January 28, 2007

Making Sense of Rioja - An Underdog

Wine intimidates a lot of people. They think that they should have been born with a deep and resourceful knowledge of the wines of the world, and are surprised that they were not. Many feel inadequate if they don't know something about a wine. Everyone needs to let go of this and realize that wine, like everything else in the world, is about our personal experience with it. We learn from engaging, from exploring and we add to our knowledge of the world by doing so.

I am often asked how I came to know something about wine. I try to answer this really carefully. I learned about wine by immersing myself in it. I tasted frequently and benefited from the knowledge of those around me who had immense experience with wine... the making, the selling, and the collecting. I still only know a little bit about wine, despite all of these years, and am motivated to learn more. That is a big reason why I started winecommando. To share what I learn with anyone who cares to check it out. The goal here, really, isn't what I think a wine tasted like, as to me that is totally subjective. The goal is to impart some of what I learned about the wine, the winemaker, the winery and the region that it came from. As I said a few posts ago, it's the stories I'm after and if a wine tastes awesome in this pursuit than it is a bonus.

That was a long way of getting to Rioja, a wine producing area of Spain that both excites and confounds the wine drinkers of the world. There are several wine producing areas that confuse us. Learning to decipher a French, Italian or Spanish wine label is daunting at best. Add in the more esoteric wine varietals and it is a big reason that many imported wines collect dust on the shelves of your local wine shop. More than anything, it is tradition that has kept many European wines from being easily understood by those of us who did not grow up with it. Remind me to get into the wine governing body of France in another post. Good times... freaking bureaucrats.

The wines of Rioja suffer from the same challenges of those of Bordeaux, Provence and I would say almost all of the wines of Italy. It is really hard to tell, from looking at the label, what exactly it is that you hold in your hands. Probably, though, what you are holding in your hands is something wonderful. Let's get some history here.

Rioja is the name given to wine that is grown in the provinces of La Rioja (that's the provincial flag up there) in Spain. These provinces are just below the Basque region and the wine growing region is about 40x100 miles. It was officially declared a wine growing region by the Spanish wine governing body in 1926, but the area's history goes way, way, way back. Rioja has seen the ancient Phoenicians and Carthaginians, the Romans (of course), and the Moors all play a substantial part in its development as a region that produces amazing wine. The Romans, perhaps, had the biggest impact as they did wherever they absorbed territory into the Empire. There are Roman wineries still standing around La Rioja. The Moors, who occupied most of Spain after the Romans, saw to the dismantling of much of the wine producing in Spain... and everywhere. But it continued underground. When the Crusader El Cid liberated Spain from the Moors trade and commerce were reestablished and Rioja again flourished. Christian monks from Burgundy settled in the area to build monasteries and brought with them new vines that were predominantly white and added diversity to the wine culture. During the 14th century the English developed a proclivity for lighter style wines like those produced in La Rioja and rather quickly these wines found foreign markets. The wine of the times was actually a blend of red and white grapes called blancos paradillos, and this style of wine developed a following in the royal courts of England and France, massively increasing demand.

Fast forward to today, and the fortunes of La Rioja match those of much of Europe's other wine producing areas. Tastes change, economies falter, and the agendas of kings and presidents can intervene. Today, La Rioja is divided into three areas that are in increasing order of warmth. These are Rioja Alavessa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja. Rioja Alta is the highest of the three and many of the best Rioja wines come from here. Historically, wineries have blended grapes grown from all of the three different areas. The red varietals today are Tempranillo, the most recognized red grape of Spain, as well as Granacha Tinta, Mazuelo and Graciano. The white varietals are Malvasia (producing really lovely summery white wines), Garnacha Blanca and Viura. There is a lot of debate going on now as to whether La Rioja should produce other, more mainstream varietals. I read that this has been decided and we will soon see Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc coming from Spain. The jury is still out on whether this is a good or bad thing.

As you look at the label of a wine from Rioja you can learn something by understanding its category. Red Riojas are broken down into one of four categories, the first being just "Rioja." This wine is typically the youngest and ready to drink having seen little or no oak in the maturation process. The next category up is "crianza" which denotes a wine that has been aged for at least a couple of years with one of these being aged in oak. Then there is "Reserva" which is aged for at least three years with at least one in oak. Reservas tend to offer some exceptional values in red Riojas and some begin to enter into the territory of Bordeaux in quality for a helluva lot less money. The top category from Rioja is "Gran Reserva" and these wines have been aged for at least two years in oak and at least three years in the bottle. There are also amazing values in Gran Reserva. If you tend towards nice Cabernet Sauvignon, and enjoy great Bordeaux, then you owe it to yourself to investigate the fine Rioja reds. They are exceptional food wines and deliver quality, typically, well beyond their price. Note that both Reserva and Gran Reserva wines are only produced in years when the winemakers feel the quality of the fruit is superior. I know that Riojas from 2001 and 2004 have received much praise and are well worth the experiment.

A friend of mine has always called Rioja the Bordeaux of Spain. He's not wrong, really, just maybe a little funny. The Gran Reservas are truly amazing wines, and worthy of so much more attention than they garner. There are tastings in which Riojas have outpaced Bordeaux in quality and certainly in value. It is difficult to really compare, though, as the Bordeaux blend is so different from that of Rioja. Suffice it to say, it is worth experimenting and substituting a nice Rioja the next time you are searing a beef tenderloin or grilling a ribeye. I will be trying some Rioja in the coming weeks and posting here.

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