Rioja Uncorked

4 OCT 2023

Rioja, Spain's top fine-wine region, boasts a diverse blend of terrains, from sprawling plains to terraced vineyards and gentle hillsides, with rows of grapevines basking under the sun. The soils here are as varied as the vistas, ranging from chalky limestone to iron-rich clay and alluvial silt.


On the second day of September, the sun shone with an intensity that promised a luscious crop. But as the day wore on, dark clouds gathered, culminating in a torrential downpour that showed no signs of abating. With the harvest a mere week away, the rain was more than just an unexpected twist; it was a looming threat.

Rioja often has notes of bright red fruit and vanilla, which it picks up from oak barrel aging

The atmosphere at the various bodegas was palpable. Conversations were filled with hushed tones and furrowed brows. Winemakers were out at the vineyards, checking on the grapes and the soil. All they could do was hope for clear skies in the coming days.


Having soaked up the summer sun, the flavours in the grapes were concentrated and the sugars balanced. They were perfect for picking. But with the incoming rains, they would absorb the excess water from the sudden deluge, putting the grapes’ character and complexity at risk. The rain-soaked vineyards could become a breeding ground for pests and diseases. The grapes, now swollen and vulnerable, could split, exposing them to the dreaded botrytis fungus. While this fungus can be a blessing for certain wine styles, in Rioja, it's an unwelcome guest, bringing with it off-flavours and the potential for spoilage.


Every year, the timing of the harvest is a decision that weighs heavily on the shoulders of every winemaker. It's a delicate balance—a dance between waiting for the perfect sugar levels and the risk of disease or over-ripening. With the vineyards drenched and the soil compacted, even accessing the grapes becomes a challenge. Machinery struggles to navigate the muddy terrain, and workers tread carefully, hoping not to damage the precious clusters.


Weather and landscape are not the only things that Rioja's winemakers need to bear in mind. Rioja as an appellation comes with its own set of rules. They guarantee that every bottle of Rioja is top notch. The appellation guidelines touch on everything from grape types to ageing processes, ensuring that Rioja wines maintain a consistent quality and character.


Rioja's red wines are the region’s pride, mostly made from the Tempranillo grape, often blended with Garnacha, Graciano, and Mazuelo. White Rioja wines, made predominantly from the Viura grape, are also gaining recognition for their elegant profiles and ageing potential.


Grapes must be grown in designated areas within the region's three subzones: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Oriental, each with its unique terroir and wine styles. Rioja is often aged in oak barrels, resulting in its distinctive vanilla note. The ageing process is classified into four categories, with greater value assigned to longer oak-aged wines: Joven, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva. Each category reflects the time spent in oak and bottles before release.

The Rioja region typically enjoys sunny weather, perfect for the thick-skinned Tempranillo grape

While traditions run deep in Rioja, there's a new wave of winemakers who are choosing to tread a different path. Rather than blending grapes from multiple vineyards and following oak ageing rules, they're emphasising single plot expressions with shorter barrel times.This approach allows the true essence of the vineyard to shine through, offering a more authentic and unadulterated taste of the terroir.


Renowned winemaker Contino is celebrated for its dedication to producing exclusively single vineyard wines while still adhering to Rioja's oak-ageing requirements. Other notable winemakers with single-vineyard wines in the market are Torres, Sierra Cantabria, and Benjamin Romeo.


This has led to a shift in regulations, with a new category called Viñedo Singular that comes with its own set of rules and standards. It's a move that promises to redefine the Rioja wine landscape, much like how Super Tuscans challenged and eventually changed Italian wine regulations.


On the flip side, the highly-regarded Artadi announced less than 10 years ago that they would no longer bear the Rioja name. Producing both single vineyard wines and single varietal wines, Artadi did not want to be constrained by strict barrel ageing rules. Instead, they opted to produce wines that were more about the fruit and less about the barrel.


Yet, for all the meticulous planning, adherence to tradition, and innovative approaches, the world of wine remains beautifully unpredictable. Every bottle is a culmination of countless decisions, each influenced by the ever-changing whims of nature.


The sun, the rain, the soil, the wind, even the yeasts in the cellar — each plays its part, adding layers of complexity to the final product. And while winemakers can control many aspects of the process, there's always an element of the unknown. It's this very unpredictability that makes wine so enchanting. When you uncork a bottle of Rioja, you're not just tasting the grapes or the oak; you're experiencing a moment in time and place, a specific year's challenges and triumphs, captured in liquid form.


And so, when a bottle of wine transcends expectations, when it sings on the palate and lingers in the memory, it's a testament to the harmony achieved amidst all the variables. It's a celebration of both the known and the unknown, the seen and the unseen. This is the magic of wine. It's why, despite the challenges, despite the uncertainties, winemakers persist year after year, vintage after vintage. For in that delicate balance between predictability and surprise lies the true essence of winemaking.

Rioja's notes of bright red fruit pair well with the smoky flavours of Culina's grilled octopus

A Taste of Rioja in Singapore


Try a Rioja on your next visit to Culina Bistro at COMO Dempsey in Singapore. Wine Manager Ken Goh and Operations Manager Jean-Philippe Joye suggest pairing these exquisite wines with simple dishes that allow the quality of the meat and produce to take centre stage. Rioja’s bright red notes pair well with the Ortiz anchovy crackers, the fried squid and the grilled Salanort octopus, all available on Culina’s menu.


A standout wine at Culina is Las Pisadas from La Carbonera — a more recent project by the Torres family — made with 100% Tempranillo grapes and aged for 10 months in French oak barrels. Another exceptional choice is Bodegas Torres Altos Ibericos Reserva 2015, which is Ken’s favourite. This medium-bodied wine has medium tannins while offering notes of red plum, blueberry, bramble and the signature vanilla note from oak aging. Ken recommends you pair this with 5J Iberico ham, hard cheeses, or with a main: a beef or lamb dish. Culina also has Bodegas Torres Altos Ibericos Crianza Rioja 2018, which has spent less time in oak.


You can purchase these wines at Culina Market and assemble your own antipasto platter with a selection of Spanish specialty products such as Iberico ham, piquillo peppers, anchovies, and olive oil chips. All these are also available at the Culina e-shop.


We hope to introduce you to your new favourite Rioja.

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