Romancing Rioja

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes | 5 Comments
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

Gourmet Monthly Wine Club Review

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes | 1 Comment

WineClubReviews is not a name we chose by accident. It is our mission to personally sample and review each club, in order to bring you real reviews. This way we can provide you with the best information for making a personal, informed decision about the best wine club to meet your imbibing interests!

Wine Club Shipment Review

Gourmet Monthly Wine Club

Gourmet Monthly Wine Club

We received a Gourmet Monthly Wine Club Premier Series shipment, at a cost of around $29.95 (plus shipping and handling). Inside were both a white and a red; for the price, Jessyca and I both felt they were both worth every penny. You can also catch our Gourmet Monthly Wine Club Review (Premier Series) at

I wrote about the white wine in my recent post, Orvieto, Vinho Verde and Pinot Blanc – Oh Dear… The wine in the Gourmet Monthly Wine Club shipment was the Orvieto part of that piece. Specifically, 2008 Palazzone Umbria Dubini Bianco , which is an Orvieto from Orvieto DOC, located near Umbria and Lazio, in Italy.

Palazzone Dubini Bianco - definitely delicious

Palazzone Dubini Bianco – definitely delicious

When Jess first poured our glasses, the wine was right out of the refrigerator. Yes, refrigerator. At least for now, we’re still regular, everyday folk, and don’t have special cellars kept at specific wine-friendly temperatures. But the reason for special cellars kept at specific wine-friendly temperatures is that wine really does work better when it’s served the way it wants to be. Refrigerators are too cold. As a result, our first impression of the Palazzone Umbria Dubini Bianco was that it was rather bland; the taste had been chilled right out of it.

As the wine warmed a little, it really opened up. The bouquet unfolded with ripe peach and pineapple and a touch of hay. Flavors of apple and stone fruit and honey revealed themselves as if waking up from hibernation. Another interesting thing that happened was the sweetness that hit me over the head on my first sip was soon rounded out with more acid and a satisfying structure that took all but the tiniest hint of sweet away.

The red part of this program was a 2007 Emilio Moro Finca Resalso Ribera del Duero. From Australia. Ha!

Tinto Fino fine for the price

Tinto Fino, fine for the price

OK, obviously from Spain (That was just a little bit of wine humor. OK, sorry. I’ll just get back to my review now…).

In fact, the family-run winery of Bodegas Emilio Moro is located in the Rioja region of Spain, and – typical to the area – their Tinto Fino is a special clone of Tempranillo grapes (for more Tempranillo goodness, you might want to also check out my review of Campo Viejo Crianza).

Tempranillo is sometimes described as juicy raspberry, perfume-y, dry earthy…and…leather. This Tempranillo I found to have a nose of oak and mineral, a bit of heavy-handed alcohol and a lovely smell and taste of black cherry. It bowled me over with tannins at first, but the more it breathed, unsurprisingly, the better it got. I also thought that this wine would be well served by decanting. It will certainly stand up to cellaring for 3 – 5 years.

As reviewed by Wine & Spirits Magazine on 10/09: Rating: 88/100 – Made from young tempranillo vines (from five to 15 years old), this wine offers simple, refreshing red flavors on a large scale. Serve it with chorizo.

I didn’t love this wine, but I did love the Palazzone Umbria Dubini Bianco. And there is something I should add about the price: For awhile Jess and I thought this shipment was priced at $45.95, and at that cost we were both deeply unsatisfied. However, once we learned that the shipment was closer to $30, everything changed. In fact, these wines seemed perfectly priced at around $15 each. Despite not being a huge fan of the Emilio Moro Finca Resalso Ribera del Duero, I feel I still got my money’s worth.

Even better about the Gourmet Monthly Wine Club: Each shipment can be mixed and matched to include wine or beer, cheese, chocolate, premium cigars or fresh cut flowers. That, alone, is worth the price of admission.

The Pros & Cons of Buying Wine at Cost Plus World Market

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wines from the Grocery Store | 5 Comments

[Editor's note: This post has been updated… at the end of the post]

Many moons ago, in a land far far away (90-ish miles south) I used to only buy wine at Cost Plus World Market. In those days the prices seemed good and you could sum up my wine knowledge/experience with a phrases like these, “1994 Chardonnay is good” and ” I think I like Pinot Grigio.” I was more of a tequila girl in those days and I really went to Cost Plus for those heavenly Belgian Chocolates (note: only heavenly if you like hazelnut and chocolates with creamy centers) and to buy a papasan chair.

