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March 03, 2016
Rooted in the Old School
What’s old is new again, as the saying goes. Handlebar mustaches, baby names from the turn of the (20th) century, Star Wars, vinyl records… and old-school Rioja. Rioja, the much-beloved power player in Spanish wine, has gone through its share of identity crises—from the industrialized high-yield plonk of the 70s to the pumped-up blockbusters of the 90s and 2000s. Robert Parker gets blamed for a lot of the sins of the modern—overly extracted, overly ripe, overly alcoholic and bombastic wines—but, whatever the cause may be, there was hardly a winemaking country anywhere in the 90s and early 2000s that was immune to this style’s allure. And Spain was no exception. There remains a stylistic divide in the heart of Rioja between the traditional and the modern.
Pedro Peciña and his son (also named Pedro), however, have never had a doubt about which side they land on. Since they began their bodega Hermanos Peciña in 1992 (deep in the throes of the bigger-is-better trend), they have been firmly rooted in the Rioja of a century ago—using neutral American oak barriques, native yeasts, open-air racking by hand. Nothing is added or manipulated in the cellar. Completely natural, they never filter or fine their wines. They don’t cold stabilize, either—they achieve stabilization through time, leaving the wines in barrel for long stretches. In fact, they age far longer than DO regulations require, and their wines exude an elegant, cashmere-like grace that can hold up for the long haul.
The wines of Rioja run as fluidly in the Peciña veins as the Ebro River below their property. Located in a hilltop medieval village called San Vicente, the family has been growing grapes for 5 generations. Pedro, Jr., began when he was 14, and, after completing his enological studies, returned to become the full-time winemaker. They farm 50 hectares of chalky soil, mostly planted to Tempranillo, at 1,600 feet elevation.
It doesn’t hurt that the founder, Pedro Peciña, cut his teeth at one of the oldest bodegas in the country. For 20 years, Peciña was the vineyard manager for La Rioja Alta, a house that has been highly regarded since Rioja’s big boom in the 19th century. La Rioja Alta’s style was heavily influenced by the Bordelais who turned to the region for a new source of wine during the phylloxera devastation of their own vineyards. To this day, traditional Rioja is reminiscent of classic Bordeaux, though with a decidedly Spanish accent. The Bordelais introduced aging in neutral barriques, but the Spaniards attached themselves to American instead of French oak, thanks to both cost and convenience. This is an important difference between the so-called moderns and traditionals. The modern style relies much on newer and smaller French barrels, which contribute more wood flavor and tannins to the wine. Peciña’s larger, neutral casks engender a subtle softness as the wines age, and they are gorgeous upon release.
On Feb 16, the UK Telegraph reported that, within the next three years, the British could very well be drinking more Rioja than French wine, a startling trend considering the UK’s long-term Francophilia. Likewise, the Drinks Business reported: “The U.S. is a great place to sell Spanish wine right now - there’s a big buzz around Spanish wines in trendy restaurants in New York and San Francisco.” At a time when the Spanish wine category continues to gain speed, Peciña represents a faction of traditionalists who are making sure that what’s in our glass connects to its place and its history, instead of getting us lost in a sea of globalized, indistinct powerhouse wines. Peciña helps pull us back to their little hill over the Ebro River, where the family has been passing down grape growing know-how for decades. Is this romanticizing the past? Perhaps. But the wines are as contemporary as you could ask for — aromatically complex and rich with a touch of honest rusticity.