Rioja Part 3; Baja

In part 3 of 3 for the Rioja region, I will be speaking about the largest sub-region of the Rioja DOCa, both in terms of physical size and also wine production; the Rioja Baja. As a quick summary for those that missed the previous 2 pieces, Rioja, located in the north-east of Spain, is the most important wine area in the country, and possesses a winemaking history stretching back to Roman times, which has continued almost unbroken ever since. The geographical location of Rioja was perfect to take advantages of the misfortunes of those around it; it was far enough north to avoid the Moorish invasion across the Straits of Gibraltar in 711AD, continuing throughout during the Middle Ages which decimated wine industries through much of the south. The industry also gained a huge boost in the middle of the 19th century when neighbour France’s wine industry was decimated by 2 unwanted American imports; first mildew, then Phylloxera. As Rioja was one of the closest wine regions to France that was as yet untouched by these grapevine diseases, hundreds of French winemakers fled here to make a new start, meaning almost overnight it gained an army of desperate (and knowledgeable) winemakers. Click Image to enlarge.

The Rioja Baja sub-region occupies the southern portion of the Rioja DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada- the highest quality designation in Spain), and is responsible for 40% of total production. It extends southeast of the provincial capital, Logrono, to the small town of Alfaro, and is distinctly different from both Alta and Alavesa sub-regions in several ways. Firstly, and most significantly from a viticulture perspective, is the drop in elevation- in fact, the word Baja means drop or fall in Spanish. As we head inland from the Cantabrian Cordilleras (mountain ranges that make up the western portion of the Pyrenees), the elevation drops, so where Alta and Alavesa have cool mornings and a high variation between day and night temperatures, the Baja can get baking hot, and stay that way throughout the evenings- days of 35 degrees Celsius are quite common in mid-summer. With this heat comes another difference to the Alavesa and Alta; the Rioja Baha is dry, and drought is a constant threat through summer. The final major difference the Baja has to differentiate it from its neighbours is that the soils differ significantly; the chalk content is minimal, with larger proportions of silt and alluvial components as well as ferrous-clay. This is a result of being at the base of a large set of mountains; over the centuries, the topsoil from these hillsides has eroded and tumbled down to create a thick layer of alluvial soil. This soil type is quite rich in nutrients, however is not particularly stable or durable, meaning it is not the ideal soil type for the grapevine.

That being said, there is one variety that was found, several centuries ago, to do quite well in these hot, dry conditions; Garnacha (also known as Grenache). Going back only a few decades, the Rioja Baja was planted almost exclusively to this hot-climate specialist, which deals well with very little water. Wine companies would usually blend the high alcohol, brightly coloured reds from this region with the more acidic, thinner and lighter reds from up the mountain, therefore making a blend which had both power and structure. Today however, with advances in viticulture and winemaking, grapes from the Alta and Alavesa can achieve higher alcohol, flavour and colour. Conversely in the Baja, vine shading using trellis management, as well as overnight picking and cold fermentation can reduce potential alcohols and increase elegance and structure. As a result of this, from the 1980’s onwards, old vine Garnacha has been pulled out and replaced with the more popular and higher quality grape, Tempranillo across most of the Baja, although many local growers argue this occurred too quickly and without taking into consideration suitability of site. Personally, I believe Garnacha to be greatly underappreciated and mishandled, with a long, successful future in this region (as well as many others across the globe- starting in the Barossa!). The compounded result of all the above factors means that the Rioja Baja is a region mainly consisting of small-scale growers who sell to large co-operatives. These are industrial-sized operations that pull together grapes from a large number of growers to create a regional blend with very little individuality, usually to a “house style” for a very agreeable price. That being said, several of the big names in the Alta and Alavesa sub-regions have long-term contracts to buy grapes from Baja producers as an insurance policy against inclement weather in their regions- one major benefit of the Baja’s almost constant sunshine; no risk of disease or rain-affected flowering!

Interestingly enough, unlike the other two areas of Rioja, only red wine is made in this sub-region- obviously it is too hot and dry for the white vines. A shame, as during the hot, dry summers, that’d be all you’d want- that or an ice-cold Cerveza of course!

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager