Taylor Eason

Rioja's out to win you over

Most people have heard of Rioja, a famed wine region in the northern area of Spain. But, aside from perhaps a special occasion, the average American consumer hasn't tried much of this prestigious Spanish juice. The effusive folks from Rioja hope to change that. Just the other day, a cache of Spaniard wine (and their representatives) came through town the other day, spreading their new mantra to the wine trade – We've changed! Look at us! Our red and white wines are drinkable by American wine drinkers! Please buy (and promote) our wines!

I heard the call, since I applaud the underdog. And let's face it, California is winning the competition for American mouths against Europe, at least, among the people who don't squirrel away wine for aging. To save their butts, Rioja had to do something with their musty, dusty juice since the rest of the world's wine consumption is decreasing while the thirsty, smooth n' fruity lovin' American public recently earned the Most-Wine-Consumed-Per-Capita prize.

So Rioja wine producers woke up, smelled the potential profits and began making wine the new-fashioned way – using clean and modern equipment, becoming judicious with their use of oak barrels, and letting the fruit shine through. Novel idea, huh? Allowing the wine to taste like the grapes from whence it came. Whoa! ( Read more about Rioja and its changing face.)

A quick crash course in Rioja wine labeling: the word "Crianza" on a label indicates the wine has been aged at least a year in oak (and many Spanish producers prefer the heartier American wood – learn more about oak in this post) and then passed some time in bottle before being released three years after it was birthed; "Reserva" Rioja also enjoys stewing in oak for a year but it must spend at least a year in bottle, sold after its fourth year; "Gran Reserva" wines are only made in the best vintage years, aged for a minimum of two years in oak and can be placed on the market after six years.

At the tasting, I was most impressed with a pricey trio of 2006 Riojas from Vila Viniteca Paisajes. This winery operates much like négociants in France, who buy juice or fruit or finished wine from a grower and create their own blend. Then, they bottle and label it as their own (done all the time in places like Burgundy). At Paisajes (translation: "scenery"), Barcelona's top wine merchant Quim Vila partners with Rioja producer Miguel Á de Gregorio of Finca Allende to craft a series of single-vineyard Riojas. Powerful, incredible wine, loaded with juicy fruit, restrained vanilla oakiness (I noticed some Rioja producers are getting freaky with the oak these days – not these guys) and a rich elegance not tasted in others at the Rioja show. Paisajes V from the Vasalado Vineyard (Tempranillo and Grenache/Garnacha blend), Paisajes VII from Cecias Vineyard (100 percent Garnacha) AND the Paisajes VIII from the La Pasada Vineyard (100 percent Tempranillo) blew me away. Priced between $32 and $50, on a good day, but completely worth it.

Other impressive Riojas came from Dinastia Vivanco, including a rarely seen White Rioja made from Viura and Malvasia grapes. A modernized producer who knows how to balance oak with fruit, their alternative-shaped bottles match their outlook. Especially enjoyed the '07 Crianza and '04 Reserva, which both weigh in at below $22 retail per bottle. Bright fruit and not too rustic with cherry, fairly mild tannins. Fantastic food wines.

Another affordable gem in this rough-tasting, tannic crew was Sierra Cantabria 2007 Tinto Rioja. Sexy and very soft for a Rioja but not at all sweet. Red fruit like raspberry, cherry, delicate oakiness and solid acidity on the finish.

Now we move to Ribera del Duero [ree-BEAR-a del DWEAR-o], a high altitude, red wine-producing region southwest of Rioja. For a long time, grape growers dumped their fruit into the village co-op wine vats, creating a wine stew with little or no complexity or character. But about fifteen years ago, impoverished and watching the boom in worldwide consumption pass them by, they realized what consumers want – better value and better wines. Many began bottling under their own name, increasing quality by limiting crop yields – growing less fruit on the vines to concentrate the nutrients in fewer grapes. Tempranillo, the same hearty, tannic Spanish grape used in Rioja, responds well to these techniques and winemakers also began tempering its robust flavor with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Garnacha/Grenache.

Ribera employs four quality level designates, similar to Rioja, based on how long the wine sits in oak barrels (from least to best): Cosecha, Roble, Crianza (or Crianca) and Reserva. This usually dictates price as well, but not necessarily value. I recently sat down with winery owner Antonio Garcia Figuero whose family has farmed grapes in Ribera del Duero for decades but only started bottling their own wine, under the Tinto Figuero label, in 2001. All made from 100 percent Tempranillo grapes, they're decidedly an improvement over musty Riberas of old. The wines tasted like fresh, ripe fruit – black cherry, plums – with mild tannins and mint. They also use a heavy hand with oak, so there's an earthy, astringent finish to most of their wines. My favorites were the Figuero 2005 Crianza 12 ($30) and Figuero 2004 Reserva 15 ($64) – the numbers indicate how much time the wine spent in wood.

Not sure how these new guys will fare in an American wine marketplace dominated by domestics but if you're looking for an alternative to the oaky, sweet California Cabernets, these might be just what the tongue ordered.

 

Sept. 28, 2010

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