Thursday was a tasting bonanza -- I was so fortunate to have my wine mentor and friend, Eric, bring me to the Veuve Cliquot tasting at the Four Seasons in Atlanta, and then my dear friend Beth (one of the best people and wine women I know, whom I respect, adore, and am blessed to know!) invite me to the Vibrant Rioja tasting at ONE Midtown Kitchen (a sister restaurant to Parish where I do a monthly tasting). I took copious notes at the Veuve Cliquot Champagne tasting, but also had an amazing opportunity to meet the winemaker, who promised to send more detailed information to me, so I'm going to hold off on reporting about that amazing experience until I get those notes (probably Tuesday of next week -- it's worth the wait!!!).
That means today is all about Rioja, the region and wine of Spain with which most people are most familiar.
This is going to be a bold statement, but I'd say Spain is THE rock star of the wine world these days. It's shown that a country with the foundation for great wines can bring new fans into the fold by reinventing itself. I'm a giant proponent of the third largest producer of wine in the world (and if you haven't travelled to Spain yet, put it on the list because it is one of the most diverse, fun, fascinating places in Europe).
Spain has made wine since the Phoenicians landed in the Jerez (sherry) region in Southern Spain in 1100 BC (!). There are vineyards throughout the country, but some of the best lie in the north, which is where Rioja is located. In the mountains of north-central Spain the Rioja (named for the River Oja or Rio Oja) region has been making wine since the 2nd century BC. Although already recognized for its natural bounty, the region got a real boost in the1860s when Bordeaux experienced an infestation by a pest called phylloxera, which devastated vineyards and wiped out crops (BTW -- this is the downside of globalization since the pest came from the US).
What was France's nightmare was Spain's fortune. Talented winemakers from Bordeaux, which is right over the Pyrenees Mountains, came to Rioja and started making wines in the French style. Quality improved and this region became Spain's crown jewel of wine, ready for export and publicity that was well deserved.
There are three growing regions in Rioja -- Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja. Alta produces full wines with lots of great fruit. Alavesa has more firm tannins and lots of acid. Baja is kind of desert-like and produces very alcoholic wines.
I obviously love wine, but part of the reason it's so interesting is because every region has it's nuance. In France they are obsessed with the classification systems (Crus and Classes in Burgundy, Champagne Bordeaux) and in Spain, they are all about age, specifically how long the wine has been aged in oak. Give that, there's a proportional relationship between age and price, so if you're going shopping for Rioja here's vocab you must know:
Joven (HO-ven) =no oak age. They usually just say the brand name so if you don't see any of the words below on the label and it's cheap, it's probably a joven.
Crianza (Cree-AHN-sa) = 1 - 1.5 years in oak barrels and at least 1 year aged in a bottle.
Reserva (Reh-SEHR-vah) = 1.5 - 2 years in oak barrels and another 1-2 years in a bottle before release. More complex than a Crianza.
Gran Reserva (Gran Reh-SEHR-vah) = 2-3 years in oak, 3 years in the bottle. They only make these in great vintage years when Mother Nature cooperates. According to Vibrant Rioja, who hosted the tasting, these are known as "Meditation Wines," to be enjoyed while contemplating life (I personally just like to contemplate the wine, but I AM kind of a winedork).
Ok, so with that out of the way, let's get to what this stuff tastes like...which varies enormously.
Why? Because Rioja has changed recently. The wines used to be aged for VERY long periods of time in American oak, which is super pungent and sometimes makes you feel like you need to pluck splinters out of your gums. American oak is the opposite of subtle -- wines aged in it usually have a coconut, pencil, 2 by 4 quality to them that, in the right wine (one with a lot of fruit that needs some finesse) is a good thing, but in a more subtle wine is a bad thing. Nowadays winemakers have spent the extra cash for French oak, which is more refined, and have opted for more juicy fruit in their wine. There is also a wave of new producers who kind of eschew the old style and are making super-fruity wines. All are interesting and have merit, but it's important to know what you're getting yourself into before you put down the cash for a bottle.
As you can imagine, when presented with a tasting of 15+ wineries from Rioja, you've got to find a way to narrow the field. I tried about 10 of the producers and I was seeking stuff that I could tell you about that was worthwhile -- either super classic styles or newer ones that were of interest. I found some great stuff and I'm going to share them below in short blurbs, so you can figure out what sounds good, buy it and then comment either here or on Facebook so we can all benefit from your ideas.
I'm going to break this up into Classic Styles vs. Modern Styles. As you read about these, see which is more interesting to you and then make sure to describe your preferences when you go to the wine shop or restaurant. Here goes...
