Rioja Rising


Unless someone Rip Van Winkled their way through the past decade, it would be hard to miss the popularity and availability of Spanish wines in America. From 2000 onward, imports of Spanish wine to the U.S. increased approximately 10% per year, making the U.S. Spain’s third largest market after the United Kingdom and Germany. Much of that growth represents premium wine produced and labeled under codified guidelines. Of wines so designated, the region of Rioja led the way.

Variations in natural conditions and individual producers’ methods have created stylistic differences in Rioja wines. What they all have in common, however, is their classification according to how long they are aged in oak. A Joven undergoes less than 12 months, or no oak aging at all. Crianza denotes wines aged from 12-18 months in barrel and a minimum of another year in bottle. Reserva wines are 18-24 months in barrel and an additional 12-24 in bottle. Gran Reserva Rioja spends anywhere from 24-36 months or more in oak, and at least 36 months in bottle; they are usually made only in the best vintages.

Tempranillo is the primary red grape, accounting for almost 80% of the region’s vines, spread across the sub-zones of Baja, Alta, and Alavesa. The inherent qualities of the varietal, coupled with the confluence of Mediterranean and continental natural conditions and diverse microclimates, have created eminently drinkable wines with broad based appeal. Rioja wines are consumer-oriented without sacrificing their identity.

  • Buy it, drink it….. Rioja wines aren’t released until they are ready to consume. A Reserva or Gran Reserva hasn’t left the producer’s cellar until meeting strictly regulated aging requirements for its classification. From young, nouveau types to wines that can age for twenty or more years, there’s a wine for every palate.
  • Eat, drink, be merry… In general, Riojas are fruity without being over-the-top jammy; lightly tannic with balancing acidity; and a level of alcohol that won’t overpower food. Of course, they pair best with cuisine from northern Spain, but are adaptable and across-the-board food friendly.
  • Price… There are more than enough on the market in the $12-$25 range for anyone to find a bottle at a price point with which they are comfortable. And the difference in quality between a $12 and a $20 bottle can be minimal – it’s more about which type of Rioja you’re looking for.
  • Transitional…If you are trying to bridge the gap from white to red wine for yourself, or coaxing friends to go over to the darker side, a young Rioja (joven) is the way to go.  There’s little or no barrel influence on the light aromatics and vibrant red fruit flavors.

After a trip to Rioja a year and a half ago, I had to clear some cellar space for an increasing number of bottles with the Rioja DOCa label (Denominacion de Origin Calificada) – one of only three areas granted that distinction based on a track record of consistently high quality, Priorat and Cava being the others. The following is a recap of some I’ve had in the past few months.

faustino-vii-riojaRamon Bilbao 2007 Crianza
A simple, direct wine that showcases the reasons why Americans have taken to Rioja. Light and fruity, it can stand on its own or be a suitable accompaniment to appetizers and lightweight entrees.  Presents a smooth, mouth coating texture dominated by young red cherries set against aromas of cedar and sweet vanilla. Available via PLCB for $13.99 (85-87)

Bodegas Faustino 2009 “Faustino VII”
Who put Syrah in my Rioja? In a blind tasting, the aromatic profile of meat, game, pepper and overall barnyard funk would have me guessing Northern Rhone. Only a tad less earthy on the palate as the fruit emerges against a background of smooth tannins and persistent acidity. Atypical and offbeat, but stands out from other Riojas of comparable price.  Available via PLCB for $8.99 (sale) (87-89)

Marquis de Tomares 2006 “Don Roman
There’s a gravelly Bordeaux-like earthiness under the initial sensations of dark fruit and tar. More densely packed and concentrated than most Alavesa wines, but delivers the characteristic Rioja balance of acidity and alcohol. Mildly vegetal and herbaceous notes crop up in ripe layers of maturing berry and cherry flavors. This is evolving nicely for a non-Reserva, an example of a bold, modern style Rioja that doesn’t carry an age designation, but can pack a deceptive punch. 2009 available at Hops & Grapes in Glassboro, NJ (87-89)

Muriel 2006 “Torre Ercilla” Reserva
The Alavesa signature of rich, spicy dark fruit is evident from the get go even though it’s on the lean side compared to others from the zone. Still, it shows its varietal fingerprint even if it’s not a powerhouse. Dark plums and black cherries are maturing with a refinement that stops just short of being able to describe it as elegant. A dash of Graciano adds tannic structure and some heft to a long finish. Not available in PA. (87-89)

ondarre-mayor-riojaOlarra 2005 “Otonal” Reserva
Full bodied and bold, but not so muscular that it overwhelms the cherries, black currants, and blackberries, or the smoky, leathery sensations that carry through to mid-palate. Barely discernible tannins bring a touch of astringency that keeps the silky texture from becoming monotonous. A burst of chalky minerals doesn’t detract from a satisfying finish that pulls it all together. Available at Canal’s Mt. Ephraim, NJ (88-90)

Ondarre 2004 “Mayor de Ondarre” Reserva
An excellent vintage produces a Rioja that may not be opulent, but has concentrated layers of flavor on a firmly textured and tightly structured foundation. The nose is a compelling blend of spice, wood smoke, dry leaves, and fennel, leading to layers of ripe black cherry and blackberry flavors. This wine stays the course through a savory, lengthy finish. Not available in PA. (90-92)

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