When I started in this business, the basic wine list was made up mainly of French wines. There would be a German wine, an Italian one and a wine from Portugal and Spain.
The German wine may have been Blue Nun or a branded Liebfraumilch. The Portuguese wine was always the frizzante Mateus Rose in a squat, flask-type bottle.
Blue Nun and Mateus Rose were massive brands in those days.
The Italian wine was invariably a Chianti.
The wine would not have been memorable, and the name of the winery was long forgotten. However, the Chianti bottle was a symbol of its time. It was a fiasco (referring to the type of bottle, not the quality of the wine, which was also a fiasco), and it was enclosed in a straw basket. This was not a golden period for wine quality, but the bottles’ shapes lived on. The Mateus flask and Chianti fiasco went on to light up people’s lives in their reincarnation as innovative table lamps.
On this average wine list there was also always a Spanish wine, usually only one, and that was always something called Rioja.
Then, as now, Rioja was the main representative of Spanish wine. It remains today the first Spanish wine that people taste. Then it was on its own, like a beacon. You wanted Spain, and apart from sherry, that was what you drank.
Since then, there has been the New World Revolution, and the wine world has expanded to all sorts of countries not considered traditional producers. Think of Brazil, Uruguay, Thailand and India, let alone China. Even Lebanon, Israel, Turkey and Cyprus are today making wines of a quality unimagined 20 years ago.
However, some of the old traditional European countries have also made enormous strides in quality and in the developing regionality of their wines. Both Spain and Italy have gone through quality revolutions, and their wines are better than ever.
In Spain this has been so impressive that in wine terms it has been referred to as the “New World” country in the “Old World.”
Spain’s wines from Ribera del Duero and Priorat, for instance, have wowed the world for a few years now. However, Rioja is still the primary brand of Spanish red wine. It is Spain’s largest red wine growing region, situated in northern Spain, running through a valley alongside the Ebro River. The center of the region is the city of Logrono.
The image of Rioja is of oaky wines. They even grade the wine, not by ripeness or the quality but by the amount of time the wine spends in oak barrels. Crianza wines are aged for a minimum of two years, of which one of them has to be maturation in oak.
Reserva wines have three years aging, with at least one in oak. A Gran Reserva has five years aging, with at least two in oak.
In essence, Rioja are blends from three separate regions and are also blends of different grape varieties. The highest and coolest regions are the Rioja Alta and Rioja Alvesa, at roughly 600 meters elevation.
Then there is the Rioja Baja, which is hotter and flatter.
The typical Rioja will be made mainly from Tempranillo, the national variety of Spain. There will be a smaller amount of Garnacha, which we know as Grenache, and the balance will be between Mazuelo (a.k.a. Carignan) and a local variety called Graciano.
The unoaked Riojas are usually bright, vibrant and gluggable with lashings of red fruit, such as cherries and strawberries. The word to look for if you prefer younger wines is “Joven” (young), which will be light- to medium-bodied, or “Crianza,” which will be medium-bodied.
It is the Reservas and Gran Reservas that have given Rioja their famous image.
These wines will be full-bodied. The same red fruit will be there, with the addition of prunes, a little spice and a touch of tobacco and leather. Covering everything like a warm, vanilla-flavored blanket is the effect of oak aging. Obviously in the better versions, the fruit and spice will pop their heads out from under the cover. In a disappointing Rioja, you may find that the blanket will be too suffocating, and the fruit will be simply squeezed out. The best Riojas manage to find the balance, a key word used to describe any well-made wine.
The white wines of Rioja are usually based on the Viura grape, known outside Rioja as the Macabeo. This name was apparently taken from the Catalan or a French word for “cleric.” It has nothing to do with Jews, Israel or the Maccabees, although one theory suggests it may have come from the Middle East.
White Riojas are made in a modern style.
They tend to be crisp, refreshing, good value but reasonably characterless. More unusual these days, but arguably more interesting, are the traditionally made whites from yesteryear, which were aged in large oak barrels. A few traditional bodegas still make them the old way. Made more often than not from the Malvasia grape variety, they will be more yellow than straw colored, with a fatter, slightly oxidized taste.
The aroma will be more caramely, slightly buttery, with a piney and roasted nuts character.
Less fashionable than the new trend but arguably more sought after as this style becomes rarer.
Some of the best brands of Rioja are available in Israel. The most famous of all is Bodegas Marques de Murrieta, one of the great names of Rioja, with its iconic Ygay Reserva and Gran Reserva wines. The wines may be found in various wine shops. Marques de Riscal is a very old company with a long history, which contrasts with a very modern visitors’ center, restaurant and museum.
Their wines, along with Faustino, another good producer, are available in the Derech Hayayin chain of wine shops. Muga, one of the highest quality Riojas, is available from the Wines & More wine shops.
Then there is Eguren Ugarte. This is a family whose wine activities go back to 1870. Today, the sixth generation manages the winery. This is the ultimate site for the serious wine tourist. A beautiful hotel, restaurant, dreamy location and a wide variety of wine activities make it a paradise for the wine lover. However, I write about them here because of their wines, which represent the taste of Rioja, showing quality but also great value for money.
Their wines may be found in the Tiv Ta’am supermarket chain.
All the wines mentioned are not kosher.
For those seeking kosher wines from Spain, there are two outstanding producers – Capcanes and Elvi. Capcanes produces some of the finest kosher wines, and Elvi produces a wide variety of great wines representing different regions.
Incidentally, Spain leads the world in winery architecture. This is symbolized by the stunning Bodegas Ysios in the Rioja region. This winery was created in 1998. It illustrates the new importance of design, aesthetics and quality perception almost more than the wine itself. There are some breathtaking winery buildings in Spain.
However, at the end of the day, the wine is more important than flashy architecture.
Here are two Riojas I have recently tasted:
UGARTE CRIANZA RIOJA 2010
Cherry-red fruit, backed by attractive soft, almost creamy oak flavors that stay comfortably in the background. This wine made from 92% Tempranillo and 8% Garnacha, has soft tannins and good cleansing acidity, which gives a refreshing finish.
Represents great value.
MARTIN CENDOYA RESERVA RIOJA 2008
This Reserva wine is made from 80% Tempranillo, 15% Graciano and 5% Mazuelo. The wine is very deep colored, with a nose of ripe plum, blackberries and an attractive aromatic spice from the oak aging. It has a sour cherry note in the mouth, which contrasts nicely with the sweet fruit and oak, and has a long, balanced finish.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications. adam@ carmelwines.co.il