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February and March @ Catavino – Rioja, Rioja, Rioja

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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

  • RichardA

    The initial cheer at my weekly wine group, when we have our first glass of wine, is "Rioja." I think they just like the way the word sounds.

  • http://www.passionatefoodie.blogspot.com RichardA

    The initial cheer at my weekly wine group, when we have our first glass of wine, is “Rioja.” I think they just like the way the word sounds.

  • Penelope

    Excellent! I agree with all you have said. One of the biggest things I see, that many in the US don't know, is what the predominant varietal is because 'here' most wines have the varietal on the label because we have not 'regionalized'. Just like many people in the US don't know what the varietal is for Burgundy………movies can only do so much! It is sad that Rioja has become a benchmark, but I feel that Spain is doing an excellent job getting/promoting their 'other' regions. I now can say Ribera Del Duero or Toro, and people know what I am talking about as to region and varietals. Being a California Tempranillo producer my wine is often compared to Rioja which is not always a good thing as you referenced above. And in fact it tends to be more Ribera 'style'. This seems to happen in the US competitions. Ah, the education goes on……….. Can't wait to see what you find and to break out a few Riojas here to comment on!

  • Gabriella

    Penelope, Would you mind sharing with us what you consider the main differences between your Tempranillo and a Tempranillo from Rioja? You say that it is more Ribera in style, but I fear many people may not know what that means. Could you expand on that? Thanks!

  • Dr. Debs

    Thanks for this great post, and the coverage. I was just thinking last night (while drinking Portuguese wine from the Douro!) that it had been a long time since my last Rioja. I like their earthy softness, though I can see why this might be an acquired taste.

  • http://www.coralmustang.com Penelope

    Excellent! I agree with all you have said. One of the biggest things I see, that many in the US don’t know, is what the predominant varietal is because ‘here’ most wines have the varietal on the label because we have not ‘regionalized’. Just like many people in the US don’t know what the varietal is for Burgundy………movies can only do so much!
    It is sad that Rioja has become a benchmark, but I feel that Spain is doing an excellent job getting/promoting their ‘other’ regions. I now can say Ribera Del Duero or Toro, and people know what I am talking about as to region and varietals. Being a California Tempranillo producer my wine is often compared to Rioja which is not always a good thing as you referenced above. And in fact it tends to be more Ribera ‘style’. This seems to happen in the US competitions. Ah, the education goes on………..
    Can’t wait to see what you find and to break out a few Riojas here to comment on!

  • http://www.catavino.net Gabriella

    Penelope,

    Would you mind sharing with us what you consider the main differences between your Tempranillo and a Tempranillo from Rioja? You say that it is more Ribera in style, but I fear many people may not know what that means. Could you expand on that?

    Thanks!

  • http://goodwineunder20.blogspot.com/ Dr. Debs

    Thanks for this great post, and the coverage. I was just thinking last night (while drinking Portuguese wine from the Douro!) that it had been a long time since my last Rioja. I like their earthy softness, though I can see why this might be an acquired taste.

  • Anna

    You are absolutely right about Rioja, there are so many other fantastic wines (regions) in Spain that have much better quality/price, I live in Bilbao very close to Rioja and here in the bars if you ask for ANYTHING else than a Rioja they will know you're a foreigner…Even Ribera seems to be adventorous here. But i have to admit….my everyday house wine is a Rioja! I'll will let you try it when you come to Rioja.

  • http://www.excelwines.com/ Anna

    You are absolutely right about Rioja, there are so many other fantastic wines (regions) in Spain that have much better quality/price, I live in Bilbao very close to Rioja and here in the bars if you ask for ANYTHING else than a Rioja they will know you’re a foreigner…Even Ribera seems to be adventorous here. But i have to admit….my everyday house wine is a Rioja! I’ll will let you try it when you come to Rioja.

