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Rioja: Discovering the the wines of Spain

The Gran Reserva Wines served at the Rioja Seminar
The Gran Reserva Wines served at the Rioja Seminar
Cori Solomon

Learning about the Rioja region of Spain was the focus of a wine tasting this past week. Experiencing Rioja wines began with a seminar led by Ana Fabiano, one of the noted authorities on this wine region in northern Spain.

Rioja Wines presented a seminar led by Ana Fabiano based on her book The Wine Region of Rioja
Cori Solomon

One might say that Rioja is the land of Tempranillo as this varietal makes up 80% of the vines growing in the region. In fact the style of Tempranillo is quite different than those produced in the United States. They are softer and more developed in their structure and complexity.

Roija has the second most mountainous topography in Europe. The Ebro River surrounds the seventy-mile long and thirty-mile wide area. The region produces seven authorized grape varietals. In addition to Tempranillo, they are Garnachu, Graciano, Mazuelo, Maturana, Viura and Malvasia. These grapes come from three distinct locations, Rioja Alta, Rioja Alvesa and Rioja Baja that differ in soil and climate.

In 1988 Rioja received the DOCa, Denominación de Origen Calificada designation for quality and is currently one of two regions in Spain that has this certification. In order to guarantee that you are drinking a true Spanish Rioja, the back label must have a specific classification that denotes the authenticity of the wine and verifies how long the wine has been aged and insuring that the wine is ready to drink when one opens the bottle.

The classifications are:

Cosecha, Guarantee of Origin that states the wine has little or no time spent aging in oak barrels and are considered young wines.

Crainza those wines aged in oak barrels at least one year with another year in the bottle.

Reserva, those wines aged for a minimum of three years with at least one year in oak barrels and two years in the bottle.

Gran Reserva aged for a minimum of five years with at least two years in oak barrels and three years in bottle.

Since the Bodegas of Rioja place utmost importance on the barrels and aging process, you will find that the emphasis of wineries tours is the barrel room. Typically the Classic Rioja is aged in American Oak while the Modern Rioja utilizes French Oak.

During the seminar we sampled a Marqués de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva 2005, A Marqués de Riscal Gran Reserva 2001, A Marqués de Cáceres Gran Reserva 1990, a C.V.N.E. Imperial Gran Reserva 1979 and a Faustino 1 Gran Reserva 1970. My favorite was the 2005 Marqués de Murrieta Catillo Ygay from the Rioja Alta region with its peppery aromas that also hinted at cinnamon and licorice. This blend of Tempranillo and Mazuelo was light yet bright and smooth with flavors of cherry. I also really enjoyed the Faustino 1 1970. The harmony and balance of this wine still showed through from the 1970s and the wine was very round and full on the palate.

A trade tasting followed the seminar. Here I found some additional great wines from the Rioja. Starting with the white wines my favorites were:

Dinastia Vivanco Blanco 2012, a blend of Viura, Malveasia and Tempranillo Blanco. What was most interesting was the Tempranillo over the years had mutated to produce the white fruit in this wine. The wine from the Rioja Baja region was crisp and refreshing.

Cvne Monopole 2013 was 100% Viura aged in stainless still. This wine from Rioja Alto had a Riesling quality to it as it displayed a spicy finish.

Viña Ijalba is known for creating wines from more unusual varietals and utilizing organic practices. The 2012 Maturana Blanco has the aroma of green apples and the flavors of peaches and melons.

Moving to the red wines the following stood out in my opinion.

Viña Ijalba 2011 Graciano was very rounded and balanced.

The La Rioja Alta Viña Alberdi Reserva 2007, a lightly balanced classical styled Tempranillo is one to not miss.

The 2009 Viña Herminia Excelsus, a blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha is a modern styled wine that is bigger, more fruit forward and rounded received two stars on my list.

Ontanon showcased two wines, a 2010 Crianza, a bigger fruit forward blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha as well as the Ontanon Gran Reserva 2001, a blend of Tempranillo and Graciano and showed the difference of what 10% of Garnache versus 10% Graciano does to Tempranillo. It was light and bright yet fragrantly balanced giving the wine a more subtle and delicate texture.

What impressed me most was the elegance of these Spanish wines. They were very different from those Tempranillos created here in California.

Ana Fabiano has just published entitled The Wine Region of Rioja. It is a good way to ingratiate oneself into the wines, the Bodegas and beauty of the Rioja region.

The tasting and seminar has encouraged me to delve into discovering more about the wines of Spain.

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