Rioja is a wine of undisputed and real character but it also of course an area of Spain- and it is truly beautiful. It is a sausage of land that starts up near Vitoria-Gesteitz and extends south east through Haro, Logrono and down to Calahorra and beyond. That however does not even start to tell its story. For what makes Rioja, the land and Rioja, the wine is the river Ebro. And even more perhaps its anciently lost and even forgotten ancestors. For unless I am very much mistaken this is an ancient sea or lake bed, laid down over millennia and eroded over the same period.
But I am aware of this because for the first time we arrived the right way to appreciate La Rioja – from the south east up the valley of the Ebro. Last time, arriving at Haro and not being fully aware of where we were we had come cold foot from the Sierras north of Madrid – fully 3000feet up a Monroe as the Scots would have it – and we were fleeing the cold as if it were the very red coated bastards themselves!
This time Zaragoza let us onto the A23, much improved but route-wise still essentially the road into the Ebro valley. Zaragoza lies on the Ebro and other rivers in the centre of a vast alta-plana averaging around 600 metres and either freezing cold or burning hot by season. And then you drive at up to 1000metres into the valley of the Ebro and eventually over a small but significant ridge – and there before you lies the wide expanse of the bro and La Rioja. In a sense you are not there until you reach Calahorra, and ancient and historic town with castle, abbey, cathedral and all that. The first vines appear almost immediately.
To the south west lie the Sierras of the Cameras and La Demandas. To the north are more highlands, less defined by the maps. But this is no English valley – we never go below 400 metres and are often at 800. Yet the Sierra are always there, at the horizon, grey-blue, cloud generating and guarding the weather for the vines. I knew that they grow tempranillo (Rioja Tinto), garnacha (for blending), viura (for white and blending) but now read of Mazuelo, Graciano and Malvasia.
This land is special and begs reflections on the French conviction that La Terroir is crucial in the wine they produce. They say and their e3videncesuggests they are right that it is not just the composition of the land, or its aspect to the sun, or its drainage but the very nature of the environment itself that decides the quality of the raisins as they always call them and the wine they produce. Look around here and even more than on the slopes of Burgundy or among the hills of Bordeaux you would think them right. For Rioja is a world-class wine in a land that has produced much of no great quality. And I believe you can see why at a glance.
And not just for the sheer magical beauty of this land. Its meandering tracks, rolling hills, bushy garrison, its soaring Sierras and more, so much more. But because just as in France the Spanish wine makers of Rioja will not let any suitable piece of land slip by. If the slope is right, it if faces the sun enough, if the soil is right then in go the vines – never mind they are so few; come vendage they will be cleared and crushed and filtered and fermented. And sunlight will become nectar. Oh well, very drinkable anyway.
Everything comes together here for the land yields wonderful pink clays that makes luminous pink bricks to build the essentials of vinification. Many are clothed in plaster, some in ochre but enough show their structure to confirm the way land and craft are intertwined.
The nerdy kind of wine buffs come here on wine tours that take them from tasting to tasting in the posh and expensive bodegas. I'd go to but would be sick of it in a day or three. Too much enthusiasm is a killer. And anyway, we may venerate the product but the manner is sheer industry today. Vast and idiosyncratic buildings have been thrown up all over Rioja to demonstrate the status of the eponymous winemaker. Some are over the top castles, other mere follies, another an artwork in stainless steel. The names are famous and can be found on your supermarket shelf – Lagunilla, Campo Vieja and some are famous to be found in more refined company – Murgal for example.
But the best Rioja is the one you find for yourself bat a few Euros a bottle in some undistinguished bodega or a quite little town where the bottle may well have rested for too long but the price tag is historic and the risk worthwhile. And the result can sometimes be unbelievably good. That is my kind of wine snobbery.
Meanwhile I could spend a lifetime wandering these hills, these valleys, these little lost towns. Forever weaving between hills, rounding bends to another view, creating hills to be shocked at the expanse ahead. And then stumbling lower down onto the Ebro itself, meandering soulfully, and blissfully unaware that it made this land. All of it.