lunes, 13 de agosto de 2012

La Rioja Wine Region and the Seven Valleys


There is little more than 100 km between Haro and Alfaro, the region’s two main towns on the western and eastern limits of La Rioja. An area covering just over 100 km of the River Ebro and which offers both a changing landscape and ideal conditions for producing top quality wines. The environment along this short distance witnesses a whole wealth of changes that are perceived in the climate, the landscape and the soil types. The land even lies in varying directions and at different heights and boasts different microclimates. As history has shown, all these factors combine to produce varied, yet complementary, grapes and wines.

La Rioja is unique within the extensive Ebro basin. The region is bordered by two high mountain ranges: the Demanda and la Sierra de Cameros to the south, which both form part of the Iberian mountain range, and the Cantabrian mountains to the north. The latter, which reaches heights over 1400 m above sea level, is an effective defense against the damp, cold winds rising off the Cantabrian sea, and therefore provides ideal climatic conditions for viticulture.

Both the Cantabrian and Demanda ranges appear to link hands on the western edge of La Rioja, forming las Conchas de Haro. The Ebro enters the region through this narrow gorge on its way from the cold regions of Cantabria and Burgos. The two mountainous walls then separate quickly, leaving a fairly open basin to the north and a series of valleys to the south, formed by the seven Ebro tributaries: Oja, Tirón (they both join in Cihuri, a few kilometres from Haro), Najerilla, Iregua, Leza, Cidacos and Alhama.

As you follow the river upstream, that is, from west to east, the continental climate in La Rioja Alta, conditioned by the Atlantic, becomes more temperate in the east since it is favourably influenced by Mediterranean zephyrs blowing up from the sea. This is a doubleedged sword for the La Rioja Baja vineyards because as their vines start to blossom two or three weeks earlier than in La Rioja Alta, they are exposed to frequent spring freezes. Rainfall is also variable: 450 mm. per year in Haro and little more than 350 in Alfaro.

Tirón Valley: This is the westernmost valley in La Rioja and one of the areas where the grapes take longest to mature. It begins in the province of Burgos and is dotted with towns that have deep viticulture roots, such as Sajazarra, Tirgo, Villalba or Cuzcurrita. The Oja tributary makes an entrance near Cihuri and in turn joins the Ebro a few kilometres to the north, not far from Haro. According to many producers, this area should be dedicated to white wines, but red varieties, particularly Tempranillo, are more abundant and yield lighter, more acidic wines.

Oja Valley: Here we find true Riojan roots, and some even argue that it gives its name to the whole region. It is Riojan through and through and some of the region's best vines are grown in this valley. Local towns include Ollauri, the birthplace of major producers such as Paternina or Berberana, or leading vintners Briones. Traditionally, the predominant grape here is Tempranillo, which produces balanced, energetic wines. This style largely defines the overall character of reds from La Rioja Alta, the most prestigious area in the D.O.C. Rioja.

Najerilla Valley: Many consider this valley to be central to La Rioja vineyards. According to the experts, the lower part of the valley yields the region's most balanced wines. Here we find Najera, the ancient capital of the kingdom of Navarra, and production sites such as Cenicero, San Asencio, Torremontalbo, Fuenmayor or Navarrete. You could divide the valley in half: the middle of the valley, with the highest terrain, home to the Garnacha grape and where the classic Riojan "claretes" are made (which rival those from Cordovin, San Asensio and Badaran); and the lower part of the valley that is more open and which could be considered as the Ebro Valley itself rather than just its tributary. It is one of the most densely planted areas, with a definite penchant for Tempranillo.

The Iregua Valley: Where the river passes Logroño, the La Rioja capital, it marks a transition between La Rioja Alta and La Rioja Baja. In fact, some commentators propose creating a "Middle La Rioja" made up of this valley, the residents of Leza and the easternmost part of Najerilla (the area of Fuenmayor and Navarrete). The area of Logroño and Villamediana (previously famous for the quality of its Garnacha grape) calls to mind the splendid past of what was the region's leading vineyard before the introduction of other crops(fruit, for example) and capital increases. However, the valley is still home to some important wineries, including the legendary Marqués de Murrieta.

The Leza Valley: Upon reaching the River Leza an evident change is perceptible in the landscape and even in the land itself, which takes on reddish tones from its clay and iron content. The valley consists of the Leza basins and its tributary Jubera. In fact, the area is usually called the Leza-Jubera Valley. It is less hilly terrain and vines are abundant, although not to the same extent as in the westernmost valleys. Nevertheless, some of La Rioja's major cooperatives are based here, such as Alcanadre. This is where the dominance of the Garnacha grape began, although, it has now been largely overtaken by Tempranillo.

The Cidacos Valley: The Cidacos comes from the province of Soria and gives rise to a wide valley, with gentle mountains. It perhaps has less viticultural links than La Rioja, since it abounds in fruit and vegetable crops. Nevertheless this has not prevented one of Spain's major winery cooperatives from setting up shop there, namely Aldeanueva de Ebro. Mention must also be made of Tudelilla, which is reputed to have the best Garnacha wines in the D.O.C. Rioja. The traditional production of Moscatel is also maintained even though the grape is not admitted by the D.O.C. Rioja. This could beco¬me a new, exceptional, protected area.

The Alhama Valley: La Rioja shares its easternmost valley with Navarra; one part of the Navarra bank covers a portion of the River Alhama, and divides the Riojan part in two. Around the River Alhama the landscape largely regains its viticultural appearance that is somewhat lost in the Cidacos Valley. The vines cultivated here are quite a size, as in most of La Rioja Baja, and, traditionally, Garnacha was the main variety. Recently, the vines were renewed and Tempranillo is now the principle grape, particularly in the north, in Alfaro and Grávalos, which are the most important towns as far as wine is concerned. However, in the higher areas to the south, the vines are smaller and older and therefore highly sought after by some of the La Rioja Alta wineries.

The left bank: The River Ebro defines the political frontier between La Rioja and its northern neighbours, namely the two Autonomous Communities Navara and the Basque Country. There are, nevertheless, three sites belonging to La Rioja that lie to the north of the river. Following the course of the Ebro, the first of these sites is Briñas. This town is next to Haro, which is well known for the quality of its vines but did not have any wineries until a new project was undertaken few years ago. The second of these areas is Sonsierra, including the villages of Abalos and San Vicente de la Sonsierra that are on the same level as Briones; Sonsierra is considerably hillier, and its land is dedicated almost exclusively to viticulture and it is also home to many wineries. Finally, the capital town, Logroño, embraces properties lying on the left bank of the Ebro, where many homes and industrial estates have sprung up, but where you can also find vineyards and prominent wineries.

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