The people of Spain love their traditions. Flamenco. The Andalusian horse. Saffron-scented paella. And tempranillo, the grape that makes their world-renowned wine, rioja.
But as the 21st century began, some Spanish winemakers, responding to international market pressures, broke with this tradition. They started adding French varietals such as cabernet sauvignon and syrah to their riojas.
It made them darker, fuller in body, richer, more alcoholic. They called them “Super Riojas,” part of a worldwide trend toward the monster wines favored by international aficionados, led by the influential wine writer Robert Parker.
These are great wines. But they contribute to a homogenization that sees local growers tearing out long-respected native varietals and turning the wine world into nothing but cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay.
Now a new generation of Spanish winemakers in their 20s, 30s and 40s — sons and daughters of the pioneers who have owned Spanish bodegas for centuries — are going not back to the future, but forward to the past.
They value the old-style riojas — lighter, more subtle, with oak scents and tart cherry flavors that age over decades into the scents of rose petals, leather and earth. They want to improve them rather than replace them.
Rioja’s Conde de Valdemar winery, for example, has introduced Inspiracion, a red rioja with 80 percent traditional tempranillo and graciano grapes and 20 percent maturana, an ancient grape the family is resurrecting.
Carlos Martinez-Bujanda, 39, Valdemar’s director, believes maturana will add powerful aromatics, color and acids the other grapes lack, making a better rioja.
“It will be a great complement to the other grapes,” he says.
“I would like to be seen as one of those trying to preserve our indigenous varieties and keeping the authenticity and tipicity of the wines from our region,” he says. “This is not only to remain loyal to our roots, but also the only way to make yourself different nowadays when everybody is making more and more similar wines.”
Marques de Murrieta, in its excellent 2006 Capellania Blanco, is resisting pressure from Spanish wine authorities to replace the traditional viura grape with such international varieties as sauvignon blanc, seen by some as fruitier.
The top red riojas here show how well tempranillo takes to long oak-barrel aging. The reserve rioja here has two years in French and American oak barrels and another two years in bottles; the gran reserve has three years in French and American oak and another two in bottles.
On the other hand, Marques de Riscal, in its 2009 Proximo, is seeking a fresher red rioja with no barrel aging — a significant departure — but still the traditional grape varieties.
This new generation of winemakers toured the States recently showing off their old/new wines.
You’ll notice two things about them: First, the current vintage ranges from 2009 back to 2004, while most American red wines — even the big ones — are released much younger. It’s Spanish tradition to release wines only when they’re ready to drink.
Second, you won’t find a drop of cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay in the bunch.Highly recommended
• 2006 Marques de Murrieta Capellania Blanco
Reserva, Rioja (100 percent viura grape): full-bodied and powerful, with aromas and flavor of oak, lemons, minerals; $26.
• 2005 Valdemar “Inspiracion,” Edicion Limitada
, Rioja (70 percent tempranillo, 20 percent experimental maturana grapes, 10 percent graciano): crisp, silky, hearty, with soft tannins, licorice and black cherry flavors and a bitter almond finish; $25.
• 2004 Luis Canas Seleccion de la Familia Reserva
, Rioja 85 percent tempranillo, 15 percent other varieties): aromas and flavors of oak, black plums and chocolate, herbs and earth, crisp acids, big, ripe tannins, very smooth; $29.
• 2004 Marques de Caceres Gran Reserva
, Rioja (85 percent tempranillo, 15 percent garnacha tinta and graciano): aromas of toasty oak and vanilla, powerful flavors of black cherries and mocha, smooth, long finish; $28.
• 2001 Ontanon Gran Reserva Tempranillo/Graciano
, Rioja DOC (95 percent tempranillo, 5 percent graciano): a well-aged wine with paling color and maturing aromas and flavors of dried fruit, vanilla, smoke and leather — mellowing, but with lively fruit acids, long finish, a fabulous wine; $32.Recommended
• 2009 Marques de Riscal Proximo
, Rioja (93 percent tempranillo, 5 percent graciano, 2 percent mazuelo grapes): lush, fruity black cherry and black plum aromas and flavors, refreshing bitter almond finish; $10.
• 2008 Bodegas Muriel Crianza
, Rioja (100 percent tempranillo): very traditional rioja, with aromas and flavor of tart cherries, light body, ripe tannins, crisp acid, hint of oak from one year in American oak barrels; $13.