A decade or so ago, traditional Rioja seemed to be on the verge of extinction, beaten into submission by the “international” winemaking trend that has swept the region for more than thirty years. But, today, traditional Rioja is making a strong comeback, as connoisseurs come to realize that the sumptuous CUNE Viña Reals and Lopez Tondonias and Bosconias from the 1940s to the 1970s are among the planet’s greatest wine treasures. The recent rise to stardom of the relatively young, but staunchly traditional Hermanos Peciña offers compelling evidence of the world’s growing love affair with Rioja as it was once made.
Yet, it’s often forgotten that what we know as “traditional Rioja” is less than 150 years old, having been created in the wake of phylloxera in the late 1800s. Before that, an earlier tradition flourished that featured viticulture and winemaking on a far smaller scale, allowing vine-by-vine attention to fruit quality, the inclusion of stems during fermentation, and shorter time in larger barrels. Since 2014, the husband-wife team of Oscar Alegre and Eva Valgañón have embraced this even more ancient tradition. By working strictly with tiny lots, they are turning out head-spinning reds and whites that capture the best of their beloved land’s 1,000+ year history. Their wines are informed by this ancestral wisdom and offer something unique in today’s Rioja landscape.
Before the French:
The “traditional” era developed after the phylloxera root louse swept through France in the 1860s. Frenchmen looked to Spain to supply their wineries, and soon the méthode bordelaise had conquered Rioja. Production became large scale, and small barrels (usually the 225L barrique) became the aging vessel. Barrel-grade European wood was difficult to come by and expensive, so the Riojanos turned to America’s vast forests for cheap wood. The American oak gave the wines a uniquely sumptuous texture.
Rioja had a long winemaking history prior to the arrival of phylloxera. Grape cultivation arrived during Roman times, and—just as in France—monasteries were instrumental in codifying the best vineyards and varieties. Rioja wines were often fermented with their stems, and the quality of one’s grapes was a point of pride. Yet, this intimate knowledge of the land and its local cultivars slowly dissipated as the large houses grew larger, and the majority of grape growers were paid by the tonnage they produced.
While Oscar and Eva have only been producing wine since the 2014 vintage, their ideas developed over a period of years. They met while studying enology in Italy, and they eventually married. After returning to Spain, Eva found work as a winemaker while Oscar worked in export for some of Spain’s most famous producers. Both families own prime vineyards, and the young couple held onto the dream of crafting their own wine from them.
Oscar traveled throughout Europe in his export role and was exposed to many of its ancient wine traditions. A particularly eye-opening 2007 trip to Rhône and Piedmont brought visits to luminaries like Allemand, Rostaing, Giuseppe Rinaldi, both Mascarellos, and Giacomo Conterno. That trip greatly impacted Oscar. He saw how dedicated winemakers could reinvigorate their region’s traditions in the face of “modern” or “international” winemaking.
Voices from the Past
The turning point came in 2012 when Oscar traveled with Rare Wine Co. on a trip to interview surviving winemakers from traditional Rioja’s golden age (1940s-1970s). These old-timers had retained incredible knowledge about where the best vineyard sites were, how blending varieties and sites could yield a more compelling final wine, and how the stems in old wines imparted freshness and character. But by the time of these interviews, it was already too late: most of their bodegas had turned away from tradition. On the positive side, they practiced more serious viticulture. But their newly adopted cellar methods gave a more international feel to the wines. It became clear to Oscar and Eva that there could be another path forward in Rioja—an approach that married the best of traditional Rioja with a deeper appreciation of Rioja’s even more ancient ancestral past.
Alegre Valgañón Begins
The basis of any great wine estate is its vineyards. Many of Oscar's and Eva's family vineyards lie just to the west of Haro in the shadow of the Obarenes Mountains. This area has long been revered for producing freshness and persistence in blends. In fact, one old-timer claimed that the esteemed early Viña Reals were usually a blend of 75% Obarenes Tempranillo with up to 25% Garnacha from Cárdenas. Having vineyards in both villages, Oscar and Eva are able to work with similar proportions for their signature tinto. The vineyards are farmed sustainably. In the cellar, Oscar and Eva follow their ancestors and include stems during fermentation to produce wines of greater purity and expressiveness. They choose to minimize the effect of wood and use a mix of aged French barriques and demi-muids. French wood loses its flavoring ability much faster than American oak, so they’ve been able to minimize the flavor impact of the wood. They hope to adopt longer aging and even bigger neutral barrels as the project develops.
For now, Alegre Valgañón releases just two wines: blanco and tinto. There may be an old-style clarete down the line, and the couple hopes to eventually develop a long-aged, large-barrel wine that would take lessons from Barolo and Rioja’s old gran reservas.
Foods and Wines from Spain: Rioja 'n' Roll
Instagram: @alegrevalganon, @o.alegrevalganon
Alegre Valgañón on Facebook