Is there anything that defines a wine more than the place that it comes from? While the way the vineyard is grown, how and when the grapes are picked and then the wine is made and aged all have an influence on the final outcome, the starting point is crucial, giving almost genetic character and personality to the wine. Origin distinguishes and differentiates one wine from another, even one which has been grown quite close by.
It is a well-known fact that DO Rioja is divided into three subzones: Rioja Baja, Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. Nevertheless with a total area of 63,593 hectares, one would expect a lot of differentiation with such a large district. The wines at Finca la Emperatriz are all made under the appellation of “Rioja Alta” – but what does that really mean? Here are the major factors:
1. “Alta” in Spanish would translate to “upper” or “higher” in English, but it does not just refer to the fact that the average altitude of Rioja Alta is higher than Rioja Baja (which is it is, although curiously the very highest vineyard is in Rioja Baja)
2. “Alta” in actual fact refers to the upper stretches of the river Ebro, flowing from its source (well, the reservoir at Reinosa) down to the Mediterranean
3. This means that Rioja Alta enjoys a more Atlantic influence on its climate, which translates into a much slower ripening. This is a great help for those varieties which are well-adapted to cooler climates, like Tempranillo or Viura. Other varieties may be planted, and work well in the right circumstances; Garnacha grows well if the vines are very old, for example, but others such as Graciano and Mazuelo are only really valuable as blending grapes to add complexity to Tempranillo, they will rarely ripen well enough to make good varietal wines on their own.
4. In Rioja Alta, the vineyards are normally on hillsides or very poor, stony soils, as the better lands we used to grow cereals and vegetables.
5. When can a wine be called a “Rioja Alta” wine? Only when all of the grapes used for making the wine are from the region and the whole process of making and ageing the wine has taken place there too.
6. What does a Rioja Alta wine taste like? They are usually lighter, elegant, complex and easy to drink, making them excellent to drink with food. With that naturally high acidity they age exceptionally well too. If one considers that ageing potential is one of the key factors to define a great wine, one can see why Rioja Alta is where most of Rioja’s great wines come from
7. Finally, how does a wine-drinker know if a wine is from Rioja Alta? The only definitive way is if the name is on the label, as the labels are legally under the control of the DO. Any mentions in brochures or on web-sites are not to be trusted if the words are not on the label.
At the moment, just 1% of all wines sold under the DO Rioja have the words “Rioja Alta” on the label. All of Finca la Emperatriz’s wines are within this 1%, and we are sure that this is very valuable information for the consumer.