Tag Archives: climate

Rioja

The wines of Rioja are a particular favourite of mine. The best wines show what the Tempranillo grape variety can achieve. Some wines are made to drink soon after they are made, and others just last for decades.

Rioja vineyards

Vineyards and mountains of Rioja

Geology
The Rioja region has a beautiful setting in central northern Spain. It is sheltered from the north, south and west by mountain ranges. The river Ebro, which is at the heart of Rioja, drains East into the Mediterranean, rather than the Atlantic which is much closer.

  • Soils near the river are alluvial deposits of sand, gravel and limestone.
  • Elsewhere, soils are a mixture of iron-rich clay, limestone and sandstone.
  • Geological activity over the years has turned this into a complex mix of soils, which can vary over short distances.

Climate
The mountains surrounding the Rioja region protect it from weather extremes. But it is influenced by three weather regimes.

  • Atlantic – mainly cool and wet.
  • Continental – searing hot in the Summer, and very cold in the Winter.
  • Mediterranean – a warmer influence from the East.

During the growing season, the weather is often hot and dry during the day, and much cooler at night. Ideal for growing grapes.

Rioja Wine Regions
There are three designated regions:-

  • Rioja Alta and Alavese to the West. The vineyards are at higher altitude and cooler than those to the East. The climate and soil are particularly suitable for high quality Tempranillo grapes.
  • Rioja Baja to the East. It is warmer and drier than it is to the West, and the conditions suit the Garnacha grape variety.

Wine classification
Rioja was the first wine region in Spain to be awarded DOCa status, the highest level in Spain. Within this there are four classifications based on the amount of barrel and bottle age that a wine has been given. However, this is only part of the story, as there can be a large variation in quality and price between wines within a given category.

  • Joven, or ‘young’ wines. These have no wood ageing, and are not for keeping.
  • Crianza – not released before their third year, with a minimum of 1 year in oak barrels.
  • Reserva – minimum of three years total ageing, of which at least 1 year is in barrel.
  • Gran Reserva – minimum of 2 years in barrel, and 3 years in bottle. Most producers will only make these wines in top years, when prime quality grapes are grown.

There are slightly different rules for white wine, but very few bodegas make wood-aged white Rioja any more.

New styles of wine
Red – some producers are trying to differentiate themselves from the rest by not using the above designations. They make a more powerful style of wine.
White – the old style of oaked white wines is a minority interest, even though the best are excellent. The new style is crisp and dry, and fairly aromatic. Made for the international market.

Conclusion
Rioja makes many really good wines, and apart from a few cult wines represents excellent value for money.

Climate change and wine

There are plenty of climate change sceptics, but it is a fact that alcohol levels in wine are increasing, and some grape varieties ripen, where they wouldn’t have 20 years ago.

Why is alcohol level an indication of higher temperatures?
Higher temperatures produce riper grapes, which have more sugar. During fermentation, the sugar turns to alcohol, so more sugar leads to more alcohol. There is an associated decrease in acidity.

Some grapes need more heat to ripen

Some grapes need more heat to ripen

Different grape varieties prefer different temperatures
The diagram shows that some grape varieties need longer heat exposure to ripen than others.

  • If the temperature is higher than ideal, the grapes will ripen, but the wine will lack freshness and acidity.
  • If the temperature is lower than ideal, then the grapes won’t ripen properly, and the wine will be tart and acidic.
  • If the temperature is much higher than ideal, then the vine simply shuts down, and nothing happens.

Which countries are most affected?
Those at the current extremes of temperature for growing vines:-

  • Much of Australia and Spain, for example, have vineyards in regions with high temperatures. They will have to adapt to survive.
  • Countries further from the Equator with more marginal climates, such as England, will now be able to grow a much wider range of grape varieties.

What can the adversely affected regions do about it?

  • Plant different grape varieties, which are more tolerant of the hot weather.
  • Train the vine branches so that leaves physically shade the grapes.
  • Allow plants to grow between the vines, as this lowers the soil temperature, and there is less reflected heat from any stones.
  • Plant new vineyards at higher altitude.

Alcohol levels in wine – high or low?

Alcohol levels in wine have increased significantly over the past 20 years. That is not to everyone’s taste, but are low and zero alcohol wines worth considering?

Why have alcohol levels increased?
There are several proposed reasons, including:-

  • Climate change – more heat and sunshine produces riper grapes with more sugar, and hence more alcohol.
  • Better practice in the vineyard, producing better quality grapes, with higher sugar levels.
  • The influence of certain wine critics, which encourages big wines with high alcohol levels.

What influence does alcohol have on your palate?
Alcohol stimulates nerve endings in the mouth, to provide a sensation of body and texture. It spreads flavours around the mouth, which persist even after the wine has been swallowed – known as the ‘aftertaste’. If the alcohol is too high, and is not balanced by the fruit, then the aftertaste may be bitter. If the alcohol is too low, then the wine is thin and unappealing.

Bottle of lower alcohol wine

A quality wine with 9% alcohol

Lower alcohol wines
The most successful lower alcohol wines (less than 10%) are those made in Germany. The fermentation is stopped short, and the wine may be sweetened by adding unfermented grape juice. This combination of lower alcohol, sugar and good acidity works very well indeed.

How low and zero alcohol wines are made
A wine has to be made by fermentation of grapes; this produces mainly alcohol, but also a host of other chemicals which contribute to a wine’s taste and smell. So the alcohol needs to be stripped out, but this is likely to remove other compounds as well.

Why drink very low or zero alcohol ‘wine’?
For the reasons stated, these ‘wines’ are a mere shadow of their former selves. So why not drink unfermented fruit juice instead?

Suggestions if you are worried about alcohol consumption:-

  • Look for wines from cooler regions of the world, which will have lower alcohol levels.
  • Drink less.
  • Add water to high alcohol wines. I know this may be sacrilege, but it is better than commercially stripping out the alcohol. Please don’t add fizzy drinks unless you hate the wine, as this completely disguises what you are drinking.