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The Ebro River Valley

Although the Ebro river actually runs though various autonomous regions from Cantabria to Valencia, the DOs gathered in this macro wine region are mainly located in the provinces of La Rioja, Álava, Navarra, Huesca and Zaragoza.

For now, investments remain focused upon Rioja wine, the traditional area of quality, while others are looking toward Navarra wine, Calatayud wine and Cariñena wine, historically the areas known for quantity.

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In the foothills of the Sistema Ibérico, the less–known and limestone–rich DOs of Campo de Borja, Calatayud, and Cariñena offer excellent value and sometimes great wines too, if only from a handful of focused producers at the moment. To the east, Somontano wine also is starting to look like a sure thing. Cabernet is the surprising king, but Chardonnay, Garnacha, Merlot, Moristel, and Tempranillo all have offered exciting wines in the past few years.

This is the ancient kingdom of Aragón, and if it’s where Tempranillo has staked its historical claim, it’s also where Garnacha began its rule. There are plenty of rivers, (Rioja is named for one of them—Río Oja, get it?) but it’s the Ebro River around which this particular winedom is built. And it’s the Ebro River that provides common kinship, despite the changing landscape and climate as you roll from the relatively protected carat-shaped duchy of Rioja down to the smaller fiefdoms of Campo de Borja, Calatayud, and Cariñena. Not surprisingly, Garnacha prospers in hotter, drier spots, while Tempranillo’s more delicate constitution is maintained in cooler, mountainous perches in Rioja. Cariñena, the grape, has only recently returned to Cariñena, the DO, but it was wildly popular for a time in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries because of its abilities to produce significant alcohol in even more significant quantities.

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Calatayud

All of Spain’s DOs could be described as “in transition,” from co-op managed, value-driven offerings to stand–alone brands with higher prices. But Calatayud is a poster child for the movement. Only ten years ago, excellent Garnacha–based wines were available here for five or six dollars; now those same bottlings are twice that price or more, and there are bottles whose price is significantly higher. The rugged countryside offers red and white clay, quartz, limestone, and slate in high and cool plateaux, or in warm and sunny pockets among these mountains and escarpments. The Sistema Ibérico looms north and west, and the rivers Ebro, Jalón, Jiloca, Manubles, Mesa, Piedra, and Ribota all cut through, providing some cooler influences.

For further information, visit DO Calatayud. (Only available in Spanish)

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Campo de Borja

Farther downriver is this warmer, more extreme DO; it’s hotter for sure, though a wealth of connecting rivers or tributaries mitigates the heat. The blustery, dry, northwest wind called the Cierzo adds to the intensity of the climate, along with scarce rainfall and somewhat lower elevations. Limestone and clay dominate, and grapes are clustered more by elevation than by soils. Tempranillo thrives up high up to 550 meters, while the more common Garnacha prevails among the middle areas where chalk can be found and especially down near the lower vineyards (around 300 meters) where the temperatures run highest. But the whole area benefits from the Somontano del Moncayo (nearly 2,700 meters high) which offers snow melt; drip irrigation is not unusual.

For further information, visit DO Campo de Borja Website.

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Cariñena

The rolling vineyards of Cariñena just look as if they can crank out a high volume of rich, insistent wine, and indeed they do. This has been Garnacha country for decades (despite the name of the town) with Tempranillo playing occasional second fiddle. Cariñena, the grape, only recently has been allowed a seat in the orchestra and is outstripped for the present by a fascinating local grape called Vidadillo (look for a wine called Pulchrum Crespiello, if you want to try it). At 750 meters and higher, Tempranillo enjoys limestone outcrops and sloping vineyards; elsewhere, Garnacha toughens up against the Cierzo (a powerful wind) on rocky, limestone, alluvial, and red soils. The prolific character of Garnacha made it even more popular among foreign shoppers for ameliorative wines in the past, but bottle sales now drive the region, having increased more than six–fold in the last decade. As might be expected, prices have risen too, at least for some bottlings, but values will remain available to the smart shoppers for at least a few more years to come.

For further information, visit DO Cariñena Website.

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Navarra

Rosado has always been Navarra’s curse and blessing. Countless bottles have been sold, but Navarra is capable of far more than simple, pretty rosado wine. It’s been only a decade or so since Navarra began producing more red and white wine than rosado; 15 years ago, more than half was rosado and today, less than one–fifth is pink. If its image has suffered as a result of all those pink wines; prices here can be laughably low, and value is everywhere. The flat, alluvial Ebro Valley is the source for lots of inexpensive wines, but the hills and mountainsides in the north and at the edges of subzones such as Tierra Estella, Ribera Alta, and Baja Montaña have some fantastic, if difficult, vineyards.

Navarra’s growers have cut back on their plantings of Garnacha, from nearly 80% 15 years ago to less than 25% today. Tempranillo thus far has benefited most from these uprootings and replantings; Garnacha probably deserves better, but it’s being ripped out nonetheless. Cabernet Sauvignon now stands at 15% of the vineyards, Merlot covers 15%, and Chardonnay is at 50% and rising. There are some very dynamic families and producers in Navarra, and great value, as well as surprising wines, should remain the hallmark of the region.

