Last month the Vibrant Rioja US tour rolled east from San Francisco to New York. Its campaign organizers staged grand tastings in both cities coupled with two smaller, invitation-only tasting seminars designed to showcase the widest possible range of Tempranillo treatment and expression. It was fun showing up in my Big Apple home town, birthplace of my wine enthusiasm, to taste these Spanish wines with a slice of the New York wine writer and trade elite.
Just to share an oh-so 2011 phenomenon before getting down to the important wine business, I was sitting next to Tyler Colman and only because wine-tech guru and Vintank mover and shaker Paul Mabray tweeted on the Vibrant Rioja hashtag conversation that he was tasting these Tempranillos sitting next to me and Tyler did I eventually recognize both of these accomplished guys that, until then, I only knew online. Then somewhere in the back of our tasting room which was being streamed live over the web, and obviously not the spitting image of his Twitter avatar, an unrecognizable W.R. Tish shot me a tweet to insure we connected before I hauled my stained red teeth back up to Boston. A room of forty mostly Ninja wine guys and gals, and it took a hashtag and a tweet to create IRL connections. Where was this technology when I was trolling NYC bars and clubs for dates 35 years ago?
Social media and new connections notwithstanding, we tasted ten different Tempranillo based wines along with a panel of Rioja winemakers, one Bodegas owner, a noted NY sommelier, with the most engaging and knowledgeable Marnie Old moderating. The lineup spanned recently discovered green-skinned Tempranillo Blanco, Rosado, Rioja Alta Cosecha, semi-carbonic macerated Rioja Baja, Alavesa, Crianza, modern and traditional Reservas, one Gran Reserva, and a monster, highly extracted alta expresión version of Tempranillo vinified to showcase ripeness and power consistent with modern day market trends (yuk!).
I appreciated the experience for its spotlight on value and range, with an asterisk for under representation of traditional styles and Bodegas that have defined Rioja and make the region such a value trove of ready to drink mature wines in comparison to, say, Bordeaux (i.e., the likes of Lopez de Heredia). Marnie also pointed out, from a sommelier’s perspective, she covets Rioja because (1) it is cellared for you pre-release (2) price (3) quality without stepping all over your food. But mission accomplished since I can recommend three significant values; one traditional Reserva and a couple of wines outside anything I ever knew about “wheelhouse” Rioja styles but deliver extreme drinking pleasure.
2005 Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta Reserva (**** $22)
It was interesting that Hearth & Terroir co-owner and sommelier Paul Grieco pointed out that this wine saw 22 months in barrel and just another two months in the wood and it would have achieved Gran Reserva classification. This is the classic style and kind of wine I turn to Rioja for. Bodega aged, extended time in wood and bottle, and a ready to drink wine with nuance and maturity. Earthy barnyard, oaky, roasted chestnut, and bloody meat aromas accompany a major league rich and elegant mouthfeel that is accompanied by strict tannins. Amazing balance and structure will permit extended cellaring, but the wine is drinking magically now. At this price, it is a complete steal and worth buying and drinking by the caseload.
2010 Bodegas Valdemar Inspiración Valdemar Rioja Blanco (***1/2 $35)
I characterize this white wine as a cross between New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and old world Marsanne. There is honeysuckle, sweet flora, banana, and nuts on the nose. It is richly textured with balancing natural acidity. Barrel fermentation added enough complexity to accompany the fresh acidity and I suspect the wine can tolerate some aging. But, it has a most beautiful nose and creamy mouthfeel making immediate drinking hard to avoid. This white Tempranillo mutation was only discovered in 1988, so it will be interesting to watch its proliferation in Rioja. I think new world Chardonnay lovers would really find this wine a refreshing and, in some ways, familiar alternative.
2010 Bodegas Viña Herminia (*** $10)
It is 100% Tempranillo from Rioja Baja, the second largest sub region in Rioja. As in Beaujolais, a semi-carbonic maceration is used that protects the brightness of the fruit. While the wine is a new Rioja style for me, it is not new in Rioja. Actually, way back to the Roman era Rioja wines were produced in this fashion until the Bordelais winemaking styles were introduced a little more than 100 years ago. This wine has vanilla on the nose, and the carbonic maceration produces an overall aromatic that makes it hard to avoid Beaujolais comparisons. It was aged in American oak for three months and another three months in bottle before release. It has a very bright purple color and rich bright berry fruit creating intense salivation. It is a wonderful food wine that I never would have guessed came from Rioja. At $10, it is a tremendous value. For fun, go grab a great 2009 Beaujolais and taste it blind alongside the Herminia. That would be interesting.
Steve Heimoff, blogger and Wine Enthusiast editor, attended the San Francisco version of the same tasting and did a thorough job reviewing each and every wine. You can find Steve’s Rioja reviews on the rest of the wines I have not chosen to share here at SteveHeimoff.com.