Romancing Rioja

Bienvenidos a La Rioja

Bienvenidos a La Rioja

Rioja. Even the name sounds infused with notes of passion and the warmth of exotic, Spanish summer nights.

Named after the Autonomous Community of La Rioja, the area is a Denominación de Origen Calificada (D.O.C. qualified designation of origin), and records indicate that grapes have been grown in this region since the 9th Century. The red-soiled area is divided into three separate sections, (Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja), each producing different styles of wine, based on the location where the grapes are grown (Alta – highest altitude; Alavesa – similar in climate to Alta but lacking the better soil conditions of the more elevated area; and Baja – a Mediterranean climate producing wine with lower acidity and up to 18% alcohol (this region tends to produce a high number of blending wines)). The majority of juice produced from the region is red (Tinto), with the remaining 15% consisting of white (Blanco) and rosé (Rosado).

According to Wikipedia:

Among the Tintos, the best-known and most widely-used variety is Tempranillo. Other grapes used include Garnacha Tinta, Graciano and Mazuelo. A typical blend will consist of approximately 60% Tempranillo and up to 20% Garnacha, with much smaller proportions of Mazuelo and Graciano. Each grape adds a unique component to the wine with Tempranillo contributing the main flavors and aging potential to the wine; Garnacha adding body and alcohol; Mazuelo adding seasoning flavors and Graciano adding additional aromas.

Among the region’s white wines, the most prominent varietal is Viura (also known as Macabeo), and contains blends of a little Malvasía and a little Garnacha Blanca. Rosado from Rioja is traditionally made from Garnacha grapes.

La Rioja

La Rioja

Rioja wines are divided into four classifications: The most basic is simply called Rioja. This wine is the region’s “entry-level” classification, can be fermented from any of the area’s allowed varietals, and has spent under a year aged in oak barrels. The next level is called Crianza. Crianza has been aged for a minimum of two years – one of those years must be in oak. After that is the Reserva classification, given to wines aged in oak for at least one year, with three years or more total aging. The fourth and most esteemed level of Rioja classification is called Gran Reserva¸ which describes a wine that has been aged in oak for two or more years and in bottle for three or more. Despite the minimum aging requirements, however, some of the more celebrated Rioja wineries to hold onto their wines for 10, 15, 20 or so years, until they are determined to be at their peak drinkability, and not released before that time. Due to this “library-style” release – plus varietals used, etc. – it is not uncommon to see many Rioja wines priced similarly to the best French Bordeaux bottles. But this is not to say there aren’t excellent deals to be found from the D.O.C.

Ironically, one of the value wineries I discovered was the same one that Jess wrote about at the very start of this blog. Viña Santurnia produces their wines en la propiedad – on the property – in the Alta district of Rioja. All of their wines are priced very well, and for comparison I decided to try three from their production: 2006 Crianza ($10.99 retail), 2004 Reserva ($14.99 retail) and 2001 Gran Reserva ($26.99).

Tres vinos de Rioja

Tres vinos de Rioja

What works about this project is that I’m tasting three levels of a producer’s wine, reporting back on what I liked and why. The intention is to illustrate what happens at each of the price points. What does not work about this project is that the winemaker uses different blends for each classification, and the three wines I tasted all came from different vintages.

The 2006 Crianza, aged for 12 months in American oak barrels, is made from 100% Tempranillo grapes. When I smelled it in the glass, my immediate impression was “pepper, with notes of litter box.” There was some fruit hiding in there somewhere, but – true to the Old World style – this wine was pure Barnyard Spice. Perhaps surprisingly, that’s considered a good thing when you’re talking about traditional Rioja. There was great balance to this spicy/peppery/dusty/earthy wine. Although it is made in the classic style, I found it to taste a little more like modern, New World wines than I expected; this is not a judgment, just an observation. For $11, I was pleased as can be.

The 2004 Reserva is crafted from a blend of Tempranillo, Mazuelo and Graciano and was American oak-aged 24 months before being bottled in September 2007. At $15, this was actually my least favorite of the three. Totally cherry-vanilla, it was jammier and more wood-sweet (likely due to more time in oak) than the Crianza. The balance was lovely and managed to align acid, tannin and fruit, but seemed overwhelmingly “New Worldy,” before disappearing with a short, dry, peppery finish. I was hoping for a little more depth and complexity for my $4 extra. I voted this wine “most likely to go bad before I get back to drinking it.”

2001 Vina Santurnia Gran Reserva

2001 Vina Santurnia Gran Reserva

The 2001 Gran Reserva was an entirely different wine altogether. Cherries, asparagus and white pepper on the nose. Much more reserved on the palate than the other two – the entire experience was of a more sophisticated, more mature, more complex wine. Smooth, a little spicy, with flavors that unfolded gently in a controlled, delicate expression. The Gran Reserva is a blend of 90% Tempranillo and 10% Graciano. The percentage of Graciano – in addition, of course, to being an older vintage – might be one of the contributing factors in the wine’s higher sticker price. Graciano is a harder grape to grow, and produces the lowest yields of any of the other Rioja varietals. Whatever the reason, the Gran Reserva was in a class all its own. It also recently scored 90 points from Wine Spectator.

Everything about wine is a personal decision, from the flavors one prefers to the price they’re willing to spend. This blog is only a catalog of what Jess and I have tried, usually with a focus on bang for the buck. I really enjoyed the Viña Santurnia Crianza, I also really enjoyed the Gran Reserva. In the spirit of sultry, Spanish adventures, go with your own wine passion on this one. When one follows their heart, they are certain to drink more deeply from what life has to offer. And whatever it is that you choose, salud!

Food and Wine in May 2010 097

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes

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