A Rioja by any other name

Only one wine from Rioja is permitted to use grapes other than Tempranillo.

Remember the days of plonk fondly drunk on charter trips to crowded Spanish beaches with your mates? Hopefully, you have moved on from those juvenile jaunts and drain cleaners masquerading as wine. Spanish wines certainly have, and are now among some of the most respected in the world.

Think Spanish wine and without doubt Rioja will spring to mind. This is not to marginalise some of the other great wines of Spain. It just seems that Rioja, along with Sherry, are the most internationally recognised.

The grape of choice for Rioja is Tempranillo, a native of Spain derived from the Spanish word ‘temprano’, meaning early – which is apt, as these grapes ripen earlier than others. You may encounter a little Garnacha Tinta, Graciano and Mazuelo, which are allowed under the strict regulations that afford Rioja its Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOC), the sole region in Spain to carry such an exalted title. Until, that is, another impressive Iberian wine appeared and was permitted to use international rather than indigenous grape varieties – mi Dios!

Marqués de la Concordia Hacienda de Susar is a unique estate wine using Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot combined with the Tempranillo. The wine was only allowed to be made on an experimental basis by the Consejo Regulador (the government body responsible for the specific, recognised wine-growing areas) but has become one of the most intriguing wines in the Rioja.

In 1995, 15 hectares of international and indigenous grape vines were planted in the best plots on the Hacienda de Susar estate. These vines were then trained on the Smart Dyson trellis system, one of the most advanced and innovative viticultural systems in the world.

In case you are confused, this has nothing to do with clever vacuum cleaners; it is a vine training system that increases exposure of the vines to sunlight and results in better quality fruit.

After more than seven years of hard work, the first vintage was released to an eager public and was quickly acclaimed by wine enthusiasts and critics alike.

So what is it about this wine that has made it into a Riojan icon?

For a start, there’s the freedom of creativity given to the winemakers, hand-harvested grapes and meticulous selection of individual berries prior to crushing. The wine is only made in exceptional years then aged in new French oak barrels for 18 months before bottling without filtration. Undoubtedly, though, the main contributor to the success must be the taste.

The Marqués de la Concordia Hacienda de Susar 2002 is a deep, dark and richly flavoured wine with an intense bouquet of ripe berry fruit and subtle hints of oak with a tinge of spice. The wine is perfectly balanced, concentrated and long.

For me, it improved with food, particularly a rich beef dish, which the wine easily held up to. It is a cracker, elegant in flavour and presentation with its classic label and neat box. I would not be ashamed to take this to a dinner or special occasion or to offer it as a gift.

As with all the great classic wines from the Old and New Worlds, regulation of their making and definition of their geographical origins protect the quality and reassure the consumer. Even so, let’s give thanks to the Consejo Regulador for bending those rules ever so slightly. Because this is a very, very enjoyable wine.