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February and March @ Catavino – Rioja, Rioja, Rioja


That’s right! It’s time for our next theme for our newsletter, and this time, it’s all about Rioja! In the coming months, we hope to not only chat about the wines of <a href="Rioja: Entrenched in Tradition, Harvesting the Future“>Rioja, but also the foods, tourism and culture. Why two months? We’ve realized that until someone pays us to do this, we aim to put out the best content possible, and with a topic as big as Rioja, we’ll need more than a month to really dig up the juicy content in order to present it to you. So first off, allow us to give you an intro into our experience with Rioja, its wines, and some thoughts on what we hope to learn along the way.

When going back into the archives, we realized that <a href="Chapter 4: Rioja“>Rioja hasn’t receive much coverage on Catavino. Sure we’ve mentioned it every now and then, Ryan’s visited it, and we’ve even included some tasting notes from time to time, but in truth, we’ve neglected it. You might ask why, pointing out that Rioja is one of the most recognized Iberian wine regions, famous for its rich Tempranillos and long, history. Isn’t Rioja the region that people look to when talking about Spain, referencing its stardom as a primary driver to Spanish wines recent successes? Well, you’d be absolutely correct to bring these points to light, but there’s a catch.

Before we dive into the reasons why we’ve avoided this region, we want to share with you why we’re excited to devote our combined efforts solely on Rioja. As we stated above, Rioja is one of the main reasons that Spanish wine is well known today. With a history stretching back over 100 years, this region is where modern winemaking first came to Spain and where Spain first showed its ability to create wines of high quality. Based on the emblematic Spanish grape Tempranillo, most of Rioja’s wines are red, and are known for their extended aging in cavernous cellars scattered throughout the political region of La Rioja. These wines at their best are ethereal, and at their worst, thin and uninteresting.

Did we just say uninteresting? Yes we did, because there is an illness that’s profoundly affected Spain. More threatening to Spanish wine than phyloxerra, odium, and botrytis, combined, it is a devastating virus called “Riojatis”. Riojatis is also the reason why Catavino has avoided Rioja wines in our coverage of Iberia, while instead, discovering lesser known regions and unknown corners of the wine world.

Riojaitis is defined as:

Causing one to only drink wines of Rioja, no matter how thin, pale or brett laden they may be. At its worse, it causes the sufferer to honestly think that no other wine than Rioja could possibly have any redeeming qualities. Spread, by those infected who own restaurants and wine shops proceeding to only stock wines of Rioja, regardless of their quality level. No known antidotes.

“Surely you jest!” we hear you say in a offended and shocked tone. We’re sorry to say that we’re not. Sit down at any (and we do mean “almost” any) restaurant in Spain, and you will typically find a 100+ wine list with the following proportions of wines: 1 Cava, 2 Ribera del Dueros, 1 Champagne, 1 Dry Sherry, 1 Sweet Sherry and 94 Rioja wines. Now this would be great if the 94 Rioja wines were all top wines with quality and diverse in their styles, but unfortunately, this is where the problem lies. Let us explain.

The idea of a DO, or DOCa, was implemented to guarantee a certain quality level in a region’s wines. To get the coveted DO stamp, or seal, you need to submit your wines for review by the DO. Once approved, you now have the ability to sell them under the name of the region based on their quality level. In Rioja, the quality levels break down to one of the following: Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. We’ll get into the significance of these categories later on, but suffice to say, they relate to the length of aging and the style of wine. Yet, here is exactly where the problem lies. In theory, any wine in that range should be good. And in the case of Rioja, these wines should also be some of the highest quality wines throughout Spain. These wines should be not DO wines, but DOCa, Denominación de Origen Calificada – the highest quality level that Spanish wine can attain. So you would hope that the wines sold under the name La Rioja should be at least tasty at the low end or memorable at the high end. But unfortunately, on many occasions, we have experienced just the opposite.

What you may not know is that La Rioja makes a considerable amount of pedestrian wines: wines that aren’t bad(though many are), but aren’t amazing either. Before we taste through 100+ Rioja wines (a goal we’re eager to achieve), historically, we would never choose a Rioja wine for less than 10 euros for dinner. Up until now, we wouldn’t be able to share with you a low end Rioja wine worthy of you seeking out. Not to say they don’t exist, but when grabbing a cheap bottle off our local supermarket shelf, we’re continually underwhelmed or disappointed. Whereas, places like Ribera del Duero, Galicia, Alicante and Somontano, almost beg you to taste their ten euro and under wines, showing stunning wines of high quality.

We hope this story is not complete. We want to find the Rioja wines that astonish us without breaking our bank. Having drank some of the most expensive wines from Rioja, enjoying their mythical and magical nature, full of pure fruit and a myriad of spices, we have faith that something similar must exist at the lower end. We also hope to find a sign that the great lake of pedestrian Rioja wines are in the process of drying up. Prove us wrong Rioja! Show us what you got! Prove to us that you are more than just a fancy name with a new image!

At the end of February, we will be traveling throughout Rioja for one week. At this point, we are scheduled to visit over ten wineries, while experiencing a few touristy attractions on the side to get a feel for the region as a whole. We’re hoping to meet a chef who will show us some of the local cuisines, see Dinastia Vivanco’s wine museum, taste hundreds of wines, conducts tons of interviews, and take hundreds of pictures. This is going to be wild! We want everyone to join us in tasting some wines from Rioja these coming months, trying things you haven’t before and sharing your experiences. Leave your questions below for us, and leave a tasting note or two in our forum. I really hope to fall in love with Rioja, but it’s not going to be easy, join us as we try!

Till soon,

Ryan and Gabriella Opaz

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