Marques de Riscal. Started in the 1850s, this is just about as classic as you can get. These wines are always solid examples of Rioja's tradition. I tried the Gran Reserva, vintage 2000 (I went right for the good stuff! It's about $36). This was spicy and oaky, and had a very traditional quality of stewed tomato that sounds gross but is really delicious when you put it with the spice and oak. This is a wonderful wine and one that I encourage you to try if you want to see what Rioja is all about.
Muga. Started in 1932, this Bodega (winery) quickly gained recognition and acclaim for being unflaggingly faithful to Rioja and its traditions. This is a serious operation -- they have their own cooperage on site, and make all their barrels as needed (very unusual and expensive but cool!). All the wines in this line are stunning and most are perfectly classic as well. The 2009 Muga Rioja Blanco (white) had aromas and flavors of lime, grapefruit, and grass and a slightly waxy texture that was lovely. It was a bit bitter and spicy from the oak, and super refreshing. The Muga Rioja Unfiltered 2005 was another classic example of Rioja -- there was the familiar tomato flavor enhanced by rich plum and black cherry. I loved the oak on it -- vanilla, pencil lead, and leather were simply delicious. It's about $30.
Sierra Cantabria Crianza 2006. This was the real surprise of the tasting for me. Named after the Mountains in which the winery is located, this is the youngest of the three classic wines I'm writing about (crianza vs. reserva and gran reserva). This wine is about $16 and is a complete steal. Red cherry, plum, and that classic cooked tomato flavor dominate and there is this phenomenal balance of spice like a chai tea, leather, and vanilla toastiness to round out the palate. I've had the lower end Tinto and haven't been impressed, but I really enjoyed this wine, and hope that I get an opportunity to try the Reserva and Gran Reserva sometime too. Seek this one out!
Others that you may know...So I tried three other big Rioja brands as well -- Campo Viejo, Bodegas Montecillo, and Bodegas Faustino. I'm sure you've seen them around. I have had the Crianza and Reserva in each of them but tried their Gran Reservas as well at the tasting. I hate to say it, but although classic in style, the Gran Reserva in each of these just didn't hold a candle to the ones above. They make decent wines at the low end, but if you're going to spend $30+ look for Muga, Riscal, or Sierra Cantabria.
These styles are much more fruit forward with more subtle oak. I like these wines, but I find they lack the complexity of the ones above. They are definitely more like New World wines, so if you like the splinter-y quality of the ones above, skip these. Here are the greatest hits:
Bodegas Orben. From a newer winery, but one that still uses 60 year old vines, this wine packs a punch. It's mostly Tempranillo and has lush blackberry, black raspberry, black plum, and other dark fruit flavors. This wine has massive tannins and is absolutely fantastic, but it doesn't have the oaky spiciness that I find in the more traditional Riojas. If you don't like the oak in Rioja, the 2005 is a great modern style to try for $35.
Muga Torre 2006. Wait, didn't I just say that Muga was an awesome classic producer? Yes, I did. I was just as surprised to see that at their top end, they strayed from tradition and had a wine that was opaque in color, bursting with black fruit aromas and flavors and had softer tannins and tasted like a good California Merlot even though it is 75% Tempranillo, 15% Mazuelo and 10% Graciano, which are traditional varieities. Either way, it was delicious wine and a great example of the modern style of Rioja. For $75 it's pricey, but good if you get the chance to try it.
Bodegas Dinastia Vivanco makes fruity wines in a modern style. Apparently the property has a must-see wine museum that offers visitors a deeper understanding of how the wines of the region are made. Very cool and on the list for when I get over to that neck of the woods. I loved the Blanco (white) -- it was so fresh and fruity and the addition of a little bit of Malvasia to the Viura made it less bitter and softened the acidic citrus that is typical of the latter. The Reserva was very fruity but also had a balsamic vinegar note to it that added complexity to the dark fruit compote character of the wine. At less than $20 a bottle these wines are great deals and great examples of new style Rioja.
Finally, the Baron de Ley Finca Monasterio 2001 was oh-so-smooth. It was dark in color, fruity, delicious and tasted very modern and clean, with jammy black fruit and subtle tannins and acids. I didn't really love their Reserva or Gran Reserva, but this special selection was simply delicious and is well worth the $35.
Sorry for the long post. I hope this gives you more of an idea of the spectrum Rioja is offering and helps you sort through the brands and selections when you head to the wine shop or look on a menu. Let me know your thoughts!