Rioja Red

Tasted October 24th, 2010

This is a region of both great tradition and newfound modernistic views. The wines of Rioja are deep in flavour and complexity and vary tremendously in style. Our wine selections today range from an older 1996 gran reserva to a 2005 crianza from a newly founded bodega. It will be very interesting to see if the group prefers the heavy oak influence of tradition or the fresher approachability of modern taste.

While I have read about an endless supply of plonk that originates from the vast sea of Spanish vineyards, I can honestly say that I have never been disappointed by bottle of wine from Spain's great Rioja region. The soft texture and velvety tannins seem to hit the mark (or close to it) almost every time. I will even go so far as to say that the greatest bottle ever to stain my palate with it dark-fruit flavours was from Rioja, but then tradition will always earn the most points in our cellar.

With nearly 3 million acres under vine, Spain is the most widely planted of all grape growing countries. The conditions here can be harsh though, as much of the land is dry and generally infertile. For this, the vine's roots must tunnel deep into the arid earth to search out essential nutrients which concentrate the fruit's flavours. It is this intensity combined with the characteristics imparted to the wine by oak aging that creates some of the most rewarding and surprisingly affordable red wines in the world. Spanish wine aged in oak must fall under one of three classifications as dictated by the DOC. We should also note that these specifications are only a minimum and at the discretion of the producer, they may be exceeded:
  • Crianza: aged two years [at the Bodega] of which one must be in oak
  • Reserva: aged three years of which one must be in oak
  • Gran Reserva: aged five years of which two must be in oak
The use of extended oak aging truly is the backbone of Rioja wines but this tradition has come under intense fire in the last half-century causing some producers to take a more modern stance on winemaking. The wines are similar but the difference is certainly apparent and today we span this variation of style with five great labels:

2005 Navarrsotillo, Magister Bibendi, Crianza
2006 Muga, Reserva
2002 Marqués de Murrieta, Reserva Ygay
1996 Marqués de Vitoria, Gran Reserva
2001 Bodegas Valdemar, Conde de Valdemar

Wow! Judging by the response today, choosing a favourite was not an easy task. Some of the comments overheard during the tasting were: "Can I pick 3 wines as my favourite?", "Each wine is different but equally good.", and the best one... "We should organize a fieldtrip to Spain!". Selecting a favourite indeed was a challenge but that was the task and eventually everyone did successfully narrow it down to one. In terms of styles, there was some good variation and the peppery spice of the Garnacha grape was apparent in several of the samples.

Our first wine was Gary and Joy's Navarrsotillo Crianza which was accurately described as "lively and fresh". Being the first bottle opened, we were fortunate to witness this wine changing in the glass as the afternoon progressed. When compared to the Muga Reserva, a rather peppery and heavy LCBO Vintages essential product, the Navarrsotillo was clean and crisp and clearly the better wine. The Gran Reservas, one modern and one traditional were both incredible but varied significantly in style: the 1996 Marqués de Vitoria showed no hard edges whatsoever and some lovely earthy notes (for those of us who like that kind of thing) while also surprisingly deep in colour with no sign of browning at the edges for a 14 year old bottle. Conversely, the 2001 Conde de Valdemar, was a solid fruit-forward and very modern wine. The flavour profile was that of the typical black and red berries associated with Tempranillo/Garnacha blend. But it was the 2002 Marqués de Murrieta Reserva Ygay the took the top spot today. This wine was drinking absolutely perfect at 8 years of age and was perhaps the overall favourite because it displayed a balance of what the two gran reserva possessed individually. Murrieta is the oldest winery in Rioja which surprisingly produces their wine with a very modern and fruit-forward style.

Our group tasted and ranked the wines in order of personal preference, the results are show below:
  1. 2002 Marqués de Murrieta, Reserva
  2. 1996 Marqués de Vitoria, Gran Reserva
  3. 2001 Conde de Valdemar, Gran Reserva
As for a group preference, in terms of modern vs. traditional it is difficult to provide a decisive conclusion; the wines were all very enjoyable but for different reasons and the top two wines were polar opposites in style. If there was one thing emphasized today, albeit indirectly, it was the influence of food choices on the overall enjoyment of a glass of wine. We are privileged to conduct our tastings at what is arguably the top restaurant north of Toronto - Bistro Seven Seven. The food here is simply perfect and both our Chef and Host take great care to help co-ordinate the food choices with the region, variety, and style of wine which we sample each month. Today, to compliment the Red Rioja, hors d'oeurves such as the braised lamb shank on buttermilk smashed potato only highlight the incredible flavour combinations which make this passion so fascinating. A 'proper' wine tasting does not involve rich foods and exotic tastes but this is North of 9 Fine Wine and we don't pride ourselves as critics but instead, as connoisseurs of fine taste - Cheers!

Next month, we taste the wonderful wines created by the Chenin Blanc varietal. See you then...