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A Rioja primer


Yesterday’s big Rioja tasting, sponsored by the Vibrant Rioja U.S. campaign and held on the 38th floor of the St. Francis hotel on a perfectly sunny day, was one of the most information-rich, educational wine seminars I’ve ever attended.

I went because, while I know a little about Rioja, it’s clearly not enough. The panel consisted equally of Rioja winemakers, an Oregon winemaker and a local critic. Most of what I learned was from the Spaniards as well as the moderater, Marnie Old, a savvy New York sommelier.

The Rioja, like other large wine regions, is divided into cooler parts (Alta and Alavesa, which receive Atlantic influences) and the more inland Baja, whose climate is warmed by the Mediterranean. Alcohol levels vary accordingly. This is an old region, with an old tradition, and what I found most interesting was how modern methods are upsetting the old applecart–with, in my opinion, unfortunate results.

Here are my notes on the ten wines tasted, in order.

1. Bodegas Valdemar 2010 Rioja Blanco “Inspiracion Valdemar” ($35). We learned that a rare white mutation of Tempranillo was found in 1988, and now, a few daring vintners try their hands at white Rioja. This wine was brilliant, pungently dry and acidic, with complex citrus, banana and  honeysuckle flavors, similar to a barrel-fermented Pinot Gris. Score: 93.

2. Bodegas Faustino 2009 Rosado “Faustino VII” ($9). With a splash of Garnacha, this rosé was very high in acidity, with a not unpleasant sourness. It showed uplifted flavors of strawberries, cloves and dried herbs, and such was the tannic structure that I thought it ageworthy despite the giveaway price. Score: 89.

3.Bodegeas Bilbaînas 2008 Cosecha “Vina Zaco” ($12). In a way, the wine of the tasting. Bone dry, crisp in acidity, very complex in fruit, herbs and spices with a smoky finish. From the Alta. I though it was one of the greatest $12 wines I’d ever had, and raised my hand to say so. There was a murmur of approval throughout the audience. Score: 92.

4. Bodegas Vina Herminia 2010 Rioja ($10). Made with partial malolactic fermentation, in what the experts said is a very old-fashioned method, this was a light, fun wine, slightly gassy, like a Beaujolais. It had bubblegum and raspberry jam flavors, with refreshing acidity. I would serve it slightly chilled. Score: 87.

5.Herederos del Marques de Riscal 2010 Rioja “Proximo” ($12). Getting into bigger, firmer wines now. This young one from the Alavesa is hard and stony, with a lime, iodine intensity. The tannins are strong, acidity high. It is extremely elegant. Here’s where perception plays tricks with reality. Tasted blind, I would recommend aging. But then you see the price and wonder. Still, I would love to put this bottle into my cellar for 8-10 years and try again. Score: 91.

6.Bodegas Dinastia Vivanco 2007 Crianza ($18). I loved this wine. It was the ripest yet in the tasting, with scads of cherries, licorice, dark chocolate, spices and bitter coffee. Tannic and tough, but with great structure, and the sweet vanilla said to come from American oak. A lovely, dry, delicate wine resembling a cool-climate California Pinot Noir. Score: 92.

7. Bodega Marques de Murrieta 2005 Reserva ($22). This, the panel told us, was an utterly traditional Reserva. Aged for 22 months in American oak, it was a big, rich, impressively tannic wine, showing much sweetness of  fruit (cherry compôte) and vanilla. Ripe and forward despite ample tannins, and bone dry on the finish. I thought it classy and distinguished and ageworthy. Score: 92.

8. Bodegas Ysios 2004 Reserva ($30). At the age of nearly 7 years, still fresh and lively, with licorice, currant and vanilla flavors, marked by bright acidity and firm tannins. Just beginning to show some bottle bouquet in the form of dried fruits/potpourri. A forward, lusty wine now, resembling a rugged Malbec or Shiraz, but in my opinion, with years ahead to soften and develop. Score: 93.

