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What is the Flavor of Rioja?

rioja vines

When we first decided to commit two months to La Rioja wine, I had a lot of concerns. First, I didn’t know how we were going to cover the subject in such a short amount of time with important events not La Rioja related thrown into the mix. The answer was simple, it’s impossible. The second, and more difficult concern, was how to define La Rioja wine, not by geography, climate or style, but as a general concept. Imagine this question, which I’m sure more than one of you retailers have had asked of them, “What does it taste like? What is the flavor of La Rioja?” Initially, my answer would have been something like this: Rioja reds tend to have oxidized notes from prolonged aging with some exceptions for wines made in a more modern style where big fruit plays the primary role. Would I have been wrong? No. But would I have done this historic and culturally rich region a disservice? Definitely!

After a full week of tasting, talking and sightseeing, my attitudes have changed. I have now adopted a new outlook on La Rioja. In typical high school essay fashion, I have three points I want to make clear about “the taste of La Rioja” as I see it now. But first, I want to preface my thoughts by sharing with you how much I’ve learned as a result of this trip, and how I have acquired a new appreciation for the region. La Rioja wines, both in their past and future styles, are wines that deserve praise (not that they needed telling). And without a doubt, these wines are some of the best in the world; however, La Rioja wines need to be broken down into categories to help us to better explain their style. My suggestions are as such: modern, traditional and spontaneous. The first two styles are commonly referred to, while the last is something that I needed to add to the mix, so that I could better explain my personal experience.

Old wines

Traditional La Rioja is just what it sounds to be, traditional. Historically, these wines needed long periods of aging in barrel before they were reposed in their dust covered bottles, hidden away in darkened cellars waiting to be released to the consumer. Today, these wines would be associated with an aged Bordeaux, where the winery cellared the wine, rather than the consumer. A comment shared by a Rioja winemaker summed it up best when it was suggested that it was best to keep the “children” at home until they were ready to present themselves to the world. In this way, they would shape and age under the careful guidance of the watchful parent, rather than released too young, where outside influences could impact them unfavorably. The wines in this category are mature and meant to be consumed at the time of release. For those you who do purchase a traditional Rioja wine, at their best, you will be rewarded with a wine with subtle and ethereal notes of bottled history. Where fruit is no longer a musician, but rather the stage on which the orchestra performs the secondary and tertiary notes. You experience wisps of coffee, spice, and everything nice, while a bright acidity fuses the cacophony of flavors and aromas together like a conductor guiding the score. This is traditional Rioja at its best, while at its worse, it can be full of dried out and lifeless flavors, without body or fruit. Pale shadows of their former selves.

During this trip, I tasted Muga‘s Prado Enea, a wine I fell in love with for its subtleties and references to times long past. Lopez de Heredia‘s wines – white, rose and red – left me in awe at how a wine this old can still dance across my palate. The oldest of which contained fruit first harvested before I entered high school. I was shocked to see a wine whose sparkle and life made my mind race with envy. If only I could age as well!

1948 Riojanas

Modern La Rioja, on the other hand, is a wine with a rebellious nature that drives man to improve, which is then bottled up and offered to Bacchus. Often mocked and ostracized for being too modern, even I found myself occasionally craving a more traditional style when tasting these wines. This style is meant for you to age in your own cellar or to enjoy with a day or two of decanting. Big and brooding at their best, they show the purest of fruits with a hardy underbelly of spice, like a rock band that slowly turns up the bass until they have your attention. In truth, these are not always my favorite wines, but I will admit that I did find myself both surprised and shocked by winemaker’s adeptness at turning rough and tough tannins into something more elusive and profound. Roda’s wines gave me a glimpse at what I found to be great modernity. Roda I 2004, a wine made from 100% Tempranillo was modern Rioja wine that showed rich fruit and beautiful floral spice, a wine that while big and bold remained balanced and elegant.

