Rioja Grapples With How to Define Its Best Wines

The rules governing gran reservas require that the wines be aged at least two years in barrels and three years in bottles — five years in all — before they can be released. Most good producers of gran reservas go beyond the minimum.

The current release of Muga’s gran reserva, Prado Enea, is 2009, for example. Murrieta’s current gran reserva, Castillo Ygay, is 2007, while La Rioja Alta’s 904 is 2007 and its 890 is 2004. By contrast, the youngest gran reserva red from López de Heredia is 1995.

Very few regions define their wines by age as Rioja and a few other Spanish wine regions have done. Brunello di Montalcino, which must have at least four years of aging; Barolo, which needs at least three; and Champagne, which requires single-vintage wine to be aged a minimum of three years, are among them.

But Rioja’s system is the most intricate. Its traditional terms crianza (three years), reserva (four years) and gran reserva indicate in ascending order the aging a wine received in the cellar.

Defining a wine by aging seems out of step with the times. With the ascendance of Burgundy, with its emphasis on place and terroir over age, more and more regions have redefined themselves in Burgundian terms.

Over the last 30 years, there has been a rise in single-vineyard Barolos, even as a few ardent traditionalists like Bartolo Mascarello insist on the primacy of wines blended from different communes. Similarly, in Champagne, where blending has been portrayed and marketed as an art form, more producers emphasize the terroir and the vineyard.

The same debate is occurring in Rioja, as many people believe the aging requirements offer no assurances of style or quality. Exacerbating the debate, said ctor de la Serna, who writes about wine for El Mundo and is a co-author of “The Finest Wines of Rioja and…

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