Rioja, the oldest D.O. in Spain, is known for wines that offer reliably creamy, vanilla flavors, usually reflecting their aging more than anything else. But this ancient DOCa is getting a big shake up, with the Consejo Regulador supporting the Viñedo Singular (VS) – or single-vineyard – movement and shining a spotlight on VS Rioja wines that showcase the diversity of the wide landscape and translate the nuances of the individual territories into the glass.
It’s an exciting time to be in Rioja. During my travels there in November to become a Certified Rioja Wine Educator, I noticed new conversations focused on ‘discovery’ within micro plots, a notable change for a region famed for their traditional blends. What changed? It wasn’t that long ago that blends from varying meso-climates were all the rage in Spain and abroad. Across the UK, consumers have consistently reached for reliable blends like Rioja, with single-vineyard “cru” styles reserved primarily for special occasions. Changing a good thing seems counterintuitive to success, so I set out to unearth why, starting with Iñigo Tapiador Larrañaga, global marketing communications director for Rioja Wine.
“Rioja has developed the art of blending for decades and has achieved great levels of mastery and knowledge of its own ingredients,” he says. “I believe both the producers and a good part of the consumer base have reached a level of expertise and confidence where they feel confident to go deeper and to showcase and appreciate those very special ingredients separately [in order to] understand the individual pieces that form the puzzle of Rioja. I believe that this is a great thing for Rioja’s storytelling, as it allows us to explain the diversity and complexity of a region that is nothing but homogeneous.”
To earn the VS denomination within the DOCa, the producer and designated plot must first pass a stringent series of tests. Namely, the vine age must be at least 35 years old and from a project operating for at least 10 years. The grapes must be manually harvested and come exclusively from a plot, or plots, constituted as the VS, and then a two-fold taste test must be passed. The first stage occurs post fermentation and the second prior to market release. During the second stage the wines must score at least 93 points on the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) board sheet to achieve the category – no small feat. The effect of this rigorous testing is to ensure the wines are of such a caliber to showcase minor geographical distinctions.
From a producer’s perspective, VS is more than the age of the parcel or how you grow it. “Something ‘singular’ is something unique,” says Jesús Mendoza, winemaker for Remírez de Ganuza. “In our case [VS] is unique because of the soil, the sun exposure, orientation, things that mother nature gives to special places, and humans have nothing to do with it.”
With this in mind, Iñigo’s comments on the unrealized potential of storytelling for the region resonates, particularly given the rise in global wine tourism and the need to connect consumers with a wine through its shared local history and environmental link.
But can you really taste a difference? In a word, yes.
Garnacha is a wine truly made in the vineyard as it offers unique advantages and challenges for cultivation, largely thanks to its robustly wooded vines and late-ripening nature. This ensures it thrives and adapts depending on its growing conditions. For VS wines, it becomes an even better terroir translator; low yielding, 35+ year-old vines have the propensity to develop strong, deeply penetrating roots that impart a special, distinctly regional minerality to the wine.
For Rioja, Garnacha’s tendency to oxidize also serves it well, as it requires more careful handling than varieties like Tempranillo. As a result, winemakers often prefer neutral aging vessels to preserve the grape’s fruity, terroir-driven characteristics.
Together, these elements combine to reflect a true sense of place in the glass. The best way to experience it is in tasting the wines from the three sub areas of Rioja: Rioja Alta, Rioja Oriental, and Rioja Alavesa, and then those from nearby plots within each area.
Finca Vistahermosa’s 2020 Cuesta de la Estrella offers a great starting point. Situated in the Garnacha hotbed of Rioja Oriental, Vistahermosa is La Rioja’s largest reserve of old vine Garnacha. This particular wine is produced from 46-year-old vines sitting at 670m altitude, on poor, loamy, sandy-clay soils. It’s sunny but cooler here than one might expect thanks to plentiful breezes. The wine is brilliantly vibrant, and filled with an alluring herbal-rosemary headiness, present tannins, and bright, candied red cherry flavors.
Also made from 100% Garnacha, Rulei’s 2018 Viña El Moral tells a multilayered tale of Rioja Alta’s Najarilla Valley. The soils here are clay- and marl-rich that, when combined with Garnacha’s power to transmit terroir, provide intense flavors of black cherry, liquorice, and fresh mint. It is unique and unmistakably Garnacha.
The individuality of the single vineyard designation is even more apparent with Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha’s 2018 Cerro La Isa Garnacha. Comprising 100% Garnacha from a plot in Rioja Alta’s Najarilla Valley that is rich in ferrous content, the flavors are noticeably different from the neighboring Rulei vineyard, with wispy smoke, dried myrtle, and stewed plums. The VS wines of Rioja Alavesa are a study in elegance, thanks to the Atlantic influence here. Bodegas Bhilar’s 2017 Phinca Abejera overflows with balsamic, wild lavender, and morello cherry notes that transport one immediately to the vines.
The focus here is on biodiversity, and the area’s many planted botanicals are apparent in the wines. “We plant native aromatics,” says Melanie Hickman, co-owner of Bodegas Bhilar, pointing to patches of rosemary, chamomile, sage, thyme, and lavender. “It just helps with the soil, and brings biodiversity back.”
These single vineyard Rioja wines effortlessly connect one’s soul to the land and to the individual winemaker’s story. Revisiting the Bodegas Bhilar Garnacha, I’m instantly reminded of the budding chamomile flowers, the local chickens’ gentle clucking, and the quiet whinny of horses lazily roaming. I feel instantly calm.