Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES October 12th

The Reds Issue: Rioja and Cabernets

By Sara d’Amato with notes from David Lawrason

Sara d'AmatoA nervy chill is finally in the air and big reds are on the VINTAGES shelves in abundance. While Michael Godel and John Szabo were exploring Tuscany last week, David and I tasted through the selection available to us at the press tasting lab. Although there were very few whites presented to us, in fact the fewest we can remember, this week’s double feature of Rioja and cabernets were fully on display. Before launching into to our global cabernet picks, as well as other red gems, here is a guide to the wines of Rioja – what to look for and what to expect.

The traditional Spanish DO and DOCa terms are used to designate the most restrictive of classifications that guarantee quality in the country and are under the envelope of the PDO tier. At the top of this quality pyramid are the wines designated as DOCa and there are only two wine regions that can use this status: that of Rioja and Priorat. Thus, when you see the DOCa symbol on the label (Denominación d’Origen Calificada) you can expect high standards.

Rioja Oak Barrels

A shift in quality emphasis from oak-aged influence to a more site-specific formula.

Oak is a big part of the character of Spanish wines, even leading to the use of terms such as Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva, all designations of quality that denote the use of oak. Crianza being the least amount of oak use and Gran Reserva the most. At the Gran Reserva level you can expect a red to be aged for 5 years prior to release with at least 2 years in barrel and 2 years in bottle. This differs from Reserva where the total minimum ageing requirement is 3 years with at least 1 year in barrel and 6 months in bottle for red wines. In Rioja, there has been a traditional preference for the use of American oak in contrast to their southwestern counterpart, Ribera del Duero that tends to use more French oak. At least, that is what we have been taught for quite some time. Flux is upon Rioja now with a big shift towards terroir-driven quality as opposed to oak-aged driven quality. In addition, the delicacy of French oak ageing is on the rise in the region, a response to consumer demand for fresher, more fruity wines.

Renewal in Rioja

A Burgundian inspired model has been the basis for a shift in the Rioja Consejo Regulador who announced a change in the regions classification systems over the past couple of years. One of these changes involves the use of the name of the village/municipality (all 145 of them) where the grapes are grown to be printed on the front label. The idea here is to increase the focus on vineyards and villages of exception. This decision has met with some controversy by proponents who believe that strength comes from blending across regions. Despite some resistance, the forward-thinking changes have been largely praised as a means to encourage quality production.

Sparkling wine gets an upgrade in the region as well with a new designation “Espumosos de Caidad de Rioja” (under the Reserva classification) which could prove a high-value competitor to Champagne. There is also a new rank on the ageing classification scheme for bubbles called “Gran Añada”. At the Gran Añada level, the wines must have at least 3 years on the lees and vintage dated wines must be hand-harvested. On the pink side of the spectrum, rosé get more versatile and gains a competitive edge with a new allowance permitting lighter coloured wines to be produced. There is certainly excitement in the air and thus it is about time for a regional VINTAGES focus on Rioja.

Xavier 100% Côtes Du Rhône 2016 


Buyer’s Guide October 12th: Rioja Picks

Urbina 1998 Especial Reserva, Rioja, Spain ($39.95)
Sara d’Amato – Great Spanish reds are aged to perfection, in ideal circumstances ready-to-drink upon release, and here is a fine example of such a find. Lively yet harmonious, this Especial Reserva is notably under-priced.
David Lawrason – It’s hard to imagine finding such a fine mature wine from any other region at such a good price. Now almost tawny colour, this remains very much alive with currant/cherry fruit, lifted rosemary, tobacco and cedarwood. It is warming and energetic. …

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I hope these selections prove comforting as the bite of autumn enters the picture. We will be back with more recommendations next week from beyond VINTAGES.


Sara d’Amato

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Lawrason’s Take
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