Nowhere in the world of wine is the battle over time played out more dramatically than in Rioja.

Long after many other of the great European winemaking areas had adopted modern technology and technique to present a more approachable wine profile suited to contemporary consumer demands, Spain’s benchmark region stuck to its guns. Slow fermentations, with native yeasts in large tanks whose temperature was not controlled, were the norm.

The cépage (mix of grapes) used multiple varietals (Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo, Graciano), hand-harvested from old, low-volume vines in many different vineyard sites, none of which ever saw chemical fertilizers.

This approach yielded something we might call wine: grape juice, fermented. But in Rioja, from at least the 1850s until the 1980s, that product was merely raw material for the next crucial stage of its development: long aging in Bordeaux-style casks. The slow style of fermentation yielded a young wine with stability and structure, capable of holding up to the micro-oxygenation process induced by oak. Rioja wines draw the deepest aspects of their identity from the aging process in the cellar.

The time in oak is not even the final stage. Once bottled, Rioja wines are held at the bodegas (cellars) for further maturation. Other wine-growing regions say, essentially, “These wines will be much better three or five years from now, so we encourage you to buy them now but please wait until drinking.” Rioja recognizes such a sentiment is disingenuous: Few (and becoming fewer) wine consumers buy bottles of wine intending to drink them at any time other than a couple of hours later. So Rioja long ago took a principled stand: “We’ll let you buy this wine when it’s truly ready.”

These wines taste altogether different from almost everything else. The oak influence is there, but with such harmony and elegance, so much captivating analog curvaceousness, so many vinous references to rural idylls, rolling hills, wabi-sabi farmsteads, that one is compelled to wonder for what purpose straight lines and cities ever came about. They flow like silk past (seemingly through) your tongue; they taste like black forests, worn leather, animals.


Around 30 years ago, primarily to compete on the international stage, where big fruit flavors and more body were gaining prestige and price, the balance in Rioja started to shift to a more modern style: quicker fermentations, less time in oak, less time in bottle before release.

There’s more of a fresh fruit component in the flavors of these new-style wines, more alcohol and (in the best cases) brighter acidity. The imprint of time, the subjective story of its own development that an old-school Rioja might tell, is not evident, nor is it meant to be.

Fine. The newer style of Riojas from good producers are still interesting, enjoyable, affordable and a good match with many meals. But it’s hard to know what Spanish wine really wants to be. I’m not in favor of standardization, yet I’m weirded out by the apparent identity crisis. And if I had to choose, of course, I’d vote for a whole lot of “Keep Rioja Old” bumper stickers. Old Rioja is unique; new Rioja is good but replicable.

Thrillingly, one of the great flag-fliers for old Rioja is a relative newcomer: the Señorio de P. Peciña line from Bodegas Hermanos Peciña. The winery has an impeccable pedigree, since it was founded in 1992 by Pedro Peciña Crespo, the longtime vineyard manager of one of the great old schoolers of all time, La Rioja Alta.

For five years, Peciña developed the 120 or so acres of old vineyards he purchased in San Vicente de la Sonsierra: restoring the old vines, sustaining higher-maintenance varietals that the modernizers have eliminated, forming strategies for the all-important blending process.

Then, in 1997, Peciña built a new bodega on the property, deliberately designed to “elaborate” (the enologist’s term for the process of long aging in the cellar) a traditional line of Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva wines. More than 4,500 American oak barrels (all previously used, so as not to impart oak flavor) fill three separate cellars.


The vineyards are diverse, and no chemical fertilizers or cultured yeasts are used.

Peciña also brought back the traditional trasiego system for racking. Racking is the process of moving wine from one vessel to another, for several purposes: to introduce oxygen that aids aging capacity; to allow winemakers to sample the wines and track their development, and to settle sediment and thereby avoid having to filter. Very few Rioja wineries still use trasiego, where racking is performed entirely manually using gravity rather than pumps.

Peciña racks every six months as the wines mature, and they mature for more than twice as long as the rules of Rioja demand: at least two years in barrels for Crianza, three for Reserva and at least four for Gran Reserva, before going into bottles to stay put for even more time. Current vintage for the Crianza ($19) is 2007, Reserva ($26) is 2005, and Gran Reserva ($38) is 2003. The unoaked Tinto 2012 costs $12.

Each of the wines, as you go up in age and style and price, seems to double the factor by which the whole exceeds the sum of the parts.

The unoaked Tinto sets a baseline for harmony, with equal attention on red-fruit vibrancy and balsamic savoriness. The Crianza brings mild warming notes, more pronounced spiciness and shocking length. The Reserva does what Reserva ought: emphasize classic secondary characteristics such as leather, dried flowers and sweet tobacco. These are stable, seemingly endless qualities, though not dipping into the more specialized, concentrated intensity and toffee-tinged depth of Gran Reserva.

The entire Señorio de P. Peciña line speaks so truly of Rioja, in all its mellifluousness, balance, grace and humanizing influence.

These are sound, completed wines, and if you’re thinking, “Hey, so what? I drink completed wines all the time,” these will show you that you don’t. These will show you something important that you have been missing.

What a gift, to have a modern winery dedicated to maintaining and passing on the old ways. Maybe the battle over time in Rioja isn’t as intense as we thought.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

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