John Radford: “Tempranillo is Rioja and Rioja is tempranillo”

John Radford

 In my opinion, there are two people in the English-speaking wine trade whose knowledge of Spain and Spanish wine is beyond comparison – the Englishman John Radford and the American Gerry Dawes.  It has been my privilege to have known both for many years and whenever they visit Rioja we try to get together.

John is a passionate member of the UK wine writers’ guild but I’m sure that if he he had decided to pursue an acting career he would have been successful, especially on the Shakespearian stage.  He reminds me of Hans Holbein’s portrait of King Henry VIII, an image reinforced by a rich English baritone voice that has captivated thousands of listeners on his radio program on the BBC and an equal number of studentswho want to learn about wine, especially from Spain. 

Recently, John was here tasting wines, this time mostly from Rioja Alavesa, so we decided to get together for a meal. Of course, the conversation revolved around wine.

I’ve always felt that Rioja has stepped out on a limb by pulling up thousands of hectares of garnacha to plant tempranillo since the early 1980s, with the result being the absolute predominance of  the latter grape. My feeling is that garnacha, graciano and mazuelo add complexity to red Rioja.  So I asked John, “Is Rioja better or worse for being 100% tempranillo?”

John’s reply: “It’s good.  Tempranillo is Rioja and Rioja is tempranillo.  It’s kind of like Bordeaux and cabernet sauvignon.  Cabernet sauvignon from anywhere else is just trying to be Bordeaux.  I’ve tasted tempranillo from Australia and it was good but it didn’t do anything for me.”

“Nowhere does tempranillo show its versatility more than in Rioja.  I’ve been tasting some fresh, delicious carbonic maceration tempranillos that are perfect for summer drinking.  At the other end of the scale you have magnificent gran reservas with majestic structure, and aromas reminiscent of oak and cigar box.  Perhaps you need graciano or mazuelo for long ageing but young tempranillo is wonderful.”

John feels that in Rioja Alavesa, 100% tempranillo is fantastic.  In Rioja Alta he thinks you probably need some graciano for ageing and in Rioja Baja he’s been impressed by wines made with 50% tempranillo and 50% garnacha.  “Tempranillo is the best grape to plant in high altitude vineyards – around 600 meters–  but at lower altitude –300 meters– some garnacha is needed.”

“The top Riojas are among the best in the world.”

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