When it comes to Spanish wine law, the first conundrum to tackle is that it is not a strict mirror image of French wine law, as is so often erroneously stated. Whereas French wine law intends to enshrine the twin issues of origin and typicity as being preeminent, Spanish statutes often focus upon the aging requirements for each of its DOs. Moreover, these requirements seem excessive compared to other wine regions around the globe and only hint at the lengthy barrel aging that has been traditional and that lingers, if only from some iconoclastic producers, especially in Rioja.
Extended barrel aging harks back to that tiny American aphid, phylloxera, which arrived in France in the 1860s and began feeding on her vines’ roots. Within a few decades, it had attacked and destroyed most of Europe’s greatest and least vineyards. The Bordelais were desperate, but not all were frantic enough to adopt resistant American vines, the most obvious cure. A significant number traversed the Pyrenees to Rioja, perhaps drawn by its reputation or by its proximity. What they found there describes winemaking typical of a pre-modern age. Grapes were picked unripe, and red and white grapes were often thrown in the fermenting pit together. Barrels were innovations only recently introduced to Rioja by Riscal and Murrieta. Unripe grapes made for tart, green wines, and according to the principles that prevailed at the time, the best way to soften the wines was to place them in barrels for a long time—sometimes for too long.
Lately, the embrace of these traditions seems perfunctory and half-hearted at best. And changes to legally binding aging requirements may have been prompted when some of Spain’s wine laws had to be rewritten in anticipation of the country’s entry into the European Community (EC) in 1986. In truth, changes were long overdue, and the adoption of EC laws meant restrictions on maximum yields, controls on blending across DO borders, and the often contentious defining of those borders.
Spain’s Focus on Oak Aging
Despite the changes, the focus upon time in oak, learned from the Bordelais and habituated in the twentieth century, remains enshrined in Spanish wine law. Compared to other countries’ rules, this concentration on oak aging has sometimes overshadowed other critical factors such as the contribution of the site and vineyard.
The terms meant to connote quality, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva, really offer only a guarantee of time in barrel. Theoretically, Reservas and Gran Reservas are also better wines because they have been chosen for extended aging. But they are not necessarily richer or more powerful wines. Indeed, they may be less powerful wines precisely because they have been aged a longer time in barrel.
How long? It depends. Rioja and Ribera del Duero, viewed as top, traditional areas, require that Crianza wines be aged a minimum of two years, of which one year must be in barrel. Navarra, with its hopeful pretensions of comparable quality, asks the same of its Crianzas. The rest of Spain requires two years aging with a minimum of six months in oak. In Rioja Reserva wines must be aged a minimum of three years, with one year of that time in barrel. Gran Reserva wines must be five years old before release, and two years in barrel is the minimum, a standard often exceeded by traditional producers. The rest of the country has shortened the minimum barrel time to 18 months.
The Reservas and Gran Reservas of Spain represent some of the greatest values in the wine world; no other regions offer similarly aged wines at these prices. Their competitors at the top of the wine chain, 10-year-old or even 15-year-old wines from Napa Valley or Bordeaux, are prohibitively expensive, whether purchased from the wineries, châteaux, or auction houses.
Even today, a visit to the storied bodegas of Rioja may result in an extended tour of barrels and bottles. The visitor is supposed to understand from this wealth of glass and oak that the bodega is genuinely committed to aging its wines for as long as it takes for them to become smooth and supple. That philosophy speaks to the soul of traditional Spanish winemaking. The idea is to sell a wine when it is ready to drink—a rarity in the world’s wine market.