Binny’s has a thing for Rioja right now (a good thing). Be sure to check out our Rediscover Rioja tasting events, and also browse the wines we carry from Rioja the prices reflect our 10% OFF sale on ALL Rioja wines through October. Every single wine from Rioja!
Yesterday Binny’s held an internal training seminar about Rioja for our wine consultants. We discussed the region, watched a video from Rioja’s recent marketing blitz, and tasted a few wines.
The video was good and informative, if a little repetitive, and after about an hour I grew more and more aware of just how little padding my chair had. Soon enough, the lights came back on and the discussion started: we covered geography and climate, viticulture and winemaking, about the history and the future of the region. While tasting the wines, we discussed the qualities of each wine, but also how they fit into Rioja and how Rioja fits into the world of wine – who might like these wines, how they compare to other favorites, and as of course, food pairing ideas.
Rioja sits in the North of Spain, and is named after the rio Oja, the river that cuts through the region. It is cradled among a few mountain ranges, the most notable being the Sierra Cantabria to the North. The region is at a confluence of three different climatic forces the cold Atlantic winds from the North, the Mediterranean climate from the Southeast, and the continental climate of the Iberian Peninsula. These climatic influences are important to the character of tempranillo, the primary red grape of the region, and to the handful of other grapes often blended into the wine.
One thing that always comes up when discussing Spanish wine is the Old World/New World dichotomy. As a historical European wine region, Rioja has held a reputation for making traditional, rustic, dusty, herbal and gamy wines. As modern winemaking practices and tastes change, there are many wines emerging from the area (as there are everywhere) that are more modern flashy, big, fruit-forward wines, often featuring the plush influence of oak as notes of vanilla, baking spice and caramel. It is possible that it’s not an either/or proposition, that the region incorporates a broad spectrum of styles, combining tradition and modernity.
Some Tasting Notes
I enjoy seated group tastings in the same way I enjoyed literature classes in college everybody shares their opinion, and you can pick up new viewpoints. The opinions here are my own, are not a consensus, but I must give some credit to the group.
Rioja produces several different types of wines, based on the time the wine spent aging in oak casks and in the bottle:
Wine labeled Rioja (sometimes referred to as Joven, or ‘young’) often sees little or no age in barrel. Legally, the label guarantees that the wine is from Rioja and from the labeled vintage. These wines tend to be fruit forward and immediately approachable. We tasted the 2008 Cortijo Rioja, a good beginner’s introduction to Rioja, showing notes of cherry candy and root beer. The 2007 Sierra Cantabria Rioja shows just a little more complexity, with a little baking spice and softer fruits. The 2006 Faustino VII Rioja is an affordable example of a classically-styled Rioja, with dried cherry fruit and rustic, gamy overtones.
If a wine spends at least a year aging in oak and another in bottle, it can be labeled Crianza, a slightly more complex style of wine, still framed in fruit and drinkable young. The 2004 Lan Crianza stands out as an obvious value, with complex anise and other dry herbs under tart cherry fruit, for a somewhat classical style. The 2005 Sierra Cantabria Crianza is bigger and more plush, with dark cherry accented with cocoa. It is a deliciously easy wine to drink.
A wine that spends even more time aging 18 months or more in oak, and at least another year in bottle can be labeled Reserva. These are known to be yet more complex, more special. The 2001 Lan Reserva is an amazing value at $16, with modern, fresh, jammy, candied fruit up front, but giving way to more classic notes on the finish. We were lucky to taste the 2003 Roda Reserva, an impressively broad and plush wine, showing plenty of oak as well as broad plum fruit.
Most wineries only make Gran Reserva wines in the best vintages. For a wine to be labeled Gran Reserva, it must be aged in oak two years or more, with an additional three years aging in bottle. These are the special wines, but even they don’t have to be too expensive. The 2002 Campo Viejo Gran Reserva shows complex notes of cherry and cola, the cherry giving way to herbal complexities and then to a structured, tannic finish quite a value at $20! The 1996 Faustino I Gran Reserva is a vision of Rioja at its most classic; colored a crayon’s Burnt Sienna, it has a complex nose like an old port or nebbiolo. Cedar and cinnamon frame this rustic yet delicate wine. It might not have been the most drinkable wine of the day, but it was probably the most interesting.
More and more, winemakers in Rioja are producing wines outside of this labeling system, aging to their tastes. These bottlings legally fall under the basic Rioja label, but can offer more complexity. The 2004 Allende bottling is a surprisingly bright wine, with notes of tart cherries lifted further by fresh acidity. The 2006 Artadi Vinas de Gain is a very dark, deeply extracted wine with black olive depth and dark cherry and plum fruit, and shows a wonderful (but not flashy) oak influence.