9. Bodega CVNE 1999 Gran Reserva ($60). Certainly the biggest wine so far. I wrote, “Massive, and frankly speaking, nowhere near  ready.” Felt old-style, with earthy astringency and hard tannins and acids. Brooding, but enormously complex. I asked my neighbor, a well-known wine personality, what she thought, and she said it was ready now. I didn’t think so, and once again raised my hand to inquire of the panel. As we were nearing the end of the tasting, Ms. Old allowed only one of the Spaniards, Rafael Vivanco (Bodegas Dinastia Vivanco), to reply. He agreed with me that the wine is an infant. I would like to try it in 10-15 years. Score: 93.

10. Bodegas Marques de Caceres 2008 Rioja “MC” ($40). This wine blew my mind, and not in a good way. I wrote: “scandalous!” After the the previous nine wines, it was made California cult-style, a wine obviously meant to appeal to certain critics with a high score. It seemed to me to have little to do with Rioja. Once again, I was forced to wave a tattoed arm and have Ms. Old call on me. I expressed myself, asking for the panel’s opinion. This was clearly the most controversial discussion of the day, and I’m afraid poor Ms. Old, who tried to keep us on schedule, just gave up. The Spaniards on the panel said, basically, “Well, this is a business, and all we can do is give the consumers what they’re asking for.” Someone in the back of the room said, “Yes, but please don’t sell your soul.” I can empathise with the Spaniards, who feel, perhaps, that the world is turning its back on the hard, tannic, rustic, American oaky Tempranillos of their tradition in favor of riper, softer, higher alcohol, French-oaked wines. (The ‘08 Caceres was aged 15 months in 100% new French oak). But it really was a pity to see such a desperate ploy for attention. Score: 87, on a good day.

  1. Steve, I’m glad that you got to try some Rioja and experienced more than just California wine 😉 They produce some of my favorite wines and I’m happy that you enjoyed them. However, with reference to your first note, I don’t know if you misunderstood your hosts, but white Rioja is not a new, or rare, wine. White Rioja has been made for quite some time using mostly Viura (Macabeo) along with Malavasia and Garnacha Blanca. I assume that you meant to say winemakers are trying their hands at white *Tempranillo*.

  2. Dear Colorado, No, you’re mistaken. Our hosts pointed out that this white Rioja was 100% Tempranillo, stemming from that accidental mutation, and the authorities didn’t even approve it as Rioja Blanco until 2007.

  3. Yes, I understand that. You stated, “now, a few daring vintners try their hands at white Rioja.” You made it sound like white Rioja wine is a new thing. It is not. It has been made from Viura, Malavasia and Garnacha Blanca for a long time. Using a white mutation of Tempranillo is a new thing, but white Rioja is NOT only produced by a few daring wineries. I was not trying to be rude; I assumed that you were just not being very clear in your explanation, but now I don’t know…

  4. Steve, Marnie is acutally form Philly with a few ties to the French Culinary Institute in NYC.

  5. Mark, oops. I went by the materials the Rioja people handed out. It said Marnie teaches in Manhattan, so I assumed — stupidly, as it turns out — that she lives in NY. Sorry.

  6. Colorado: I apologize for not being clear enough!

  7. Enjoyed reading your notes; it was fun to compare them with mine. #7 was my favorite (although #1 was close). I tasted all the 2005 Gran Reservas I could find at the Grand Tasting. In my opinion, as a group they are drinking very well.

    I found the aged wines to be the most enjoyable at the afternoon tasting. The Cerrado del Castillo Cuzcurrita 2001 rocked (Winebow). The Wine Group’s 2003 Gran Reserva was stuck on a train somewhere from NY so they poured a library wine, the 100% Tempranillo 1991 Gran Reserva, and it was holding up well.

