Rioja versus Ribera – a tour de force with Agustín Santolaya

The last wine tasting before the summer break was a blockbuster.. Those of us who attended the event instead of watching the football match between Spain and Croatia were treated to a masterclass by Agustín Santolaya, the general manager of Bodegas Roda in Haro, who led us through a discussion and tasting of three wines from Roda in Rioja, three from their winery in La Horra in Ribera del Duero and as an extra treat, Dauro, the group’s extra virgin olive oil from the Ampurdán in northeastern Spain.

The tempranillo grape reigns supreme in both Rioja and Ribera del Duero but as every wine lover knows, the expression of a varietal depends on the climate, the soil, the genetics of the grape, the age of the vineyard, the time of the harvest and the winemaker’s skill, among other factors. Santolaya first set out to define these factors.

The climate

Rioja vineyards are located at an average altitude of 400 meters above sea level in a valley that looks a little like a funnel lying on its side, with the mouth pointing east toward the Mediterranean. The western half of the region is affected by an Atlantic climate (cool winds and rain coming from the north). The eastern half  influenced by warm, dry winds from the Mediterranean sea to the east with some influence of cold air from the meseta or high tableland of Castilla to the south. Frost isn’t much of a problem in the temperate Ebro valley.

Ribera del Duero on the other hand is located on the high northern Castillian plateau at an altitude of 800 meters where a continental climate is predominant (very cold winters, and extremely hot summers with huge swings in temperatures during the grape growing season that are great for producing powerful yet nuanced wines). The downside is a high risk of frost as late as mid-May and as early as mid-September. The growing season in Ribera del Duero is a full month shorter than in Rioja. That blew my mind.

The soil

Roda’s Rioja vineyards are located in the far western corner of the region and were described by Santolaya as a ‘sandwich’ of limestone surrounded by layers of sandstone. Consequently the roots have to ‘fight’ to worm their way through the limestone. The Ribera vineyards in La Horra on the other hand are basically clay and root penetration is easier.

The philosophy

Roda was the first ‘modern’ Rioja winery to solve the problem of high alcohol and unripe tannins. Back in the early 90s when Rioja began to produce big, high alcohol wines, egged on, sadly, by wine writers – notably Robert Parker – most of the wines were unbalanced, often with green tannins and flabby acidity. Roda always likes to say that they heeded the advice of old farmers who tasted the skins and, when sweet rather than bitter, picked. Of course it helped that they were working with old vines!

In the late 1980s Roda began to painstakingly acquire old vineyards. Today the winery has 17 vineyards (50 hectares that they own and a further 20 that they farm, all over 30 years old). They keep the grapes and wine from each plot separate until blending, just before bottling. The blending of so many different wines allows them to make four distinctive wines: Sela, a recently created young wine made from grapes and wine formerly sold off, Roda, Roda I and Cirsion, the top of the line.

Santolaya repeated over and over that after 25 years in Rioja the company was beginning to get a feel for the soils, climate and the expression of tempranillo in Rioja. After only four years in Ribera, however, they still have a lot to learn. They did understand  that

  • they didn’t want to make a Rioja-style Ribera but rather follow the Roda philosophy of expressing the terroir of their particular vineyards;

  • they wanted to avoid the problems that other newly arrived wineries from other regions faced, ‘making a statement’ in Santolaya’s words, with overripe, overoaked wines made from grapes from recently planted vineyards.

Roda had problems finding suitable vineyards to purchase so finally they made a deal with two farmers (the Balbás brothers) in La Horra, offering them a share of the winery in exchange for an 80-year contract to purchase the grapes. It took some time to convince the brothers about the benefits of such a long contract, but Roda persuaded them that developing vineyards and wine was a multi-generation undertaking.

Both the Rioja and Ribera vineyards were old enough (over 30 years) to assure that no new, highly productive clones of tempranillo had been planted.

 The tasting

Sela 2009:

89% tempranillo, 11% graciano. A year in used oak barrels, so technically a crianza but labeled a generic Rioja.

Brilliant cherry, fresh red fruit, elegant, round and easy to drink. RRP (recommended retail price) in Spain 15 euros/bottle.

Roda 2007:

A difficult year in Rioja. 89% tempranillo, 8% garnacha, 3% graciano. 16 months in French oak and 20 months in bottle before release.

Brilliant brick, very spicy, well integrated oak and red fruit, fresh, round and elegant. RRP in Spain 24 euros.

Roda I 2006 (the roman numeral ‘I’ indicates a more rigorous selection of grapes and better development as the wine ages – used for both Roda and Corimbo):

100% tempranillo. 16 months in French oak and 20 months in bottle before release.

Brick but more muted than the 2007, medium intensity. Blackberries and a hint of oak. Good acidity on the palate, long finish. RRP in Spain 40 euros.

Corimbo 2010 (Bodegas La Horra, Ribera del Duero):

100% tinto fino (tempranillo)

Intense ruby, mineral, Mediterranean hillside spices (thyme), dark fruit, tannins very evident but not aggressive, needs more time in the bottle. RRP between 15 and 24 euros according to Santolaya.

Corimbo I 2009:

100% tinto fino (tempranillo)

Intense ruby, an explosion of dark fruit, smoke and graham crackers on the nose, good acidity, long finish. RRP 40 euros.

Corimbo I 2010:

100% tinto fino (tempranillo)

Ruby/brick, bacon, dark fruit and floral, very polished tannins. Still too young. RRP 40 euros.

With the Roda range you could see the progression from the simple (Sela) to the more complex (Roda I) while with the Ribera wines it was obvious that the wines and stylistic development were a work in progress. The 2009 and 2010 vintages of Corimbo were too young to drink now.

Nevertheless, throughout the range of both Rioja and Ribera, the elegant, polished tannins and vibrant acidity stood out. Santolaya repeated the word ‘fresco’ (fresh) many times during the tasting, referring to the acidity of the wines on the palate that make them perfect with food.

All the wines vere very good but to me,  Sela stood out for its simplicity and elegance while Corimbo I was special because of the potential it showed.

It was a fantastic way to end the tasting season before summer break. And Santolaya timed it perfectly. As we left the tasting we watched Spain score the only goal in an otherwise boring match to beat Croatia in the last minute and advance to the quarterfinals of the European Cup!