Oh to have been in Rioja when Spain clinched the World Cup on Sunday. The spot I would have chosen is Los Caños, one of my favourite tapas bars, which sits unobtrusively in the corner of Haro’s central square. The place has very little to do with football, but a lot to do with wine. It’s also a boozer with a sense of history, documenting the lives of the town’s inhabitants in unique fashion.
Every June for the last half century, the regulars have had their photo taken. Looking at them in chronological order, you can see the faces and fashions shift, mirroring Spain’s emergence as a modern democracy and a footballing power. There’s also a tradition that a (live) horse has to be included somewhere among the throng of grape growers and winemakers. I bet they had fun on Spain’s historic night.
I like to think of Los Caños as a metaphor for this northerly Spanish region. It, too, has changed with the times. Haro may be the heart of traditional Rioja, home to such die-hard bodegas as La Rioja Alta and López de Heredia, but it also contains its share of modernisers: Roda, Muga and Ramón Bilbao. As such, it encapsulates the two schools of winemaking that are prevalent in the area.
Rioja likes to play on an old-fashioned image, but it has been through a revolution in the last 30 years. Until the late 1980s, the dominant style was soft, light, vanilla-oaky and ready to drink on release. These wines were normally blended across Rioja’s three sub-regions, with garnacha from the warmest, Rioja Baja, adding alcohol and approachability to more restrained, age-worthy tempranillo from Alta and Alavesa.
You can still find these wines — indeed, they are extremely popular in the UK, Rioja’s number one export market — but they are only part of the story. The new generation of reds are firmer, fruitier and more vibrant, with less obvious oak and more tannin and concentration. These are dominated by tempranillo, Spain’s best red grape, often eschewing garnacha altogether in the search for finesse and staying power, and sometimes replacing it with two rarer local grapes, graciano and mazuelo. They are also aged in French oak as opposed to more traditional American barrels.
Some of the new-fangled wines come from single vineyards (known as pagos), making the most of low-yielding old vines to produce reds with unfamiliar levels of tannin. To some Rioja lovers, they are too international in flavour: dense, fruit-packed wines that could come from anywhere. The prices can be off-putting, too. The top reds from cult producers such as Artadi, Benjamin Romeo and Finca Allende sell for £100 a bottle or more. But I think the modern style has helped Rioja to establish itself as Spain’s leading fine wine region, not just a source of easy drinking reds.
Both styles (and all the variations in between) are authentic expressions of Rioja. So are the juicy, unoaked (sin crianza) wines that are popular in the tapas bars of Haro and Logroño, if less well known here. My guess is that that’s precisely what the locals and quite possibly the horse are drinking in every one of those photos at Los Caños. Post-World Cup, it’s probably what they’ve been celebrating with too. Salud!
2009 Asda Marqués del Norte Rioja (£4.06, 14%, Asda)
A wine that shows how good unoaked Rioja can be, this deeply-coloured blend of tempranillo with 30% garnacha is juicy, plummy and vibrant.
2008 Vega Ariana Rioja (£5.69, 14%, Waitrose)
There’s a little bit of American oak in this approachable, dependable, easy drinking blend, adding sheen of vanilla to the spicy red fruits.
2005 Tesco Finest Viña Mara Rioja Reserva (£7, 13.5%, Tesco)
Sourced from the excellent Baron de Ley winery and made entirely from tempranillo, this is a smoky, oak-influenced Rioja made in a very modern style.
2000 Lagunilla Casa del Comador Rioja Gran Reserva (£8.99 each for two, 13%, Majestic)
Reduced in price from £13.99, this is a delightfully old-fashioned Rioja from Lagunilla, with soft, gamey flavours that are almost reminiscent of pinot noir.
2007 Pago Real Rioja, Rioja Alavesa (£12.99, 14%, Marks & Spencer)
A tempranillo-dominated blend made by star winemaker, Telmo Rodriguez. Youthful, well-balanced and French oak-aged, this will develop well in bottle.
2001 Viña Arana Rioja Reserva, La Rioja Alta (£19.95, 13%, Berry Brothers, 0800 280 2440)
If you like traditional, brick red Rioja with soft, leafy, truffley, wild strawberry notes, this will bring a smile to your face.
Originally published in The Times