These wines show pure rich cherries, blackberries, and rich spicebox flavors that mix and mingle like a mosh pit on your tongue. Having both sold wines that should be laid down and tasted wines both young and well aged, I will say that some of these new wines will benefit from some cellar rest. The Torre Muga was initially thicker and tighter than an elephant’s hide, but when allowed to rest over the course of two days in a partially full bottle, it began to reveal notes of tobacco, cinnamon and pure rich fruit. This small experience showed me that these new modern wines might indeed have a life that is worthy of living and should not be scoffed at. On the other hand, there is also a move towards combining the two styles. We experienced many wines that at first came off as modern or traditional, but eventually showed more balance between the two: a place where I think the future lies for the majority of Rioja wines. The reality is that these wines are here to stay. Modern in taste and flavors, they appeal to the new palate. The only thing that bothers me is their ridiculous use of new oak! More than once did I wonder if the bottle itself was made of oak. Although I do appreciate the modern style, why not limit the oak and let us taste more of the fruit? The final style I wish to mention might be a possible solution to the problem.

LAN barrel room

Spontaneous La Rioja wines are like a group of artists going wild in a room full of the finest paints. In this case, the fruit of Rioja is the paint and the artists are the winemakers. Almost every winemaker seemed to have the “special vat” set aside for experimentation. Often these trials consisted of a wine made from traditional grapes, but blended or processed in a new, innovative way. We also found a few traditional wines that were given a twist by adding a little of this or that. These wines made your eyebrows rise in feigned disgust, while your nose returned to the glass for another smell. Tobia’s oak fermented rose is a great example. To a Rioja purist, this wine may be scoffed at, but they would be forgetting the traditional roses of Tondonia, aged in oak for decades. Tobia’s rose is a wine full of life and vigor, a wine that is both complex and singular. It says to me, let’s have fun, while still minding my parent’s traditions. Other spontaneous styles include a single varietal Mazuelo from Miguel Marino. Although this wine was not my favorite, I loved it for its cajones! Not afraid to stride out on its own, this is a wine that when put on the market will be both ridiculed and praised, as it is unique in such a way that people will either love it or hate it. I for one will look for a bottle or two to stash away and explore at my leisure.

Spontaneous creations that all come together to show us a glimpse of the future, while often harkening to the past. These wines are created from winemakers whose modern bodegas found the need to look back over their shoulders as they continued to strive ahead. Young winemakers seemed to be most prone to this spontaneity with wines like Arar, made from a bodega producing no more than 6000 bottles. Mind you, its entire space for production and aging is so small, it could fit into one of the mammoth fermentation tanks used by the likes of LAN or Marques de Riscal. Here was a wine that seemed to be looking to the past and the future simultaneously, trying to decide on a route that fell somewhere in between. While still too young to tell, I look forward to what the future holds for this winery. Others included Dinastia Vivanco‘s new single varietal project. Rafael Vivanco bottled high altitude Garnacha from Rioja Baja, whose varietal character and regional tipicity combined to produce something unique and singular, with notes of minerals, violets, and a soft but omnipresent acidity. This is a wine for my lamb chops!

Barrel Room 2 Vivanco

So what is the taste of La Rioja? If there are three styles, what is it that holds them together? What is the “terroir” of La Rioja? I have one answer, acidity. An acidity that is both enduring, in the case of the most ancient wines, and able to balance even the most tannic young monsters, whose long lives need a partner to support them all the way to their final pour. The acidity I tasted was beautiful, and yet powerful, always present and willing to play the role it is assigned wine by wine. Most often, acidity was the balance to the wine’s fruit and spice. Rioja is about this acidity the common thread that interweaves through the various styles, whereby making them fresh, alive, and in the end, a joy to drink. Most often the acidity was interwoven seamlessly into a wine, so as to integrate and restrain it from sticking out like a wayward elbow in a crowd. Miguel Merino‘s 2000 Reserva was one such wine that so beautifully married both the fruit and acidity together in such harmony that I wish I had a day to sit with this bottle and explore it, alongside some of Rioja’s finer culinary treats.

Rioja is a place that we’ve avoided for a long time, due to its stranglehold on the Spanish wine consumer’s market. And we still hold a bit of a grudge toward its dominance, but my stubborn nature did me wrong by forcing me to avoid it for too long. We fell in love with La Rioja and its wines over the past week, a place smaller than the Metropolitan area I grew up in as a kid, La Rioja is home to diverse foods, cultures and wines. I now have a renewed vigor to not only taste more from La Rioja, but to further attempt to understand its many wines. Please grab a bottle from La Rioja in the coming days and have a taste, enjoy it with a friend, see what category it falls in and then come back here and share your story with us. We can’t wait to hear about it.

