Discovering the Riojas and Cavas from Mount Yerga in Rioja Baja

 

After several months’ absence, I was finally able to attend the Rioja tasting organized by our local newspaper LA RIOJA.  The November tasting featured Amador Escudero and the wines of Bodegas Escudero and Bodegas Valsacro.

It was a great review of wines and the potential of cavas from Rioja Baja.

The Escudero family has 128 hectares of vineyards in Rioja Baja, on or near Mount Yerga, one of the highest sites in Rioja. Yerga was once largely ignored by wineries because grapes produced there ripened late.  This prompted growers to plant on the fertile alluvial plain near the Ebro river.  Today things have changed, with criticism heaped on the high-yielding vineyards near the river while Yerga is one of the most sought-after sites.

Escudero has been producing cava in Rioja for over 50 years, and as cava producers, are allowed to plant varietals allowed by the Cava appellation. 

As we arrived, we were served a Benito Escudero rosé cava made with pinot noir.  Beautiful cherry bouquet and very refreshing.

The first Rioja was Bécquer red 2008.  The brand was created to honor Spain’s romantic poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, who wrote  his Miserere on the slopes of Mount Yerga.  70% tempranillo, 30% garnacha.

Intense ruby.  Red fruit, spicy, a touch of oak.  Balanced acidity with a long finish.  I thought that the wine’s power overshadowed its elegance.

Vidau 2005.  70% tempranillo.  Aged in French and Rumanian oak.

‘Vidau’ is how Escudero calls a field blend, where the different varieties in a single vineyard determine the blend of grapes in the wine.

Intense black cherry.  Very ripe red fruit and new oak.  High acidity.  In my opinion it needs more time in the bottle.

Valsacro Dioro 2004.  40% tempranillo, 40% garnacha, 20% others. Aged in French and Rumanian oak.

Intense black cherry with brick.  Very ripe dark fruit, spicy, well-balanced with ripe tannins.  In my opinion, the best wine in the tasting.

Arvum 2005. (‘Arvum’ means ‘field’ in Latin.

Intense brick.  Red fruit, candy and butterscotch.  High acidity, tannic, not mouth-filling.  I thought the aroma was better than the mouthfeel.

My overall impression of these wines was that they were well-made but expressed more depth on the nose than on the palate, dominated by high acidity. In Rioja, high acidity is highly prized because it gives potential for ageing. In Rioja, winemakers call this quality ‘frescura’ or freshness.

 I missed, however, more complexity to go along with this acidity.

We then tasted two cavas.  The first was Dioro Baco extra brut, made exclusively with chardonnay from vineyards on Mt. Yerga.  Amador said that the base wine remained for six years on its lees.  Straw-gold.  Nutmeg, banana and a slight whiff of burnt sugar.  I liked it a lot.  

Dioro Baco semi-dry ‘dessert’ cava.  I thought it was well-balanced, not cloying, with a graham cracker bouquet.  Frankly I prefer brut cavas but this one was pretty good.

I left the tasting satisfied but curious to taste more wines made from grapes grown on the high altitude vineyards of Mount Yerga.

www.bodegasescudero.com

www.valsacro.com

Setting the record straight about Rioja Baja

 

When I moved to Rioja in the early 1980s, Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa were the darlings of the region, where ‘modern’ Rioja flourished starting in the last half of the 19th century and most of the wineries were located.  In contrast, Rioja Baja was fruit tree and vegetable country, roundly criticized for allowing the planting of grapevines in highly fertile alluvial soil near the Ebro that produced twice as much per vine as in the Alta and Alavesa.  Even the name Rioja BAJA (Lower Rioja) was an adjective reminiscent of inferiority, like Baja California or Outer Mongolia (my apologies to Mexico and Mongolia).

Nothing is farther from the truth, however.

In fact, without Rioja Baja, Rioja would not be what it is today.

First of all, Rioja was traditionally made by blending grapes from all over the region.  Because Rioja Baja is warmer and drier than the Alta or Alavesa, the harvest always begins here and the grapes almost always reach total ripeness, something that happens with less regularity in the other two subzones.  This is perhaps not as evident as it was in the past, before global warming, when, toward the end of October, plummeting temperatures and rainstorms often ruined the harvest or at best, produced thin wines with no more than 9 or 10% alcohol in the Alta and Alavesa.  Clearly these wines needed some muscle and it always came from Rioja Baja.  In fact, most of the wineries in Haro such as La Rioja Alta, CVNE and López de Heredia either owned or had long-term arrangements with growers in the Baja.  Most of these traditional wineries still own property there.

Secondly, Rioja Baja was garnacha land, adding character in blends to the predominant tempranillo of the Alta and Alavesa.  Sadly, most of the garnacha has been replaced with tempranillo since the late 1980s, but garnacha is still in demand, with wineries like El Coto de Rioja investing heavily in replanting it.

We also have to take into account the low-yielding, south-facing vineyards located at  high altitude on or near Mount Yerga, south of Alfaro, where well-known winemakers like Álvaro Palacios and his family have long recognized their potential for producing wines of great character, as well as vineyards planted in the gravelly soil around Mendavia on the north bank of the Ebro, home of Barón de Ley.

Then there’s Marqués de Murrieta, located at the western edge of Rioja Baja, near Logroño, that shares with Marqués de Riscal the honor of  ‘inventing’ modern Rioja in the mid-19th century, as well as Marqués de Vargas, located next door.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to the potential of Rioja Baja, however, is the San Isidro Cooperative in Aldeanueva de Ebro, the largest in Rioja and the coop that has most successfully made the transition from supplying young wine to other wineries to making, aging, bottling and selling well-made, attractive wines throughout Spain and all over the world.

My only complaint with Rioja Baja is not keeping the old vine garnacha that predominated until the 1980s.  Given the success of old vine garnacha in the neighboring regions of Campo de Borja and Calatayud, Rioja could have benefited from these vines.  As a big fan of garnacha, I hope growers will start to plant it more widely again.