This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Friday, Jan. 9, 2009 and can be found at http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor2/tswa20090109.php.
Wine Focus - Rioja, red and white
In recent years, the wines of Spain have to a degree gone off in separate directions. Spain has come to be known for its modestly priced, delicious reds (such as the Monastrell of Jumilla) and whites (like the Albariño of Galicia. At the same time, Spain also turns up in the sought-after trophy-wine department with big reds from Priorat and Ribera del Duero.
Somewhat lost in the rush, it seems to me, is the wine region that - not so long ago - stood for most of us as the trademark wine of Spain. Located in northern Spain at the edge of Basque country along the Ebro River (and reportedly named after its tributary, the Rio Oja), Rioja's high plain is protected from cold Atlantic winds by the Sierra Cantabria mountains to its north, ensuring a cool, protected climate for viticulture.
Rioja is the traditional home of the Tempranillo grape, but the red wine is typically a Tempranillo-dominated blend. Today's featured wine, for instance, Muga 2004 Rioja Reserva (tasting notes below) is a typical blend of 70 percent Tempranillo, 20 percent Garnacha, and the remainder a mix of Mazuelo and Graciano. One winery, Marques de Riscal, has special permission to use Cabernet Sauvignon in its blend.
In fact, there's a strong thread of French heritage in this otherwise very Spanish wine. In the middle of the 19th century, French merchants came to Rioja in search of exports when powdery mildew threatened French vineyards; the cycle repeated itself a decade later when the phylloxera louse devastated the vines of France. (Phylloxera eventually came to Rioja, but not until the early 20th century, by which time vine growers had learned to combat the plague with New World rootstock.)
We're looking at the wines of Rioja - primarily the region's trademark reds but also its less-familiar whites, in this month's Wine Focus.
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Muga 2004 Rioja Reserva ($28.99)
Labeled "unfiltered," it's a very dark ruby color almost all the way to the violet edge. A bunch of juicy cherries in the aroma, with back notes of earth and just a hint of fragrant black pepper. Cherries on the palate add a whiff of vanilla; crisp acidity and smooth but mouth-coating tannins. Very young for a Reserva, still quite "primary," it will reward years of cellar time. Still, it's enjoyable now, particularly with bold red-meat flavors on the table, and carries its 14% alcohol well. U.S. importer: Cutting Edge Selections Inc., Fairfax, Ohio; from Jorge Ordoñez. (Jan. 3, 2009)
FOOD MATCH: As noted, young Rioja is a red-meat wine. It was fine with a hearty winter dish of lamb and white beans.
VALUE: Public attention has moved quality Rioja well above the budget rank it held years ago, but in fairness, under $30 is quite reasonable for a cellarworthy wine of this character. Also, shop around, as some U.S. vendors offer it in the lower $20 range.
WHEN TO DRINK: As noted, its "primary" fruit makes it enjoyable for drinking now with a good food match, but it will reward a decade or more of cellar time with considerably more complexity.
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