Cheers,

Ryan Opaz

  • Anna

    I am glad to read that you have changed your view on Rioja, and really enjoyed reading your article. It made me go and immediately open a bottle of our house wine – Cantiga from Rioja of course. I believe more and more people are releasing what you just described about Rioja in your blog. Rich in history and tradition but very eager to compete with the "new world wines". You are so right when you say that Rioja has diversity- Rioja is no longer an area with only one product and style. You can find any style you like as long as you know where to go…and that leads me to the next thing. With this Rioja revolution the Rioja wine tourism has not really followed. Why is this? Some say they don't want it – they don' t need the money…for me that whole thing is a mystery… There are so many beautiful Rioja villages and wineries. I love the vineyards in South Africa, California and France where you just arrive and they'll welcome you with open arms. In Rioja you can still not visit most bodegas without leaving at least a week notice. And even then you have to beg…Arranged wine tours are also not that common (here's a market for anyone who wants to open something in Rioja). Saludos,

  • Dave

    I think fairly much the same thing, but instead of having a third catergory, I divide the modern category. So I have Established, for producers who have done their experimenting for their main wines and now produce in a house style most years (eg Roda), and Experimental, those who are still establishing a style or continually try new things each vintage. The main reason for this is that 10 years ago what are modern wines now, were the experimentals then. Of course there are some that stay in this inovation stage all of the time. If you do like you guys did last week and walk around a heap of bodegas in Rioja, you will see these small fermenters all over the place that are being used to try new styles and blends. One of the more exciting areas seems to be white Rioja, either reworking old styles with the traditional grapes or some thing new with French verities. For example, the last time I went to Palacios Remondo in Alfaro there were 5 or 6 small fermenters in use to develop Placet, their new white Rioja. The direction was unclear at the time, but they have since released a very popular and modern wine made from Viura. Thanks for the great write up. Cheers, Dave W

  • http://www.excelwines.com Anna

    I am glad to read that you have changed your view on Rioja, and really enjoyed reading your article. It made me go and immediately open a bottle of our house wine – Cantiga from Rioja of course.
    I believe more and more people are releasing what you just described about Rioja in your blog. Rich in history and tradition but very eager to compete with the “new world wines”. You are so right when you say that Rioja has diversity- Rioja is no longer an area with only one product and style. You can find any style you like as long as you know where to go…and that leads me to the next thing. With this Rioja revolution the Rioja wine tourism has not really followed. Why is this? Some say they don’t want it – they don’ t need the money…for me that whole thing is a mystery… There are so many beautiful Rioja villages and wineries. I love the vineyards in South Africa, California and France where you just arrive and they’ll welcome you with open arms. In Rioja you can still not visit most bodegas without leaving at least a week notice. And even then you have to beg…Arranged wine tours are also not that common (here’s a market for anyone who wants to open something in Rioja). Saludos,

  • http://www.tintoyblanco.com.au Dave

    I think fairly much the same thing, but instead of having a third catergory, I divide the modern category. So I have Established, for producers who have done their experimenting for their main wines and now produce in a house style most years (eg Roda), and Experimental, those who are still establishing a style or continually try new things each vintage. The main reason for this is that 10 years ago what are modern wines now, were the experimentals then. Of course there are some that stay in this inovation stage all of the time.

    If you do like you guys did last week and walk around a heap of bodegas in Rioja, you will see these small fermenters all over the place that are being used to try new styles and blends. One of the more exciting areas seems to be white Rioja, either reworking old styles with the traditional grapes or some thing new with French verities. For example, the last time I went to Palacios Remondo in Alfaro there were 5 or 6 small fermenters in use to develop Placet, their new white Rioja. The direction was unclear at the time, but they have since released a very popular and modern wine made from Viura.

    Thanks for the great write up. Cheers,

    Dave W

  • Ryan

    We have a bottle of the placet on our table to open in two weeks when we do our big tasting. Should be interesting since we also have some '89 white tondonia and a barrel fermented Tobia(great wine!) I agree on the division of modern to a point. I'm not talking about time related terms, but tasting related. Modern tasting versus, tradtional tasting…to this point I saw a lot of wines that kind of walked the line between the two and seemed to taste more like a questioning teenager, not sure which parent to take after. I don't know if these will grow up or stay the same. As to the fun barrel experiments everywhere, well they are full of wines I can't wait to taste one day. We have a few we'll be writing about in the near future! Cheers,

  • http://www.obiscoito.com Ryan

    We have a bottle of the placet on our table to open in two weeks when we do our big tasting. Should be interesting since we also have some ’89 white tondonia and a barrel fermented Tobia(great wine!)

