Rioja's Love for Oak

Rioja exemplifies Spain’s national love and affinity for the liberal use of oak, which has long been an element of the country’s classic wine style. Although some Spanish wine critics maintains that the oak-driven style in Spanish wines is a myth that should be dispelled, these notions persist in some part because of existing ageing guidelines and designations for use of oak in Spanish winemaking. The emphasis on oak aging as the main criterion for classification is especially strict in Rioja and Ribera del Duero, with a requirement of 12 instead of six months in oak casks to qualify as Crianza.

Spain’s proclivities for oak drew them across the seas to America, sowing the seeds for a long lasting relationship. The extensive use of American oak by Spanish winemakers left a legacy of overtly oaked wine—a reputation that has been difficult to shake. Until now, the cost of American oak barrels remains competitively lower versus French counterparts. However, in spite of the cost, Miguel Angel de Gregorio from Finca Allende advocates French oak to ferment and age all of his wines. This is because according to Gregorio, French oak allows wine to evolve slowly over time due to their finer tannin texture whereas American oak can overwhelm the wine.

Spanish oak is predominantly from the northernmost regions of the country where they receive too much sun and therefore tend to produce barrels of lesser quality.

Nevertheless, with the high price of French oak, Rioja producers have been experimenting with oak from Romania, other areas of Central Europe and Spain, according to Jeffrey Bothwell of Araex Rioja Alvesa who was recently in town for the Rioja tasting held at the Mira Hotel.

This long-entrenched penchant for oak comes out of a perceived correlation between quality and oak age. But for Gregorio, quality comes from a balanced respect for “terroir, grape and oak.” Therefore attaining the status of Reserva or Gran Reserva does not necessarily make a quality wine. “[After all], I make wine, not calendars,” he quips.