  • Penelope

    Gabriella, I would be happy to talk about the differences/similarities that I see between my California/Paso Robles region and Ribera vs Rioja. I consider my wine to be in the 'Crianza' style- 10-12 months in oak, total aging about 24 months. The differences with the two Spanish regions I have found have to do with the concentration of fruit and the extraction of tannins. Many of the Riojas in this short aging are lighter in style than the Ribera that have more concentration of fruit and tannin. I have had Riojas that have more new oak ('new world style'), but still do not have a lot of fruit concentration. The fruit that I source from Paso Robles tends to make wine that is pretty concentrated. This year I also brought in fruit from a hilside in Sonoma County California. The wine from this vineyard is not as concentrated and has more 'bright fruit' to it- red raspberries vs blackberry that I get from the Paso vineyard. Where I am going is that I think the differences are due to temperature, growing time, soils. But there are also links and similarities, possibly due more to the growing season/temperatures of the regions. Don't know if this makes sense or what others have experienced-would love to hear! Keep up the good reporting on Riojas both of you! The Mustang Winemaker

  • http://www.coralmustang.com Penelope

    Gabriella,

    I would be happy to talk about the differences/similarities that I see between my California/Paso Robles region and Ribera vs Rioja. I consider my wine to be in the ‘Crianza’ style- 10-12 months in oak, total aging about 24 months. The differences with the two Spanish regions I have found have to do with the concentration of fruit and the extraction of tannins. Many of the Riojas in this short aging are lighter in style than the Ribera that have more concentration of fruit and tannin. I have had Riojas that have more new oak (‘new world style’), but still do not have a lot of fruit concentration. The fruit that I source from Paso Robles tends to make wine that is pretty concentrated. This year I also brought in fruit from a hilside in Sonoma County California. The wine from this vineyard is not as concentrated and has more ‘bright fruit’ to it- red raspberries vs blackberry that I get from the Paso vineyard. Where I am going is that I think the differences are due to temperature, growing time, soils. But there are also links and similarities, possibly due more to the growing season/temperatures of the regions.

    Don’t know if this makes sense or what others have experienced-would love to hear!

    Keep up the good reporting on Riojas both of you!
    The Mustang Winemaker

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  • Fermento

    I agree with Penelope that temperature and soils have so much effect on Temp. The caveat though is that we really are comparing apples to oranges when it comes to Tempranillo in Spain and Tempranillo in California. In Spain, there are hundreds of different clones or selections. If the variables of soil and climate weren't enough, each region has a different representation of this cool grape. Until 2001, we really only had 3 clones of Temp in California to work with, and only two more than that up until just a couple of years ago. For instance there is some indication that what is being called the "Toro" selection has significantly higher "extractables" than the Tempranillo 02, which has been in Cali for a little longer. In the long run, we are going to need much more time to work with soil, rootstock, climate and clones.

  • http://www.twistedoak.com Fermento

    I agree with Penelope that temperature and soils have so much effect on Temp. The caveat though is that we really are comparing apples to oranges when it comes to Tempranillo in Spain and Tempranillo in California. In Spain, there are hundreds of different clones or selections. If the variables of soil and climate weren’t enough, each region has a different representation of this cool grape. Until 2001, we really only had 3 clones of Temp in California to work with, and only two more than that up until just a couple of years ago. For instance there is some indication that what is being called the “Toro” selection has significantly higher “extractables” than the Tempranillo 02, which has been in Cali for a little longer. In the long run, we are going to need much more time to work with soil, rootstock, climate and clones.

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  • mike

    Does anyone have an explanation for the lite green , red and burgandy stamp on the back of the rioja's. Mike at miketurpen@hotmail.com

  • Gabriella Opaz

    Hey MIke, I think this article may give you some more clarity on the meaning of the lables: http://www.catavino.net/spain/how-to-read-a-rioja… but please let me know if you have more questions.

  • Gabriella Opaz

    Hey MIke, I think this article may give you some more clarity on the meaning of the lables: <a href="http://www.catavino.net/spain/how-to-read-a-rioja…”><a href="http://www.catavino.net/spain/how-to-rea…but ” target=”_blank”>http://www.catavino.net/spain/how-to-read-a-rioja…but please let me know if you have more questions.