Even with the hype surrounding Ribera del Duero and Priorat, Rioja remains Spain’s most famous wine region. What makes Rioja stand out is that for the money, you will be hard-pressed to find more complex wines.
It emerged as Spain’s premier wine region in the mid-18th century. Some of its most famous houses like Marques de Murrieta were founded during this time. Over the course of the 20th century, many more bodegas were born. The vast majority were essentially farms and the land was often handed down through generations or acquired for a reasonable sum.
Anyone who wants to make wine today knows that unless you have very deep pockets, you need to bring your wine to market as soon as possible. That means a lot of wines are consumed before their time or are made with an eye toward early drinking. Historically, Rioja’s vintners have not had the financial pressure to release the wines until they have been ready to drink.
Let me explain what I mean by this. Traditionally, Rioja was broken up into four categories. Joven tells you it is a young wine that spent up to six months in oak barrels. If you see crianza on a label, it means the wine was aged for a minimum of one year in barrel and one year in bottle. Reserva indicates one year in barrel and two in bottle, while gran reserva let’s you know that the wine spent at least two in barrel and three in bottle.
These are minimums and often the wines are aged longer than the requirements. While the reserva and gran reservas are drinkable upon release, they will often continue to age for many years.
There are also wines that are simply labeled as Rioja DOC because they do not meet the aging standards but are perceived, or marketed, as top-quality wines. Not all, but many seem try to compensate by using too much oak and are overly extracted. Luckily, many producers have stuck to the old way of doing things and while they could charge more for their wines, they have kept the pricing fair.
Here are three that are especially good bargains.
Bodegas Breton Iuvene, 2009: Made from 85 percent tempranillo with garnacha, mazuelo and graciano composing the remainder of the blend, this is a shining example of a young Rioja. Bursting with blackberries and red fruits it is fresh and bright in the mouth yet also has a signature earthy, tobacco quality. Suggested retail: $10
Rioja Bordon Crianza, 2007: Bordon is one of two Rioja properties owned by Bodegas Franco-Espanolos wine group that, as the name suggests, has French origins that date back to the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century. Composed of 80 percent tempranillo and 20 percent garnacha, and aged in American oak barrels for at least 15 months, this wine is the epitome of old-school Rioja. With a bundle of red fruits, vanilla, baking spices and fresh tobacco in the nose, it is nothing but scrumptious. Suggested retail: $13
Cosme Palacio Reserva, 2005: Cosme Palacio is one of five wineries under the Hijos de Antonio Barcelo umbrella. The wines have a modern bend in that only French oak is used (as opposed to American oak) but they retain a traditional character. Earthy without being too rustic, this six-year-old reserva has a fantastic nose filled with spice and cherries, soft yet vibrant flavors on the palate and a long, glorious finish. Suggested retail: $25
Pamela S. Busch is the owner of Skrewcap.com, founder of CAV Wine Bar and a Bay Area wine consultant. Please submit your questions to Pamela@Skrewcap.com.