the Trouble with Rioja Wines

tBoW goes on curmudgeonly jag! Two blogs in a row rip into popular international wines!! What’s next? Napa?

Lettie Teague is the wine writer for the Wall Street Journal. She covers a wide range of wines from pricey (Burgundies) to cheapos to odd regions and the ones wine snobs like to read about. I would link to her columns BUT without a subscription the columns are out of reach in 24 hours (or so).

Teague’s Jan 13 column covered Rioja wines: “Pour on the Oak: Rioja’s Reliably Aged Reds.” Immediately I recalled a Rioja tasted this New Year’s Eve party…2007 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904. Had the big reviews from Suckling and Parker PLUS the big scores in the high 90s [Lettie’s WSJ image adjacent…nice, no?]

A couple of prelim caveats: In the first, the 100 point range for scoring wines is (how can I say this without scrinching faces) frivolous. Find me a wine below 85 points and I will tell you where to buy the 2014 Cune Crianza which is a great bargain at $12. When scores less than 85 are not assigned then the scale is actually 15 points. In the second, avoid reviewers who are paid to sell wines and assign the scores. Better to find a local wine shop with staff that actually drink the stuff. Let him or her get to know what you like and your preferred price point so they can tell you what to buy. One more point…what is the difference between a 96 and 97 point wine? Better yet what could possibly be the difference.

The New Years lineup was brave with many fine bottles lining the bar. Unfortunately, only one bottle was up to the task of pleasing palates. Different wines fell short for different reasons. The 2009 Sweeney Canyon Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara was well made. Our palates have changed since. We (and I am speaking for the smarty pants tasters) no longer favor Central Coast syrupy (to us) beety flavored wines. The two recent vintage Bourgognes were soft and fruity without much stuffing. The winner was opened and placed before the lumpen before the cogoscenti arrived so its remains lay dying in the glasses of the “social tasters” [man, tBoW a real S-N-O-B].

2007 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904, $50: The Handle Man brought this with high hopes shared all round. Plenty fruit. Beautiful robe (taster talk for color, weight, luminosity). And big and tannic even after trying again and again for a couple of hours. TOO MUCH OAK. As Teague points out Gran Reserva signifies the wine spent FIVE YEARS in barrel. So this wine was bottled no sooner than 2012 and may have spent even longer in barrel [ed. upon reading about it turns out the wine was bottled after 4 years].

What to make of this? All were disappointed with how the wines we brought by the cognoscenti showed. After ten years we really expected the La Rioja Alta would be more accessible. What’s the deal? TOO MUCH OAK. tBoW favors natural wines made without oak. Or at least wines stored (“aged”) in neutral oak barrels which have been used more than five years and have lost all the oak flavors imparted by new barrels.

Let’s be clear. We hate oaked wines. We are not even sure why the “aged in new oak” style began or where it came from. Spain has institutionalized aging wines in oak to the extent of rewarding wines aged longest in oak with the “highest” rating of Gran Reserva which translates roughly to Grand Poobah of Wines. What is truly worth pondering is how a nation elected to value the use and abuse of oak in making (finishing) wine over factors that are more highly valued elsewhere; e.g., not using oak, steel fermentation, and using natural yeasts or even w-a-i-t-i-n-g for fermentation to spontaneously erupt.

Is there something to be said about the culture? tBoW speculates in his darkest mind that this system was spawned by the fascista values of Generalissimo Franco. Prove me wrong.

The CVNE 2014 Crianza – Crianza means aged no more than two years in barrel which is about 18 mos too long. This particular bottle is a go-to tBoW value perfect for Thanksgiving when the food multiplex is the most challenging to match. And at $14 – we have bought for $10 – it is probably the perfect one-size-fits-all wine for Turkey Day.

tBoW and fam visited La Guardia and Alta Rioja way back before he owned a digital camera. The hilltop village of LA Guardia was a highlight. The yougn ‘uns got a thrill when the “bulls” ran thru the streets. Does this happen every weekend? I was able to find a video of the running of the COWS which captures the thrill we all shared. The streets are narrow and the risks are meager. This ain’t no Pamplona. This was a disco. The only where gouging might take place would be lunch or diner with wine. Although that did not occur.

1 Comment

  1. Wavatar
    Kris-B says:

    As much as I detest the taste of the over-the-top oak in a wine, I have to admit that La Rioja Alta makes some good wines, especially at the Reserva level. I agree that the Gran Reserva is a bit much, but the traditionally made Ardanza Reserva is quite good (just don’t confuse it for the modern-styled Arana!)

    The 2007 you had was even aged in 4-year old barrels! This is the problem with American oak, just like many Americans, it stays brash into middle age.

    2007 was a pretty hot year, maybe we would prefer their 2004 Gran Reserva “890”, which appears to be a current release.

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