Think outside the wooden box with a Spanish Rioja

By Celia Strong

I suppose we have to accept certain facts in life. One of those facts, as it applies to us today, is that presentation is everything. When it comes to wine, attractive labels and interesting bottle sizes and colors make for visually tempting options on the shelf. This week’s wine from the Rioja region in Spain takes presentation to the next level, and comes in its own wooden box.

Spain is the most widely planted wine producing country in the world. But, only the third largest wine producing country. Only? And, why?  Because the climate in Spain is warm and dry and to produce their best wines they need to limit their vines’ yields. In consumption, Spain is ninth in the world.

There are many native grapes in the country. Archeologists believe vines were grown in Spain as early as between 4,000 and 3,000 BC — a long time before the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians and the Romans. Still, though, the Romans, when they ruled the Iberian Peninsula, developed Spanish grape growing and winemaking to a great extent. Spanish wines were shipped to many parts of the empire, including Gaul, Normandy, and Britain.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, invading barbaric tribes did little to continue or better the wine industry in Spain. Interestingly, the Moors who followed, despite being Muslim with their Islamic dietary laws that forbade the use of alcohol, were ambiguous in their position toward wine production in Spain. When colonies in the New World opened new opportunities to Europeans, Spanish wines were exported further than ever.

Looking at the climate of Spain, and its geography, a vast plateau known as the Meseta Central covers much of central Spain. Several principal rivers flow from there through the heart of many wine regions, including Rioja.  The more inland, closer to the Meseta Central, the climate gets much warmer. Many wine regions get less than 12 inches of rain a year. And summer temperatures can regularly go over 100 degrees. One answer to cool off the vines, and make better wines, has been to plant them at higher elevations.

Spanish wine laws were enacted in 1932, and revised in 1970. The top level is DO with two regions at a higher, better quality level known as DOCa — Rioja and Priorat. Rioja was declared first, in 1991, and Priorat in 2003. Rioja, we have learned before, is known mostly for its red wines based on the Tempranillo grape, but they also produce white and rosé wines. This region is about 75 square miles in size with about 123,000 acres planted, about 60 percent of the whole. Tempranillo is the main variety planted, followed by Viura (white), Garnacha (red), Graciano (red), and Mazuelo (red).

The first written mention of Rioja wine comes from 1063, but there is evidence of grapes growing there from 873. Wines from Rioja, the red ones,  are sold in four categories. “Rioja” is the youngest wine, with less than a year of barrel aging. A “Crianza” is aged for at least two years, at least one in barrels. “Rioja Reserva” is aged for at least three years, at least one in barrels. And “Rioja Gran Reserva” is aged at least two years in oak and at least three years in its bottle.  For sure, each of these progressively older wines get progressively more expensive. More complex. More intense.

Tempranillo is a black grape. Its name comes from the Spanish word “temprano,” meaning “early.” It does ripen about two weeks earlier than most other red varieties grown in Spain. Tempranillo has been grown on the Iberian Peninsula since the Phoenicians came. Because of the great red wines of Rioja, it is known as Spain’s “noble” grape. It grows especially well in chalky soil and usually shows plum and strawberry flavors. Across most of Spain, their are clones and mutations of Tempranillo growing in many areas.

All of which gets us to our producer for this week’s wine — Ramón Bilbao. Wineries in Spain are usually called “bodegas,” with about 150 in Rioja. This bodega was founded in 1924 by Ramón Bilbao Murga. He was an experienced grape grower and a pioneer in the art of aging his wines. The winery was handed down, from generation to generation, until 1966 when Ramón Bilbao Pozo, the last descendent, died. In 1972, a corporation was formed to continue the work of their founder by making aged wines. Then, in 1999, new owners renovated the bodega and its facilities. By 2006, they were making top quality wines.

Most of the buildings at Bodega Ramón Bilbao have been there since 1972. They house stainless steel vats with temperature controls and a wide upper entrance to keep stirring and other manual work with the juice in the vats easier. Barrel rooms are grouped together with climate controls and the bottling room is in an underground cavern.

Ramón Bilbao owns about 185 acres of top quality Rioja vineyard land. Their theory of winemaking includes using the best grapes from the best estates and vineyards, barrels made from the best European and American oak, and the best traditions of Rioja and their founder.

Our Ramón Bilbao wine is their Rioja. Made from 100 percent Tempranillo. For this wine, each parcel of grapes is picked separately. And each parcel is fermented separately. With temperature controls, punching down the caps of skins that form on the top of the vats, and individual timing, each parcel of grapes is made into the best wine it can be. Then, the parcels are blended before aging in oak barrels.

The wine is a cherry red color with intense aromas of ripe, red berries, bay leaf and minerals, even some cocoa, if you sniff hard enough. It tastes fresh in your mouth with red currants and strawberries coming first, followed by baking spices (barrel flavors) and vanilla. All with a long, lingering finish. Yum!

Besides Spanish foods such as a nice paella, this wine pairs well with seafood, poultry, charcuterie and cheese plates, olives, pasta with olive oil, and, my favorite, Machego cheese.

For only $12.99 at Bill’s Liquor on Lady’s Island, and that includes the  wooden box. Enjoy.

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