Pour On the Oak: Rioja's Reliably Aged Red Wines

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Pour On the Oak: Rioja's Reliably Aged Red Wines

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Pour On the Oak: Rioja’s Reliably Aged Reds


Pep Montserrat

The red wines of Rioja, Spain, are some of the most reliable wines in the world. They are also some of the most affordable: A five- or six-year-old Reserva wine can cost less than $20 a bottle. But what do we lose in the name of reliability? Can Rioja be a bit too predictable sometimes?

Even fans talk about Rioja in more practical than rhapsodic terms. “I like Rioja. You can get something okay for a cheap price,” said my friend Allison, who buys red Rioja quite often. She added a few more complimentary words, such as “fruity,” “soft” and “bold.”

Rioja is one of the best-known wine regions in Spain with vineyards dating back thousands of years. It’s dominated by high-profile bodegas and familiar brands that are widely distributed and easily found in stores, thanks in part to collective marketing efforts over the past several decades. According to New York-based North American trade director of the DOC Wines of Rioja, Ana Fabiano, there have been Rioja campaigns of one kind or another in the U.S. for over three decades.

Though the Romans were the first to plant vines in Rioja, the region really owes its modern reputation to 19th-century winemakers from Bordeaux. In the mid-1800s, when the dreaded vineyard louse phylloxera decimated Bordeaux vineyards, their winemakers traveled to Rioja in search of phylloxera-free vines.

Bordeaux producers brought advanced winemaking techniques to the region. Bodegas founded back then and still prominent today include La Rioja Alta, Marqués de Riscal, R. López de Heredia and Marqués de Murrieta. These brands are among the top 20 that account for 70% of Rioja wine imports in the U.S. today, according to Ms. Fabiano.

Although the region has strong historical ties with Bordeaux, many wine professionals have compared Rioja reds’ soft, approachable character to that of their counterparts in Burgundy. Extended aging in barrel and bottle softens the wines’ tannins. In fact, aging is so important in Rioja that the region’s wines are classified according to how long they’ve been aged.

The youngest reds, aged just a few months before they’re released, are simply labeled Rioja (sometimes called Joven) and sport a dark green “trust seal” on the back label. The next-youngest wines, designated as Criazna, are aged at least two years in barrel and bottle and marked with a bright red seal. Reserva wines are aged at least three years in barrel and bottle (and often longer), and sport a dark Burgundy-colored seal. Finally, Gran Reservas, the top wines made only in the best vintages, are aged at least five years in barrel and bottle and often much longer; their seal is royal blue.

The star grape of Rioja is Tempranillo. Some wines are produced entirely from that grape, but most are a blend of Tempranillo and several other red grapes, including Garnacha, Graciano, Maturana Tinta and Mazuelo. Often likened to Cabernet Sauvignon thanks to its dark color, its aromas of black cherry, spice and leather, and its often tannic nature (softened by that time in oak), Rioja has also been compared to Pinot Noir, the red wine of Burgundy, on account of notes of earth and red fruit. (I’d say the Cabernet comparison is more apt.)

Of course, the use of oak barrels in fermentation and aging will influence the character of any wine, and Rioja wines are practically ambassadors of oak. Traditionally the wines are aged in American oak barrels whose sweet vanilla notes are a Rioja trademark—though today more Rioja producers age their wines in a combination of French and American wood, and some modern producers even opt for an all-French-oak treatment, resulting in wines that are bigger and more deeply colored and tannic.

Traditional producers dominate in Rioja, and their wines are still made very much as they always have been, save, perhaps, for the length of time spent in oak. Victor Urrutia, CEO of Bodegas CVNE, noted his winery once kept its top wines in oak barrels for up to 20 years. “Now it’s more like 10 years,” he said—though he added that their aim is to “make wines as good as the very best that we did in the past.”

CVNE (Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España) is one of the oldest wineries in Rioja, founded in 1879 by two brothers whose descendants are still running it today. Each of its four different wineries has a separate brand or label, two of which were among the 15 Riojas I purchased for my tasting. The wines ranged from an $11 bottle of 2013 Marqués de Caceres Crianza to a $60 bottle of 2009 Bodegas Muga Prado Enea Gran Reserva, though most were priced between $15 and $25. The selection spanned the full range of aging categories too, from Joven to Gran Reserva.

Oenofile // Riojas That Offer More Than Mere Predictability

Pour On the Oak: Rioja’s Reliably Aged Reds


F. Martin Ramin/ The Wall Street Journal

  • 2014 CVNE Viña Real Crianza, $12 This lively and juicy red is what Victor Urrutia, the CEO of CVNE, calls a “lunchtime wine.” It’s light and flexible, a pleasure to drink in a decidedly non-taxing way—Rioja’s answer to Beaujolais.
  • 2012 Marqués de Murrieta Finca Ygay Reserva, $20 A dense ripe red marked by red fruit and spice, soft tannins and toasty oak, this Tempranillo-dominant red spent almost two years in American oak, including some new oak barrels.
  • 2008 La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva Rioja, $25 A medium-bodied blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha, this savory wine marked by fine tannins and an earthy/tobacco note is an exemplar of old-school Rioja winemaking at a good price.
  • 2005 R. López de Heredia Rioja Reserva Viña Bosconia, $30 This legendary winery once blended Tempranillo from its El Bosque vineyard with French Pinot Noir. It no longer does, but the wine remains Burgundy-like: full-bodied, slightly rustic, yet elegant.
  • 2009 Bodegas Muga Prado Enea Gran Reserva Rioja, $60

    Made only in exceptional vintages, this blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazeulo and Graciano is aged over six years in barrel and bottle. It’s wonderfully rich and vibrant with silken tannins.

Many of the wines fit my friend Allison’s description—soft, approachable, easy to drink and well priced—though a few really stood out. At the lower end of the price/complexity scale, the 2014 CVNE Viña Real Crianza ($12) was simply fun to drink, a fresh and fruity, delicious, juicy wine a bit like a Beaujolais and a terrific deal. The 2008 La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva Rioja ($25), fully mature and marked by notes of red fruit and leather, was also a great wine for the price, as was the 2012 Marques de Murrieta Finca Ygay Reserva ($20), a well-made, richly flavored red with a dominant notes of oak. It was more concentrated than its counterpart from the same vintage, the 2012 Marqués de Riscal Reserva ($17), which was softer and more approachable but lacking in acidity.

Further up the scales of price and complexity, the 2010 CVNE Imperial Reserva Rioja ($40) was a densely concentrated wine that still needed some time to unwind. Two other wines were immediately drinkable and showcased classic Rioja style: The 2005 R. López de Heredia Rioja Reserva Viña Bosconia ($30), a plush, earthy, lightly rustic red, was my favorite of the entire tasting. The 2009 Bodegas Muga Prado Enea Gran Reserva Rioja ($60) was the priciest of the group but also a truly exceptional wine, full-bodied, richly layered and beguiling with aromas and flavors that continued to unfold over time in the glass. It’s a wine only made in great vintages; there was no Prado Enea produced in 2007 or 2008 nor in 2012 or 2013.

Maybe some of the Riojas had been a little predictable. But when wineries like Muga only produce wines like Prado Enea in truly great vintages, that’s Rioja reliability at its best.

Email Lettie at wine@wsj.com.

By | 2018-01-11T18:46:26+00:00 January 11th, 2018|0 Comments

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