An old friend comes home

in Wine by

By Celia Strong

This week’s wine is an old friend. But, like many old friends, you don’t always see them as often as you’d like, or should. Life goes on around us and we tend to forget people and things as we move forward through every day. But, thank goodness, sometimes you get a visit from an old friend, a phone call or an email, or a Christmas card, or just a smack in your memory bank that reminds you. And, as is the case with old friends, you reconnect and things are warm and wonderful and comfortable between you. And, yes, an old friend can be a wine that you haven’t had in a while. So, today, we look back and reconnect with a steadfast old friend.

And, off we go to Spain. The Rioja region — a region known for its red wines made mostly from Tempranillo grape. Wine in this area dates back to the Phoenicians and the Celtiberiuns. The earliest written evidence of grapes in La Rioja comes from 873. This was a document from a notary public about a donation to a monastery. In the 13th century, a poet/clergyman mentioned area wines in some of his writings. Rioja wines were first legally recognized, in 1102, by the King of Navarra and Aragon. A bit before its legal recognition, though, in 1063, a letter to the settlers of Longares (“Carta de población de Longares”) mentioned the existence of viticulture in Rioja. Longares is a small town in Aragon. In 1560, grape harvesters in Longares chose symbols to represent the quality levels of their wines. In 1635, carts were forbidden on streets near wine cellars to avoid vibrations that might hurt the quality of the wines in the cellars. Finally, in 1650, the first document to protect the quality of Rioja wines was written. And, the first meeting of the Royal Economic Society of Rioja Winegrowers, in 1790, was held and started promoting Rioja wines.

Over the following years, standards for consistency in Rioja wines were set, specific sub-regions for Rioja production were designated, grape varieties were determined,  and aging times were established. In 1991, Rioja became the first Spanish wine to achieve the elevated DOC status.

Rioja wines are usually blends. For the red wines, Tempranillo is the main variety, with Garnacha (Grenache), Graciano and Mazuelo. There are three sub-zones within La Rioja. Rioja Alta is in the western side of the area and is at a higher elevation than the rest of the region. Wines from these grapes are lighter bodied (it’s cooler up there) and are considered more Old World style. Rioja Alavesa wines are fuller bodied and have higher acidity levels. The soil here is less nutritious so the vines are grown further apart to let each one get more from the soil. Rioja Baja is a warmer part if the region, drier too. Its wines are deeper colored with more alcohol and they are often used for blending with the wines from the other two sub-zones. Some of the vines in these areas can be quite old, even a century, and their grapes are highly prized for their low yields and concentrated flavors. A unique part of Spanish wine laws says that the cost of Rioja grapes must be more than 200 percent of the national average cost of wine grapes every year. Really?  Can you see that happening in California?

Because the Rioja region is located in northern Spain, just across the Pyrenees mountains, it is easy for us to see why French winemakers, from Bordeaux in particular, had a noticeable influence on Rioja wines. This influence shows itself even today, in the use of oak barrels for aging the wines and the vanilla flavors this gives to the wines. Over time, as French barrels got more and more expensive, American barrels were tried. Now, both are used, wines from each being blended together to make the final version. A typical bodega, winery, owns 10,000 to 40,000 barrels, all costing $300 to $500 dollars a piece. And most red Rioja wines are aged from four to eight years. I know there’s a whole lot of math in there, somewhere. And, a whole lot of dollars.

The aging or red Rioja wines is designated on their bottles. You need to look carefully for a wine’s designation because some have in on their front label and some have it on the neck or back label. A bottle labeled “Rioja” is the youngest and spends less than a year in oak barrels. A “crianza” is wine aged for at least two years, a minimum of one year in barrels. A “Rioja Reserva” is aged for a minimum of three years, at least one in oak barrels. And, “Rioja Gran Reserva” wines are aged at least two years in oak barrels and three years in their bottles. Reserva and Gran Reserva wines are sort of like vintages Ports and Champagnes.

For our wine this week, our old friend, we go to one of the oldest wineries Rioja. The Marqués de Riscal winery was established in 1858. Their first wine was bottled in 1862. They were the first non-French wine to win at the Bordeaux Expedition, in 1895. In 2011, Riscal was recognized one of the Ten World’s Most Admired Wine Brands. Their theory has always been to be innovative, pioneers in wine cellar construction and styles, and leaders in the always changing wine business. They export about 60 percent of their total production to more than 100 countries.

The Marqués de Riscal Reserva Rioja is the result of all their efforts and talents. The Tempranillo grapes for this wine come from vines that are mostly 15 years old, and some older. These grapes are grown in the best limestone and clay soils in the Alavesa area. Yes, fuller bodied wines. The Graciano and Mazuela grapes do not exceed 10 percent of the blend; they do add crispness and color to the wines. The Riscal Reserva wines spend about two years in American oak barrels. And, then, a year in their bottles before they are released. These wines are a classic Rioja style — fresh, fine and elegant. A beautiful, cherry-red color  and spicy aromas come from your glass. Dark berries and toasty vanilla flavors, mixed with baking spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamon), pop in your mouth. And, the best part of Rioja wines, the supple textures that come from the Tempranillo grapes are smooth, round, but still structured, wonderful with meats and poultry and seafood.

But, why is the Marqués de Riscal Reserva Rioja an old friend?  Not only is it from the oldest winery in its region, it is also one of the first Reserva Riojas that has been available in the United States. For those of us who love these wines, it is like going home again. And, guess what?  It just came down a couple dollars in price. All that aging and it’s down. At $17.99. Definitely time to get reacquainted and bring this old friend home. Probably several times, or more. Enjoy.