    I agree on the division of modern to a point. I’m not talking about time related terms, but tasting related. Modern tasting versus, tradtional tasting…to this point I saw a lot of wines that kind of walked the line between the two and seemed to taste more like a questioning teenager, not sure which parent to take after. I don’t know if these will grow up or stay the same. As to the fun barrel experiments everywhere, well they are full of wines I can’t wait to taste one day. We have a few we’ll be writing about in the near future!

    Cheers,

  • Steve

    Great synopsis on the current situation in Rioja! I would imagine that most people think of oak (esp. American oak) more than acidity. But yes, the best Rioja wines have a relatively high acidity which is remarkable coming from relatively low acid grape varieties – Tempranillo, Garnacha and Viura. The high but amazinly balanced concentrations of acid and oak in Lopez de Heredia's wines are probably why they age so well. But the modern red wines seem to be more high oak, low acid like most smooth drinking international-style wines. Are high acid reds only popular with wine geeks?

  • http://www.delongwine.com/news Steve

    Great synopsis on the current situation in Rioja!

    I would imagine that most people think of oak (esp. American oak) more than acidity. But yes, the best Rioja wines have a relatively high acidity which is remarkable coming from relatively low acid grape varieties – Tempranillo, Garnacha and Viura. The high but amazinly balanced concentrations of acid and oak in Lopez de Heredia’s wines are probably why they age so well. But the modern red wines seem to be more high oak, low acid like most smooth drinking international-style wines. Are high acid reds only popular with wine geeks?

  • Anna

    What is a wine geek?

  • ryan

    Steve I agree on the American oak, though I will say that the Modern Red Wines still have a lot of acidity. Often well hidden behind the tannins and unctous body. Many times we found that these monsters small saving grace was the acidity. ;) Anna – A wine geek is a lover of wine that likes to talk about it more than most. Often times we "geek out" and regualar wine drinkers eyes begin to glaze over! ;)

  • Anna

    So I am an aspiring wine geek then….

  • http://www.excelwines.com/ Anna

    What is a wine geek?

  • http://catavino.net ryan

    Steve I agree on the American oak, though I will say that the Modern Red Wines still have a lot of acidity. Often well hidden behind the tannins and unctous body. Many times we found that these monsters small saving grace was the acidity. ;)

    Anna – A wine geek is a lover of wine that likes to talk about it more than most. Often times we “geek out” and regualar wine drinkers eyes begin to glaze over! ;)

  • http://www.excelwines.com/ Anna

    So I am an aspiring wine geek then….

  • Jeff Cleveland

    I have a bottle of what I think will be a traditional Rioja (Bodegas Valdemar) and am planning on opening it soon. If I wanted to make a somewhat traditional meal to go with it, what would you suggest – keeping in mind I will be grocery shopping in Wisconsin?

  • Anna

    Hi Jeff, a traditional "Riojano" would make "cordero asado" with his traditional tinto. I found a quite good reciepe in english for you. General in Spain when you have roast lamb you would have a whole shoulder or leg from a young lamb per person, but maybe that will be difficult to get in Wisconsin? So just take any lamb you can find. This recipe is for one whole leg of lamb. Obviously it works equally as well with individual legs or shoulders. Typically this recipe involves cooking the lamb on a a bed of sliced potatoes, onions and garlic but if you do not wish to do so it will not be a problem. Roast Lamb ingredients: For 4 – 6 people – 1.5 kg (3 ½ lb) leg of lamb – 2 tablespoons of olive oil – Salt – Freshly ground black pepper – 1 teaspoon fresh thyme – 2 cloves of garlic finely sliced – 1 wineglass of dry white wine – 300 ml (½ pint) of water – 2 tablespoons of wine vinegar – Juice of 1 lemon – Potatoes (the quantity just depends on how much you want to cook with the lamb) – 1 or 2 large onions – 4 or 5 whole garlic cloves (or add less if you don't want such a strong garlic flavour in the onions and potatoes) Preparation: Rub the lamb with half of the olive oil, season it with salt and pepper and rub the thyme over the surface of the lamb. Let the lamb sit for an hour to absorb the flavours. Peel and cut the potatoes into slices about 1cm thick and place on the bottom of a roasting tin. Slice the onions and mix them with the potatoes and peel the garlic but leave the cloves whole and add to the potatoes and onions. Put the white wine, water, vinegar and lemon juice into a pan and bring to the boil. Next make some slits in the leg of lamb and put some slices of garlic into them and then rub the lamb with the rest of the olive oil. Place the lamb on top of the potatoes, onions and garlic and pour about half of the liquid over the meat. Place in a preheated oven at 230ºC/450ºF (gas mark 8) for 15 minutes. Then turn the heat down to 190ºC/375ºF (gas mark 5) and continue to roast it. Baste with the remaining liquid from time to time. If the potatoes soak up too much of the liquid you can make more. For cooking time allow 15 minutes per 450g (1lb) if you like your lamb pink and 25 minutes per 450g if you like it well done in the manner that the Spanish like it! GOOD LUCK!

