Red wines from the Rioja region of Spain have always been great bargains. Both current vintages and older vintages that can age well. When the Wine Media Guild organized a tasting and lunch featuring Rioja, I decided to attend in order to learn more about the wines.
The speaker was Ana Fabiano, a leading authority on the wines of Rioja and the author of a very comprehensive book, The Wine Regions Of Rioja. Ms. Fabiano told us that the Rioja wine region extends out of the La Rioja area and into Álava in the Basque country in the northwest and Navarre in the northeast. There are three subdivisions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. Each has its own geography and characteristics, but the terrain, including rivers, valleys and mountains, unites the overlapping regions and subregions.
All of Rioja’s vineyards are in the Ebro River Valley or one of its tributaries, but the soil and character vary greatly. Some vineyards are on terraced slopes of the alluvial plains and others on the iron-rich soil of the mountains. The Ebro is the longest river in Spain and Spain is the most mountainous country in Europe after Switzerland.
In the last 15 years more new Bodegas have been founded in Rioja than in the last 150. It was the tradition to use American oak in Rioja but many of these new producers along with some older established ones prefer to use a combination of American and French oak. Ms Fabiano divided these producers into two groups which she calls “Classics” and “Modern Classics.” Ms. Fabiano said that by law all the barrels used in Rioja must be 225 liters (barriques) and some bodegas still employ coopers on site.
Rioja law also requires that only indigenous grapes are planted in the vineyards of Rioja. The red grapes are Tempranillo, Garnacha Tinta (Grenache), Graciano, Mazuela and Maturana Tinta.
For more information on Rioja I recommend Ms. Fabiano’s book The Wine Region of Rioja.
Dinastia Vivanco Crianza 2008 Vineyards are located throughout the Rioja Alta area. They are 500 meters above sea level and the soil is mostly ferrous clay and marl. There are 3,000 to 3,600 vines/hectare and the training is bush and wire method. The manual harvest is carried out in October using small crates, which are stored in cooling chambers for a minimum of 30 hours. Alcoholic fermentation is in French oak vats for 13 days. Malolactic fermentation is in large French oak vats. The wine is aged in French and American oak barriques that range in age from 2 to 5 years for 16 months. After 6 months in bottle the wine is released. The wine has nice red berry aromas and flavors, with a touch of toast and a long finish. This is a wine that can be drunk now but could last at least five years or more. $18
Muriel Reserva Bodegas Muriel 2005 Hand selected, the grapes come from vineyards in Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Alta. The soil is a a mixture of chalk, sand and clay. The vines have a medium age of 40 years and are grown using the traditional gobelet (bush) system. The 20-day fermentation and maceration take place in temperature controlled stainless steel vats with daily pumping over in order to achieve optimum color and tannin extraction. Malolactic fermentation is conducted in stainless steel tanks and the wine is racked twice before going into oak barrels. The wine is aged in American and French oak barrels for 24 months with three rackings. There is further bottle aging for two years prior to release. The wine has red and blackberry aromas and flavors with a touch of spice $22
Rioja Bordón Reserva 2007 Franco- Españonias made from 80% Tempranillo, 15% Garnacha and 5% Mazuelo.
After the selection of the fruit, there is a soft crushing of the berries. After completion of the alcoholic fermentation and malolactic fermentation, the wine is put into American white oak (Ohio and Missouri) with a light to medium toast. The wine remains in barrels for 18 months and every six months there is the traditional racking barrel to barrel and then 2 years in bottle before release. It has nice red fruit, sweet spices and a hint of toffee. I had this wine a few weeks previously and liked it. It was showing even better at the tasting. A bargain at $15
Bodegas Ontañón Gran Reserva 2001 95% Tempranillo and 5% Graciano. The grapes were delivered in old comportillos (grape baskets), carried down the mountain slopes from the vineyards on the backs of mules. This tradition primarily evolved as a practical measure so that neither the winemakers nor their mules had to carry the year’s harvest up the backbreaking steep cliffs, but it also mirrored early gravity-flow systems. Iron and mineral rich soil with calcareous deposits. The wine spends 36 months in American and French oak and 24 months in bottle before release. $34
Bodegas Faustino Gran Reserva 2000 made from 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano and 5% Mazuelo. Maceration lasts for 27 days. The wine spends 28 months in casks, 80% American oak from West Virginia and 20% French oak from the Vosges. This wine was drinking very well with hints of spice, toast, leather and subtle fruit. $38
Bodegas F. Paternina “Conde de los Andes” Grand Reserva 1982 Made from Tempranillo and Mazuelo and spends 30 months or more in wood. This is a wine that is aging very well. It is a complex with hints of spice, leather a long finish and pleasing aftertaste. $84