Wine Talk

Snooth User: spikedc

Rioja Barrels

Posted by spikedc, Feb 14, 2012.

I was listening to someone on the radio talking about Spanish Rioja and how there is some movement over the last few years in the new world modern style Rioja producers to favour French barrels to tone down the harshness, earthiness and spice to produce a wine with perhaps more elegance, sophistication, his words not mine. Personally I enjoy both styles.

Do Spanish producers still use mainly American oak? or are they starting to use more French to give that different flavour, does price play a part? Do they mix barrels and if it’s a particularly good vintage would they use new barrels.


Reply by JonDerry, Feb 14, 2012.

Interesting you bring this up Spike, I could definitely understand some of the producers' desire to better compete on the international stage the wines deserve, and with that, to use the same oak treatment as the leading regions.

Just had a 2004 Beronia Gran Reserva, and apparently they used a blend of American and French oak.

Obviously, the more Rioja trends towards new and french oak, the higher the pricing will be...

Reply by GregT, Feb 14, 2012.

Spike - too complicated to talk about at the moment because I'm on my way out, but it's not as simple as "French" or "American" oak.  So to answer your questions -

First of all, I don't know that all that many people can tell the dif anyway.  Some people use French style barriques that are made from American, French, Hungarian or other oak. Beronia for example, uses, or used, Bulgarian oak. I know several bodegas that used Hungarian oak. Some do things like use American heads and French staves, or vice versa, and so on - Beronia happens to be one of those.  And yes, some mix the barrels.

And just as grapes coming from different regions have different characteristics, so with oak.  Thus, with a country as vast as the US, you really can't talk about "American" oak any more than "European" oak, since that would be the more appropriate comparison.

Then there's the size of the container.  Then the age of the container.  Then the toasting or non-toasting. It also becomes a question of cost.

Some producers tried French barriques because those helped get high scores with American critics, but I think most just wanted to experiment.  Some just do what they always did and see no need to change anything.  Others do "alta expression" wines and "traditional" wines side by side. So it's really all over the map and there's not really what I would call a "movement" to or from any particular kind of oak at this point.  BTW, although they're fairly new as a bodega, having started up only in the early 1970s, Beronia can probably be styled "traditional" in some respects, although I guess they sort of straddle the line.

The vintage wouldn't be what determines whether or not one would use new barrels, however.

If the radio person said people were using French barrels to tone down the "harshness, earthiness, and spice" or to produce wine with more "elegance and sophistication", the only thing that can be said about that person with any certainty is that whoever it is doesn't know what he was talking about.  Or he did and just flat out talked crap anyway.

It's a recurring problem when it comes to wine (and I guess pretty much everything). You get some "expert" talking and passing out information, some of which can be correct, much wrong, and unless you know for certain yourself, you have no idea how much of the commentary is right or wrong. And believe me, the fact that someone may or may not be in the business has zero to do with the accuracy of the info. Most people simply repeat what they've been told w/out really making an attempt to verify the info.

Anyhow, I hope this helps.  Cheers, as always!

Reply by spikedc, Feb 15, 2012.

Thanks Greg,

Informative as ever, thank goodness for Snooth, you guys at least know your stuff. The guy on the radio ( i think he was promoting his book), didn't catch all the interview perhaps just as well.

Hopefully at the 'Decanter Spanish Fine Wine Encounter' event  I'm going to on Saturday I'll get to talk to some producers and get to taste some great wine, however they were made.

Reply by madmanny, Feb 15, 2012.

Where is the event?

Reply by spikedc, Feb 15, 2012.


Landmark Hotel, London

Reply by madmanny, Feb 15, 2012.

Little too much of a commute from the NY area.  Guess I'll be drinking my Riojas home this weekend.



Reply by Brewtown Brian, Feb 15, 2012.

GregT, excellent break down of the complex situation of barrel aging (even though you didn't have time).  GDP also has a great introduction to oak in the Wine101 section on this site-- quite informative.  

I think Rioja today is similar to the "Barolo Wars" of years back.  Modern vs. Traditional.  New World vs. Old Word.  New oak vs. nuetral barrel.  To me, the "Alta Expression" is just like the Super Tuscans.  Not a bad idea, but if a producer is creating bigger wines with the sole purpose of bigger point-scores and higher prices, it's too close to pimping your wines.

Anyway, Spike, here are a couple of articles from the PJ Wine Blog.  If you're interested, give em a read before the Decanter Spanish Fine Wine Encounter.

If you get a chance, try 2001 Bodega Muga's Prado Enea.   

Reply by GregT, Feb 15, 2012.

I did mean to mention Greg DP's articles on oak.  Just got done drinking some Barolo with him, so I wonder what he really knows about oak, but he writes well . . .


Anyhow, in Rioja, there really isn't the same kind of anger with each other that there was supposedly found in Piedmont.  Most of the centenary wineries, which by definition are "traditional", have developed more "modern" kinds of wine as well.  Thus, you have Riscal for example, which may be the oldest of the lot, and they do the Baron de Chirel, which isn't really a "traditional" kind of wine. 

CVNE, Muga, Murietta, each has a "modern" style wine that's done mostly with barriques.  Lopez de Heredia is one of the few that hasn't come out with a "modern" style wine. The "modern" wines tend to use French barrique rather than large old casks and they tend to be released when the winery wants to rather than according to the reserva/gran reserva model. 

What's interesting is that if you taste some of those wines after they get ten or more years on them, they start to converge.  Tempranillo ages well and eventually you start losing the difference between "modern" and "traditional".  Side by side you have vineyards of Lopez de Heredia and Roda and their wines couldn't be more different. But after fifteen years, the differences are far less pronounced. Both strive to make good wine, for the most part "organic" and it's not about the barrels so much.

