classic style of Rioja.

This annexation to balance is also expressed in other elements: in the gastronomy offered at the Castillo de Ygay, through an haute cuisine menu that blends avant-garde techniques and great research of ingredients in dishes and flavours that pay tribute to tradition.

Or, in our architecture, thanks to the use of materials such as the original stone used by Luciano de Murrieta since 1852 and the steel or iron used in the museum and winery we have recently opened.”

Rioja Region Changes

Internationally awarded and Ireland’s representative at World Sommelier competitions, Julie Dupuoy, SommNinja, gave me her expert views on why Rioja’s wines work so well across a range of different cuisines from European to Asia and South America.

“Over the past 20 years, Rioja has seen a huge amount of change and has evolved to suit a broader range of palates and cuisines. From the youthful, bright, fruit-forward unoaked reds to the savoury, multi-dimensional, oak-influenced Gran Reserva style, and everything in between, the region has never been more exciting from a wine lover’s point of view.

For years, Rioja has been defined by a style, highly dependent on its maturation process and length of time in American oak barrels.  But today, with the Viñedo Singular recognition, the concept of terroir has allowed diversity to blossom in the region.

Rioja Wines: Exploring the diversity of the Rioja region
Butter Chicken and Red Wine

It would be unfair to focus only on the reds though; Rioja is also the source of fantastic whites, rosés (rosados) and even sparkling wines.  Tradition-driven winemakers, always in quest of refinement, are offering the world beautiful timeless gems, while contemporary pioneers are redefining tradition and expressing their love of the region through new lenses. Thanks to this broad style offering, Rioja wines are suited to various dining settings, from casual tapas, cheese and charcuterie platters, canapés and light lunches, to formal fine dining, hearty meals and special occasions. Their kaleidoscope of tastes and flavours are able to complement many of the world’s cuisines.”

Keen to get a Riojan restauranteur’s perspective, I contacted Ricardo Arambarri Perez.  I had met Ricardo at a seminar in Dublin on 3rd March on “Food and Wine: Authenticity and Origin”.  The event on “Give Wine a Future” and sustainability was hosted by Findlaters & Co. and Ricardo was a guest speaker.  Ricardo is the owner of Vintae’s Hacienda Lopez de Haro and is also the creator and co-founder of two restaurants in Logroño, including the new Wine Fandango Logroño, “where wine and gastronomy mix with fun”.

“Authenticity is a way of travelling, and it is related to storytelling.  A classic is an innovation that has settled.  Who is the wine consumer today?  The youth are more interested in knowledge, and now is a very interesting time in Rioja because it is terroir-driven in focus.

From my point of view, every wine region has a style of wine that matches with their local food and lifestyle, and Rioja is a great example of that.  Historically a welcoming region for travellers, due to its geographical situation, Rioja wines match well not only with our diverse gastronomy, but also with our way of enjoying life – long conversations and “sobremesas” where fine and enjoyable wines like ours are a fundamental part.

In our restaurant, field blend and rich white wines like Hacienda Lopez de Haro Blanco match wonderfully with the richness and diversity of our vegetables, plates such as “menestra de verduras” or “cardo con bechamel”. Others like “caparrones” or “alubias” will match wonderfully with a medium bodied, rich and gentle red wine like Hacienda Lopez de Haro Crianza. And others like “chuletillas al sarmiento” make a wonderful pairing with fuller bodied and richer wines like Hacienda Lopez de Haro Reserva or Pacto.  But my favourite will always be the ones accompanying long conversations where complex, full body, rich, long and immortal wines like our Classica from Lopez de Haro range of Gran Reservas, are ideal.

Rioja Wines: Exploring the diversity of the Rioja region

Rioja thanks to its diversity has always considered “la tierra de los mil y un vinos”, the land of a thousand-and-one wines, and I truly believe it.  This is why our wines have been Spanish favourites since Roman times until today.”

Rioja Wine Tasting

Last September, I tasted many amazing wines, both white and red at the Rioja “100km of Diversity tasting event in Dublin.  Two artisan wineries especially impressed and for very different reasons.

I discussed the wines I tasted with Mikel Martínez, Commercial Director of Bodegas Hermanos Peciña.  I was shocked but in the best posible way, so much so that I had to double-check the vintage on each bottle.  The reds showed remarkable youth and freshness considering I was tasting vintages from 2005 and 2011.  The Senorio de P. Peciña Crianza 2005, 13% ABV, had an intense peppery palate, well-balanced with black fruits.  The Reserva 2014, 14% ABV, with three years in old oak barrels had lip-smacking liquorice infused fruit and was very mellow.  While the Gran Reserva 2011, 14.5% ABV, with four years in oak, was exceptionally fresh, youthful and elegant.  The highlight was the Choebo de Peciña 2005, 13.5% ABV, with a gorgeous fruity bouquet and a delicious palate of fresh blackberries, infused with a peppery spice. This wine had been racked off its lees every three months by hand and used gravity only to decant the wine.

Rioja Wines: Exploring the diversity of the Rioja region

Mikel explained that this was the key to all the red wines’ freshness and youth-defying age.  The tradition of trasiego, racking the wine by hand off its lees that had settled in the barrels, and using gravity only, has been replaced by mechanisation in most wineries today.  The manual labour of trasiego is much slower and more costly, but gentler on the wines and is performed every six months on many of the wines during their years aging in pre-used barrels.

At the same Dublin event, I spoke with Oscar Rivas, Export Manager for Bodegas Cornelio Dinastia and asked what diversity means to the winery?

“For us, diversity is the existence of varied climates, terroirs, grape varieties, ecosystems and, above all, the freedom to interpret all of these things within a specific geographical framework.”

Highlights of the tasting were two contrasting whites showcasing both the traditional and the modern styles of Rioja Blanco.

A Vega Vella Blanco 2022, 13% ABV, fermented in vitrified concrete tanks and from an equal blend of Garnacha Blanca and Sauvignon Blanc grapes.  The wine expressed an excellent balance of acidity, body and tangy fresh fruit, with a subtle perfume from the typically aromatic Sauvignon Blanc.

This was in contrast to a rich and full-bodied Cornelio Dinastia Fermentado en Barrica 2021, 14% ABV.  Selected from a single plot of over 63 year-old Viura vines, showing concentration and elegance, with the oak’s vanilla and white pepper spice beautifully integrated.

For an Irish perspective in-restaurant experience, I asked Morgan VanderKamer about how best to enhance the customers’ experiences and the role Rioja wines plays.  Morgan is both President of the Irish Guild of Sommeliers and restaurant owner of Union Wine Bar, Waterford.

“We should support our front-line staff to communicate with guests by weekly training.  This helps keep staff and guests excited to learn and Will deliver a better customer experience.

The winelist is a very useful tool to encourage guests to experiment.  The winelist should reflect the menu and it shouldn’t be dumbed-down.  Offer guests an alternative if you don’t have a wine they ask for.  I don’t have a Pinot Grigio but I do have a crisp and dry Rioja Blanco, with Viura.

Wines from Rioja have firmly established themselves as a classic, while being approachable for novice palates. The overall structure of the wines makes them suitable with a broad range of food and on their own. The wines of Rioja are reasonably priced making them accessible, even with age. The quality is constantly improving and reinvigorating itself, making it exciting for drinkers and professionals alike.”

Rioja Wines: Exploring the diversity of the Rioja region
Marinade Chicken with Pak Choi

To learn more about Rioja and its wines, visit the Rioja Wine Academy, a fantastic online platform offering free educational courses for trade and consumers alike.  There are six courses available on the platform from introductory courses right through to the Rioja Wine Diploma, which covers everything from grape varietals to styles of wine, regulations on viticulture to gastronomy and history.  To register for a course, head to

To experience the region in person in June, Rioja Wine invites Ireland’s sommeliers and on-trade buyers to apply for a place at the exclusive Rioja Somm’er School.

Taking place between 24th and 27th June, the Rioja Somm’er School will be a three-day trip to the region complete with winery visits and educational tastings.  Three sommeliers will have the opportunity to visit leading wineries across the region’s three zones, meet with pioneering producers and discover both traditional and newer styles of wine being produced in the region.  To apply, please follow the link here.

For more information about the regions, wines and winemakers mentioned in this article, as well as more information on visiting Rioja, please contact the Rioja Wine team on [email protected].

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