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.