By Celia Strong
Yep. Here we go again. Another new wine. Another new favorite. For me, at least. And a chance to learn a bit while we drink a bit. Life is good! So, off we go to Spain. It’s been a while, but summer warm and humid weather is tailor made for some of the wines we can find from Spain. After all, their weather in parts of their country is not that different from our weather here. And their types of foods, while maybe not exactly the same, tend toward lighter and easier to cook just like ours are this time of year. The fun part is we get to enjoy their wines, just with our foods. Yay! Because it’s been a while since we did a Spanish wine, I thought we could review some of what we probably covered last time we did do a Spanish wine. Of course, now, we all know more. But, every time we repeat some tidbit of knowledge, we might make it ours permanently. That is a positive learning curve, right?
So, as review, let’s start with some information about Spanish wines in general. Spain is the third largest producer of wines in the world, after France and Italy. Interestingly, though, Spain, with just under 3 million acres planted with grapevines, has more acres of vines than any other country. The “technical” reason that they have more acres and produce less is due to low yields (a lot of old vines in Spain are still active, just making fewer grapes per vine), wide spacing between the vines in the vineyards, and dry and infertile soil in many vineyards. Spain is number nine in the world for wine consumption.
The history of grape growing in Spain is at least as ancient as anywhere else. They had an abundance of native varieties on the peninsula, and there is evidence of grapes being cultivated back to between 4,000 and 3,000 years BC. The Phoenicians, around 1,100 BC, then the Carthaginians and then the Romans all had a hand in developing wine in Spain. This extra long history is partly because of Spain’s location on the Mediterranean; warmer weather and easy access to travel and nutrition from the sea all helped this whole area sustain early civilizations. Following the fall of the Roman Empire, the Moors conquered Spain. They were Muslims, and even tough several caliphs and emirs owned vineyards and drank wine, the sale of wine was outlawed. But, by 1364, after the Spanish regained control of their country, Spanish wines were being shipped to the rest of Europe. At times, over the years, exporting of wine helped the Spanish economy keep going.
One of the best known of all Spanish wines is Rioja. (Sherry, a fortified wine from Spain, is another but we need to skip it today.) Rioja is a DOC wine region, made up of three different sub-regions — Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa. Many wines that are labelled “Rioja” are blends of grapes from all three sub-regions. Wines from Rioja date back to 873 AD. This area is located in northern Spain, where it benefits from a cooler, continental climate. Mountains in the area help protect the vines from fierce winds and isolate them from storms. Most of the region is on a plateau, about 1,500 feet above sea level. Yes, a bit cooler grows better grapes. It is believed the area was named for the Oja River that flows through it. The soil here is clay based with chalk and iron. Rioja wines can be red, white or rosé. About 85 percent of them are red.
Grape varieties for Rioja, red Rioja because that’s where we’re drinking this week, are Tempranillo blended with Garnacha (Spanish for Grenache), Graciano and Mazuelo (the Rioja name for Carignan). In recent years, some wineries have experimented with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, too. Special dispensations to use Cabernet and still label the wine as Rioja have been given to a few estates. These wines are good, but not what used to be considered typical of Rioja wines. They are heavier and more structured. More New World style. A characteristic of most Rioja red wines is vanilla nuances from the barrel aging of the wines. The influence of Bordeaux winemakers in the 18th century had a lasting effect on Rioja wines. Today, the typical bodega (the name for Spanish wineries) has between 10,000 and 40,000 barrels. The amount of aging a wine gets is shown on its label.
There are legal levels of Rioja. And, these are for red Riojas. A wine labeled just “Rioja” is the youngest, spending less than a year in barrels before it is bottled. A “Rioja Crianza” is aged a minimum of two years, at least one in oak. “Rioja Rerserva” is aged a minimum three years, one year at least in barrels. And, “Rioja Gran Reserva” is aged at least two years in oak and three years in its bottle. Reserva and Gran Reserva wines are not made every year, and, because of the wait to recoup their expenses for these wines, any bodega has to charge more for them. In some ways they are like Champagnes — not a vintage every year and more costly when they are.
A quick look at the main grape variety, Tempranillo, in Riojas is worth the time. Since this variety is grown mostly in Spain, we don’t get a lot of chances to get to know it. It is a native to northern Spain. It is low in acidity and sugar content. That means the grapes it is blended with need to fill out these holes. Its wines are ruby colored, with aromas and flavors that include berries, plum, tobacco, vanilla, leather and herbs. Between the complexities derived from blending and the levels of aging, Rioja wines can be interesting for the wine scholars among us, delicious for the tasters and new favorites for the liberated, non-Cab, Merlot, Pinot Noir die hard drinkers. Or any combination of all that!
Our Rioja comes from the bodega called Dinastía Vivanco. It is located in the Rioja Alta sub-region. The grapes are all estate grown, with Rafael Vivanco overseeing them every step of the way. The family vineyards include several sections of old vines, whose grapes are used in their best wines. They use a unique bottle shape, based on one dating back to the eighth century that they found in the bodega museum. Using this old bottle is one way the Vivanco family pays tribute to the history and heritage of Rioja. Of course, their style of wine does the same. Our wine is their Crianza. This wine is fermented at controlled cool temperatures, in French oak barrels. And, get this, it is 100 percent Tempranillo. Think maybe some of those old vines with more intense flavors are involved? A perfect chance to taste this variety, without other grapes hiding any of it, and see how good it can be. This wine was aged for 16 months in year old French and American oak barrels, and at least six months in its bottles before being released for sale. All at $17.99. For those of us who follow such things, this wine got 90 points from the Wine Spectator and, in their list of top one wines for 2011, it was number 59. For those of us who trust our mouths to tell us, they’re right. For me, I have a new favorite. Yay again, for another week. Enjoy..