And barrels are their own topic. If you use new untoasted French oak, you can often pick up some spice and cloves.  People toast it and you get less of the raw wood tannins but more caramelized and even smokey notes. Then after a few years, the barrel imparts less flavor and you use it for it's mechanical properties. But there's a difference in the wood from Allier and Troncais and Nevers, and the winemakers and coopers prize one or the other more highly. Same with the "American" wood - Ridge vineyards usually uses American oak and nobody seems to mind.  American wood is actually different, but a lot of the difference that people experienced came from the way the wood was prepared, rather than from the innate qualities of the wood. If you cut it rather than split it along the grain, you expose different parts of the wood.  If you kiln dry it instead of letting it air dry outside for a few years, you also get different properties.  So some of the old Rioja wineries, like Lopez and Muga, have their own cooperages.  Ridge ages it's wood outside before it's made into barrels.  While those places may use American oak, it's not going to be the same as the same wood that was kiln-dried and sawed into shape immediately.


Reply by JonDerry, Feb 16, 2012.

How do you rate Bodegas El Nido Jumilla Clio Greg?

Their wines seem to be quite the modern phenomenon. Have one in the cellar but have yet try the wine, supposedly the debut year was 2002.

Reply by GregT, Feb 16, 2012.

It's from Jumilla, which is quite far from Rioja and quite different as to climate. Rioja is up north and you have an Atlantic influence. Jumilla, in Murcia, is way down in the southeast region of Spain off the Mediterrenean. If you consider the south of France to be a warm area, Jumilla is about 800 or so miles south of Montpelier. While the south of France is an area where you get hot weather and consequently very ripe grapes - Jumilla is even more so.

It's also the home of Monastrell, or Mourvedre, which was carried to the south of France in years past. So the trick as always is to find the coolest areas in this hot region and they do that by going up into the hills or mountains, much like they do on a more extreme level in Argentina or in Pic St Loup.  Even in the hills though, you'll get plenty of sun.  In the past, it was like many warm, sunny areas - people made a lot of swill.  

Seeing the success of Priorat in the 1990s, some producers decided to up their games. The most important importer of Spanish wine to the US went down there and partnered up with one of, if not the, pioneering family trying to upgrade the quality and reputation of the local wines. He also brought in Parker's favorite winemaker from Australia (more 100 point wines than anyone) and the three of them created the El Nido. This one ended up being a home run.

For better or worse, it is a perfect example of a wine made for points. Lots and lots and lots of new oak, lots of extraction, big, dark, sweet.  So what to say about it? 

Well, sometimes when that kind of thing is done well, it actually works. More importantly, it accomplished the goal of bringing attention to the region. It's not cheap - they use expensive new French oak which is almost overwhelming and they spared little expense in crafting the perfect wine. Tasting it for the first time, many people assume it's Australian, which is actually a pretty astute guess. It's very much in the same vein as Ringland's Australian wines - big and ripe. I'll give him this tho - he does a very nice job at the $15 range in Barossa.  Anyhow, for me the El Nido is a bit much.  I get the appeal and I would drink it if poured, but I have the same problem with it that I do with similar wines from elsewhere - I wish they'd just throttle back on everything a hair.  I'm not against fruit and power and I'm not one of those who prefers austere, acidic, green penitential beverages, but there's plenty of space between those two extremes.

But I'll be honest - I don't know what's going to happen with it over time and maybe it may turn out far more interesting. I had some Australian wine about which I felt the same way - after keeping it around for 10 years I opened a bottle and who knew - the oak had integrated somewhat and the wine was much better. So you have a master winemaker and grapes that can certainly age - Mourvedre and Cabernet Sauvigon.  As far as style goes, it's assuredly in the "modern" column, but then you probably wouldn't even want anything that wasn't when it comes to that region.  I think the region is going to be increasingly interesting - they're growing a lot of grapes there and it's filled with ambitious winemakers.

Reply by Brewtown Brian, Feb 17, 2012.

GregT, is that a similar situation to what some producers are trying to do with bobal in Utiel-Requena?  From jug to fine they go.  Does Parker have his finger in that area too?  Or are they working to express bobal's unique characteristics as a red?

Great point about the difference between Rioja's situation and what happened in Peidmont.  I was looking more at the consumer side.  Unless I know the producer or have tasted the wine, I'm not sure what I'm buying when I pick up a Barolo or a Rioja.... both could be loaded with toasted new French oak.

Reply by GregT, Feb 18, 2012.

Bobal is a little different in that since you mention it, you're probably one of the two dozen people who actually know what it is!  I'm exaggerating, but the point is that it's so unknown, I'm not sure what is going to happen with it. Monastrell got carried elsewhere and very good versions are now made in France, CA and Australia. If it hadn't found its place in France it probably wouldn't be found elsewhere, but now it's known as a "Rhone" variety.

Bobal is pretty local.  Supposedly there's actually more of that in the Valencia region than there is Monastrell, but I haven't verified that so it may not be true. But it's not widely known or appreciated in Spain, much less elsewhere.  In terms of improving the rep however, I think maybe you're right. It's like indigenous grapes all over the world right now - there are people who are not willing to accept the status of being considered second-rate so they're working hard to improve their wines.

There's not a lot of Bobal that I've tried that gets into the super-duper category. But it has both high tannin and acidity, as well as color, so I wouldn't be surprised to see people experimenting with it in other places.

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