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The diversity of Rioja in six wines

01 Feb 2022

Contino, Graciano 2016

The rise of Rioja’s ‘other’ red grape varieties

That Rioja is synonymous with Tempranillo in many wine drinkers’ minds is only to be expected. Almost 80% (or 35,360ha, according to the latest figures from the Rioja consejo) of the region’s total vineyard – and 86% of its red production – is taken up by the variety. For the most part, the region’s other red grape varieties are relegated to bit-part players, with 5% here, or 10% there in various Tempranillo-led blends.

That those ‘other’ red varieties are capable of rather more than providing colour and dark fruit (Graciano) or fleshy mid-palate succulence (Garnacha) or tannic depth and structure (Mazuelo) has, however, become increasingly apparent as more winemakers give each variety a starring, solo role.

The most successful so far, in terms of both the quality of the wines and their reception by wine drinkers, has been Rioja’s second most widely planted red variety, Garnacha – as Amaya Cervera explains. Mazuelo (number three with 855ha) has also had its moments, notably in the powerful but superbly expressive version produced in good vintages by the late Miguel Merino.

But it’s Graciano, currently the region’s fourth most-planted red variety (with 841ha) – and a grape rarely found outside Rioja – that has the most potential to surprise. It’s a variety that requires care and, ideally, limestone soils, night-time coolness and a long growing season if it is to reach full ripeness and prevent its attributes – vivid, inky colour, ample tannin and dark curranty fruit – from tipping over into something uncomfortably intense and overblown.

When that sweet spot of ripeness is achieved, as it generally is in the bottling made by Contino from the estate’s 3.7ha San Gregorio Grande vineyard (as well as in wines from Montecillo and Dominio de Queirón, among others), then that dark, almost crunchy quality adapts beautifully to the kind of careful oak ageing at which Rioja’s winemakers are so adept. For the Contino, that means an alcoholic fermentation in 100hl oak vats followed by 16 months in new oak barrels (72% French, 28% American), before a six-month stay in concrete tanks.

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