    Just a note for your readers, Earl Jones, “the winemaker from Oregon” is the founder of TAPAS, Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society, an important group for anyone interested in Iberian grapes being produced in the US.

  8. Steve, no worries. Have you tried wines from R. Lopez de Heredia? They make very traditional Riojas and usually release them after around 10 years of aging. The whites are like whites from no where else, but not everyone’s cup of tea.

  9. Thank you Alana for mentioning TAPAS. We appreciate it. And feel we have a good working relationship with the Vibrant Rioja folks. It was great to see you yesterday.

  10. Superb notes, Steve. I liked best the Colección Vivanco Parcelas de Graciano 2006 from Bodegas Dinastía Vivanco, because it shows how Rafael Vivanco pursued the perfection of his craft through component deconstruction. Almost as outstanding was the Berberana Rioja Gran Reserva Viña Alarde 2003. Third off of my match was the Bodegas Bilbaínas La Vicalanda Reserva 2003, which didn’t have so much as an off-palate hint to be found from front to back. All of these wines will be improving for another 5 to 10 years, if not a great deal longer. No hubo como mejorarse.

    I also concur heart and soul with: Colorado Wine Press on the Rafael López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Blanco Gran Reserva; @WineTom in his commitment toward the magnificent ’78 Albina Rioja; as well as with Alana Gentry on the Cerrado del Castillo Cuzcurrita 2001.

    Of course, these miracles are nowhere near as cool as you on the 38th floor, 6 floors higher than the top of the building.

    saludos e un abrazo fuerte,


  11. Steve – it’s painful for me to see a local Philly wine peep listed as “New York”… 😉

  12. Steve,

    Thanks for this recap. Was great to see your reviews, and that you spotted what is the big issue with Rioja today. The divide between traditional and modern. Sadly the modern wines may please some but they have spoiled the reputation and tradition of Rioja. Rioja has been my cause celebre on the zinfidel. Anyway, thank you for a great piece. Try some more traditional Rioja! Cheers…

  13. I have no idea who (z)infidel is, but they couldn’t be more wrong in my opinion. Old and new world producers work well together and you insult the children of Rioja who have chosen to make a more modern style of wine in addition to the traditional styles, not to mention all the nice wines made with indigenous Spanish grapes in the New World.

  14. Heidi,

    Thank you for our opinion. I am not opposed to “modern” wines or different wines being made in Rioja or anywhere. I happen to like many “newer” wine makers there and elsewhere (Miguel Merino is a personal favorite in Rioja). My point is that traditional producers have often abandoned classic methods to modernize their wines. When what they should be doing, and which some are doing, is to maintain the traditional wines and to make “modern” wines in addition to the traditional. There is no insult here at all, perhaps you are misinterpreting my comments. But when you look at the final wine Steve reviews. Marques de Caceres, why would you change something so drastically just to please consumers or critics. Keep making that wine that way and evolve a new modern interpretation alongside. Many have done it. We are not saying only make traditional Rioja, just not to loose its sole. I hope to hear your comments back and thank you for taking the time to comment. I appreciate it. Cheers, Greg (aka the (z)infidel).

  15. Sorry, I meant Soul (not sole) as well. Disappointed in my poor spelling and grammar…

  16. Dude: You’ll get over it, I promise. If you’re really pissed, you can refer to Charlie Olken as an Angeleno!

  17. Manuel de Montenegro says:

    Hi Steve! I´a mexican living in Spain for some years and i´d like to tell in your blog about the great wines made in smaller wineries in Rioja. The perfect example is Bodegas SANTALBA in Gimileo, next to Haro. I think this winery make the best Rioja wines i´ve ever tasted. No doubt!. They are not so famous, but the owner family is one of the most recognized in this area. I´d love to know your opinion about SANTALBA winery. They make OGGA, ABANDO, VINA HERMOSA, ERMITA DE SAN FELICES and i´m sure i forget som wines more.
    Thanks and congratulations for your blog!!


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