Over the years, we've wandered in to the one near us a few times. We've discovered it's a great place to purchase lightweight Christmas gifts that travel cross-continent in our luggage very well. We've also discovered that they have great prices on Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label around the holidays. I'm not sure why, but I added myself to their email list and over the last several months the company has been significantly gearing up the importance of wine in their stores and improving their online presence.

At first the wines scared me. I hadn't heard of 95% of them, the prices were either ordinary or the wines were so cheap I didn't trust them, and the mediocre ratings didn't increase my likelihood of purchasing. But lately… the only thing stopping me from making a CPWM run is the 20-something bottles of wine I already have in the house.

Regardless, here are the pros and cons I've been weighing on the decision to go try wines from Cost Plus World Market.

Pro: Unbelievable prices. I've used a couple of wines that they sell to make assessments about their general prices (specifically in search of the answer to “how good is the deal?”). The aforementioned Veuve at $34.99 a bottle (sale price any time of year, including the holidays) made me sit up and take notice. I've consistently seen that their prices are under $15 for just about everything. Also, they're constantly sending (seemingly) great deals that are even lower than their already-low prices.

Pro: The list of wines is starting to include wine regions I know and like: Today's email caught my attention with a Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero (see my post about the Vina Santurnia Tempranillo) for $6.99 a bottle (normally $9.99). $9.99 is a low price (though not bargain-basement) for a Tempranillo from this region in Spain. $6.99 is a steal and I really want to try it.

Pro: The list of wines is starting to include wines I know and like. After catching my attention in the email, I browsed the website for a bit and was surprised to find these wines which I know and like

Con: The website doesn't publish a LOT of their prices. This is a con for two reasons. It requires me to go to the store to check out their prices, which I'd prefer to do at my computer because I live in a congested area and I'm not a fan of traffic. It's also a con because it makes me think/know they're adjusting prices based on local markets. This drives me batty. Why should I have to pay  more than the wine lover in Encinitas just because I live in Los Angeles? How can I figure out which stores have the best prices? These shouldn't be questions I have to ask.

Con: They're still carrying some skeevy wine labels. There are a couple of classes of wine I'm wary of… Wines with great marketing approaches (“Wine that loves chicken” and “Promisquous” come to mind). In my experience to date, these wines are all ordinary. It's an attempt to sell a large volume of ordinary wine to unsuspecting consumers who might not know (or care) what good wine tastes like. Fine for them, not for me. The other group of wines are anything that's regularly priced under $8. Mostly this is because these wines are almost always produced by the Bronco Wine Company (the esteemed makers of Charles Shaw a.k.a. Two-buck Chuck).

Con (if you don't live in California or near an CPWM): Most of these deals are only available in California. It seems that they're only selling wines (or trying these deals) in some states. I live in California so I have fantastic access to wines and I wouldn't be surprised if the deals are extra special because it's California.

Bottom line: It's gotta be worth a visit if you live near a Cost Plus World Market and you like to find wine values by buying good wines at great prices.

Do you buy wine at Cost Plus World Market? Share your thoughts and leave a comment, please!


We stopped by World Market the next day (because my curiosity was insatiable) and picked up a six-pack (as I lovingly call them) to take for a test run. We had two shopping goals in mind here… The first was to see if World Market's prices are low and bring great value or just low because they've purchased cheap wine. We also decided to further explore Tempranillos from Spain as it's a region/varietal we've found some great values from in the past. We bought:

  1. Campo Viejo Riserva, $12.99 per bottle – Haven't tried it yet
  2. 2007 Vivir, Vivir Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero, $6.99 per bottle
    This PROBABLY belongs on the “do not drink these wines” list. I was able to finish the bottle despite its finishless grapiness. Definitely will not be purchasing again. Would rather spend a few more dollars and like what I'm drinking.
  3. Bodega Norton Malbec (x2), $7.99 per bottle
    This was a wine I had previously purchased at Costco more than once for $12-15ish per bottle. It's a nice quality Malbec. Not something that jumps out at me in the $12-15ish range, but definitely a good value at $7.99 per bottle.
  4. 2006 Etim Seleccion, $10.99 per bottle
    Robert Parker rated this wine 91. I thought it was okay and the price made it okayer. By now I've started to realize that not all Tempranillos from Ribera del Duero are good. This was an important realization because now I won't just buy blindly when I see one… I'll only do it for 2004 or 2005. Another lesson in why if you're going to use ratings to buy wine, be sure you agree with the ratings system at least some of the time. I personally prefer Wine Spectator's ratings and find them the most accurate for my palette.
  5. Cortijo III Tinto, $7.99 per bottle- Haven't tried it yet

Buying Wine by Region and Year

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wine Tasting Notes | 2 Comments

About a year ago I decided to try an experiment. It was this: use the Wine Spectator region/year rating system to pick out wines even when I've never heard of the vineyard or winemaker (which constitutes at least 90% of wines I encounter). I can honestly say I've never been disappointed with this wine-buying method.