  • http://indiscriminateideas.blogspot.com Jeff Cleveland

    I have a bottle of what I think will be a traditional Rioja (Bodegas Valdemar) and am planning on opening it soon. If I wanted to make a somewhat traditional meal to go with it, what would you suggest – keeping in mind I will be grocery shopping in Wisconsin?

  • http://www.excelwines.com/ Anna

    Hi Jeff, a traditional “Riojano” would make “cordero asado” with his traditional tinto. I found a quite good reciepe in english for you. General in Spain when you have roast lamb you would have a whole shoulder or leg from a young lamb per person, but maybe that will be difficult to get in Wisconsin? So just take any lamb you can find.

    This recipe is for one whole leg of lamb. Obviously it works equally as well with individual legs or shoulders.

    Typically this recipe involves cooking the lamb on a a bed of sliced potatoes, onions and garlic but if you do not wish to do so it will not be a problem.

    Roast Lamb ingredients:
    For 4 – 6 people

    - 1.5 kg (3 ½ lb) leg of lamb
    - 2 tablespoons of olive oil
    - Salt
    - Freshly ground black pepper
    - 1 teaspoon fresh thyme
    - 2 cloves of garlic finely sliced
    - 1 wineglass of dry white wine
    - 300 ml (½ pint) of water
    - 2 tablespoons of wine vinegar
    - Juice of 1 lemon

    - Potatoes (the quantity just depends on how much you want to cook with the lamb)
    - 1 or 2 large onions
    - 4 or 5 whole garlic cloves (or add less if you don’t want such a strong garlic flavour in the onions and potatoes)

    Preparation:
    Rub the lamb with half of the olive oil, season it with salt and pepper and rub the thyme over the surface of the lamb. Let the lamb sit for an hour to absorb the flavours.

    Peel and cut the potatoes into slices about 1cm thick and place on the bottom of a roasting tin. Slice the onions and mix them with the potatoes and peel the garlic but leave the cloves whole and add to the potatoes and onions.

    Put the white wine, water, vinegar and lemon juice into a pan and bring to the boil.

    Next make some slits in the leg of lamb and put some slices of garlic into them and then rub the lamb with the rest of the olive oil. Place the lamb on top of the potatoes, onions and garlic and pour about half of the liquid over the meat.

    Place in a preheated oven at 230ºC/450ºF (gas mark 8) for 15 minutes. Then turn the heat down to 190ºC/375ºF (gas mark 5) and continue to roast it. Baste with the remaining liquid from time to time. If the potatoes soak up too much of the liquid you can make more.

    For cooking time allow 15 minutes per 450g (1lb) if you like your lamb pink and 25 minutes per 450g if you like it well done in the manner that the Spanish like it!

    GOOD LUCK!

  • Jeff Cleveland

    Anna, thanks a lot. That sounds like a great dish – even if it DIDN'T pair with the wine. But I'm also thinking it would be a great match. Thanks again.

  • http://indiscriminateideas.blogspot.com Jeff Cleveland

    Anna, thanks a lot. That sounds like a great dish – even if it DIDN’T pair with the wine. But I’m also thinking it would be a great match. Thanks again.

  • Anna

    Jeff, You have me confused….what do you mean?

  • http://www.excelwines.com/ Anna

    Jeff, You have me confused….what do you mean?

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