Bill’s Best Bets – August 2015

The charm of old Rioja

by Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

Every country has its emblematic regions, names which are as much synonymous with “wine” as they are with the country to which they belong. France has a few – Chablis, Bordeaux and Champagne are good examples. Italy has Chianti. And Spain? It’s Rioja.

When I hear “Rioja,” red wines  “exploding” with fruit is not the first thing I think about. The fruit is there, but it’s secondary. I most often associate notes of tobacco, espresso, truffle and leather. Spices like vanilla, sandalwood and dried coriander. The reason is both the grapes and how the wines are aged.

There are a number of red grape varieties grown in the region: graciano, garnacha (grenache) and mazuelo (carignan) being the “supporting” grapes. But the workhorse in Rioja is tempranillo and represents more than 75% of all red grape vines in the region.

Tempranillo is not a “powerhouse” grape. It’s lightly coloured and generally is relatively low in alcohol and acidity. And this is where the other grapes come into play: garnacha brings alcohol, graciano the aromatics and acidity, and mazeulo the extra torque (tannin).

The end result are wines that are built to age – so much so that it is rare to find a quality Rioja which is under two years old. And more often than not, they will have been aged much more than that before being commercialized.

There do exist “young” wines, which are labelled as just “Rioja.” These are wines that spend under one year in oak barrels. After that, you will find “Crianza,” which is aged for two years, with at least one year in barrel. These wines show much more fruit and vibrant tannins, great for meat dishes. Try the Montecillo as the 2010’s are still on the shelves. If you are looking for a more modern version with the accent on the fruit, then Palacio’s Montesa is a very clean version of the genre, and perfect for a steak on the grill. And if you would like something off the beaten path, one of my favourite wines from the region comes from Ijalba who make a Rioja entirely with graciano.

Montecillo Crianza 2010Palacios Remondo La Montesa 2011Ijalba Graciano 2012

Reserva wines are aged a minimum of three years, with at least one year in oak. But like the Crianzas, there is no shortage of much older bottles available at the SAQ, If you are a fan of very oak driven wines, perfect for smoked baby back ribs, try the 2010 Baron de Ley. If you are looking for a wine with the balance tilting towards the fruit, then try the  2009 Monte Real. At 6 years of age, it is still brilliantly fresh.

Barrels aging wines very slowly at Lopez de Heredia

Barrels aging wines very slowly at Lopez de Heredia

While it is over $40, if you want a treat, then try the 2002 Tondonia from Lopez de Heredia. This is absolutely unique and if you want to taste the fruit of Rioja, without much barrel interference, then splurge on this wine. Pork with Bourbon BBQ Sauce and a salad with a balsamic vinaigrette works wonders with it.

Baron De Ley Reserva 2010Monte Real Reserva 2009Vina Tondonia Red Reserva 2002

And finally, there are the Gran Reserva wines, which must spend at least two years in barrel and three in bottle before being put on the market. Here is where the wines approach more of a pinot noir in style. Try the 2001 Faustino for a great example. But if you want a wine that will last for decades, yet still drinks well now, try the 2005 Castillo Ygay. Simply put, fantastic.

Faustino I Gran Reserva 2001Marqués De Murrieta Castillo Ygay Rioja Gran Reserva Especial 2005

And can they age even more? When I visited Faustino, I tasted as far back a 1964. Both that wine and the 1970 were still remarkably fresh. At Castillo Ygay, a 1980 Gran Reserva in magnum was just a young adult in terms of its maturity.

Ygay's 2005 Grand Reserva is mind blowingly good

Ygay’s 2005 Grand Reserva is mind blowingly good

It is this effect of barrel aging which ultimately gives Rioja its unique sense of antiquity. Where they differ from Bordeaux, for example, is that many use primarily American oak barrels. Because American oak is more porous than French oak, the wine can leach out more barrel flavours such as vanilla. And, they allow a touch more oxygen to enter the wine which will soften tannins and give a more velvety texture, as well as many of the earthy notes I described earlier.

So while most regions pump out young wines, Rioja still ages their wines for you. What is remarkable, are the prices. Few of the world’s great wine regions offer this quality and complexity for so little.

Have a great end of Summer.


There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial

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