Navarra aging requirements might be viewed as aspirational: they are the same as Rioja and Ribera del Duero. A difference is the minimum barrel size; Navarra allows larger, 350–liter barrels—greater than Rioja’s 225–liter barrels. Uniquely, Navarra’s rules also require that no barrels are used for more than ten years. Subzones, from the warm and fairly arid Ebro valley to the cooler, wetter, and higher Sierra del Perdón just south of Pamplona, are an important element in understanding the DO.

Navarra includes three DO Pagos of the Ebro River Valley.

For further information, visit DO Navarra Website.

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Somontano

It’s a quirky little DO to outsiders, but to the Spanish, Somontano represents modernity and hipness. Locked into the foothills of the Pyrenees, there are steep valleys, outcrops of limestone, deposits of stony clay, sand, and more limestone. The vineyards are watered by the Vero and Cinca Rivers (the Cinca is a tributary of the Ebro), and above it all looms the almost continuously snow–capped mountains. Therein lies the name—Somontano: “under the mountains.”

As favored by nature as the vineyards might be, the DO’s remarkable rise is still a bit of a surprise. But in the 1980s, a triad of local powers, private investors, and banking entities decided to promote Somontano’s decidedly international style wines (or at least grapes), and their timing was ideal. So Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and others are not new to the region’s vitivinicultors and they seem to have a deft hand in blending these and other grapes with Spanish grapes. There are also two interesting indigenous varieties that do well: Parraleta (usually soft and spicy) and the even more promising light, fruity and tangy Moristel.

For further information, visit DO Somontano Website.

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Rioja

Despite all the excitement over the new discoveries in Spanish vineyards, Rioja remains atop the international community’s perception of Spanish wines, as it has for two centuries or more. Yet there is not one true style of Rioja; instead, several versions are valid. The ancient style of Rioja, exemplified by oxidative red, white, and rosé wines, may not be to everyone’s taste, but this mode remains legitimate, if more and more unusual. The modern school, with labels that came forward in the 1960s and onward, emphasizes time in oak for other reasons; these wines seek supple expressions and softer structures. And the new internationalist school of winemaking is in full effect in Rioja; there are plenty of producers with powerful wines, inky-dark and joltingly tannic from new French oak. So the bastion of Spain’s wine tradition has many rooms in its mansion, as it were, and each ought to be viewed as genuine.

Rioja’s regions are often just as wildly and confusingly championed as the styles of its wines, and from a similar misperception. Many people believe that the three subregions—Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta, and Rioja Baja—are distinctly different and hierarchical. The Alavesa is indeed distinct; its chalky soils and high elevation create wines of less color and greater perfume, more longevity, and less power at birth. The Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja regions carry more or less the same soil types. Both have iron-rich, limestone-clay soils, interspersed with alluvial soils from the many rivers that carve the area. The name Rioja is a contraction of one of the tributaries of the Ebro River, the Río Oja.

What differentiates the three subregions is elevation. The Alta, as the name says, is higher. Meanwhile, the Baja’s lower altitude compounds its hot and dry conditions. The soil structure of the Baja differs from that of Alta in only one important aspect: a hard limestone layer often is found less than a foot below the topsoil. Since the Baja is hot and dry, that hardpan makes it very difficult to grow grapes in hot and dry years. But the authorities are now allowing people to irrigate in the Baja, and a few have taken to ripping up that hardpan, allowing the vines’ roots to dig deeper and farther from the ravages of the sun.

So Baja is making some very good wine, despite its reputation. And the truly traditional wines of Rioja have always been blends of wines from all three areas, despite the modern focus upon certain regions or vineyards. With the marketplace all agog with more minute selections of vineyards and microclimates, the future of Rioja leads away from these blends. The best that can be hoped for by traditionalists is that the market will continue to embrace at least some wines made the old way.

The vineyards are more than 80% red grapes. Among the whites, Viura is the most widely planted and the ideal grape for those interested in a fresher, more modern style. But some of the traditionalists still love their old Malvasía de Rioja vines.

The mainstay grape is Tempranillo. Much of the Garnacha of the area is clustered in the Baja, and so the reputation of Garnacha lingers far behind Tempranillo in Rioja. Small plantings of Mazuelo (Carineña) and Graciano attest to the traditional lack of interest in those two grapes. But Graciano is struggling to shine like a rising star—those wines with part or all Graciano in them can be spectacular.

More importantly, all three regions benefit from the angle of the mountains around Rioja: they are protected by the Sierra de Cantábria and the Sierra de la Demanda from the coldest, Atlantic air masses, but still influenced by that nearby ocean. Meanwhile, the opening of that mountainous angle allows for a Mediterranean influence from the south. Perhaps surprisingly, the ideal vintages are not those in which the Mediterranean has a great influence. Rather, the better years rest on a blending of influences of the north and the south, as it were; that’s what growers hope for in a perfect vintage—not too hot, not too cold.

For further information, visit the DO Rioja Regulatory Council Website.

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