1960 marks the beginning of the modern wine industry in Spain. Multinationals began to invest in Spain at that time with designs on providing for what they foresaw as a burgeoning American market. Mechanized cultivation with pesticides snd herbicides, being the norm of the times, meant a general trend away from hillside vineyards toward the fertile Ebro River banks which would be easier to farm. Tempranillo became established as the premier grape of Rioja at that time replacing Mazuelo and Graciano, with clonal selection for quantity and disease resistance being the operative guideline.
It wasn't until the 1980's that reds came to dominate whites in production reflecting the coming of age of the American market. The reds of the time were blends of the three major regions of Rioja; the Alta, Alavesa, and Baja; and were traditional blends of Tempranillo (color and elegance), Garnacha (fruit and alcohol), Graciano (spice and acidity), and Mazuelo (astringency and bitterness). As stated in an earlier installment there had been a gradual trending away from lengthy oak barrel aging and more emphasis upon retaining a fresh and fruity structure.
Robert Parker, the premier wine critic, came to wield an undue influence in the wine world in the 1980's and in Spain he was both the bane of the industry's existence and its catalyst for change. Traditional Riojas did not meet Parker's standard for textured, dark fruity, jammy intensity. They were always intended to be food wines as opposed to centerpiece wines but Parker's influence hastened the changes necessary for commercial success and eventual Parker accolades.
Spain has historically looked to France for direction in its wine industry and in the modern era of international winemaking with truly remarkable winemaking artists on retainer, estate-grown Tempranillo has assumed a greater stature. The traditional blends of Alto, Alavesa, and Baja are now yielding to the terroir-driven estates of the French model. Tempranillo in the northern Rioja is now being compared to Pinot Noir(!)with its red fruit flavors, moderate weight, and low astringency as opposed to the oak aged more Cabernet-like style.
Rioja's higher elevation with its foothill vineyards near the Cantabrian Mountains actually compares more favorably with the terroir of Burgundy (Pinot Noir) than to Bordeaux (Cabernet), its historic counterpart. With Tempranillo's short growing season and harvesting at cool Rioja temperatures, blended or unblended, the comparison only deepens. Now mechanized farming and the movement away from the Cantabrians has to be reconsidered and reversed for the future of Tempranillo in Rioja looks very interesting to say the least.