The Vintage Ratings Chart at Wine Spectator (subscription required to view the chart)

Here are some example region-vintage combinations that I like, and the full list of winners as decided by Wine Spectator (who I trust for their wine reviews explicitly… better than Parker in my opinion).

  • Australia: Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale 2003-2005
  • Spain: Ribera del Duero 2004-2005
  • California Pinot Noir: Anderson Valley 2003-2005, Sonoma 2004, Santa Barbara 2004
  • California Cabernet Sauvignon: Napa 2004-2005 and (in my experience) you can never go wrong with a Cabernet from Alexander Valley in Sonoma
  • California Syrah: Napa 1999-2006, Paso Robles 2004 and 2006, Sonoma 2002-2006
  • Washington: 2005 and 2006

I keep this short list in mind as I peruse wine lists in restaurants and when I go to wine stores. This helps me pick out the best bargains. It's led me to some of my favorites including:

  • 2004 Vina Santurnia, Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero, Spain
  • 2004 and 2005 Peter Lehmann Shiraz, from McLaren Vale, Australia (ok in all fairness, a friend brought a bottle of this over for dinner, bit I've continued to test the vintage/region combination and am pleased with it)
  • 2005 Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon, from Washington

Last week I was out for happy hour with a friend at my favorite wine bar in town (Bodega Wine Bar in Santa Monica) and I ordered a bottle I'd never heard of, but it was a 2005 Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero and since I love that Vina Santurnia I figured it was worth a shot. We both enjoyed the wine!

Try this! If you don't have a Wine Spectator online subscription and you don't want to purchase one just to get your hands on this list, I found pre-printed copies of it at my favorite local wine store… yours might have them, too. It's called the Vintage Ratings chart.

Vina Santurnia (Rioja, Spain): A lesson in vintages

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Jess' Wine Tasting Notes | 1 Comment
2005 Vina Santurnia

2005 Vina Santurnia

One of our favorite stores for buying wine is The Wine House on Cotner in West Los Angeles. We like it because the prices and selection are great, the staff is knowledgable, it's close to home (which in LA is a bigger deal than it ought to be), and we can always order more of whatever we fall in love with.

The first time that happened, we fell in love with the 2004 Vina Santurnia, a delicious wine from Rioja. At $10.99 a bottle, we didn't even hesitate to order a case. Mitch is a big Pinot Noir fan, I'm a big Cabernet Sauvignon fan, and this wine satisfied both of us. We both like that it's smooth and has a nice mouthfeel, a barely-berry flavor in a medium-bodied, dry red wine. We ordered a case of course, after we cleaned out the remaining five bottles they had in stock. Except we still haven't invested in proper wine storage and the last few bottles started to get a little… negative… before we finished the case.

Nonetheless, we happily drank the remainder and went back to The Wine House to purchase some more. Except now they were onto the 2005 vintage. I'd been doing research and learning that a 2004 Whatchyacallit isn't going to be the same as a 2005 Whatchyacallit unless we're talking about Champagne. So we sent up a test balloon and only bought a few bottles of the 2005. Good thing! We didn't love it as much as we loved the 2004.

Until today that is! I have this not-so-secret love affair with Garlic Triscuit (pronounced tris-kwee in our household). I also love Garlic Jack cheese. Well, in fact, I like nearly all foods with garlic in them, including raw garlic which grosses everyone out and is neither here nor there. Anyway, I had a lovely snack of Garlic Jack on Garlic Triscuit this afternoon, and opened a bottle of the 2005 Vina Santurnia to enjoy with it. And enjoy I did! The pairing of food and wine seems like an academic pursuit to me, until the magic happens like it did today.

On the label
Rioja – Type of wine named after the region of La Rioja in Spain
Denominacion de Origen Calificada – Spain's way of telling you this wine comes from a top-quality wine region
Vina Santurnia – The winery
Crianza – This means it spent one year in an oak barrel
Varietal – 100% Tempranillo