It’s not to say that Rioja wines have ever gone away, but they never seem to be top of mind. We’re willing to take partial responsibility for this (no more than 34%). Perhaps we may have pigeon-holed the region to uncomplicated, cherry-vanilla red wines. It wasn’t done maliciously, but all the wines we’ve had only perpetuated this perception. We didn’t think badly of them, but they didn’t keep us wanting more. That’s the dangerous thing about perceptions, though, they’re slightly biased and don’t always capture the full view.
Of course to get the best vantage point, one’s best bet is to just dive right in. We, however, glided in gracefully on a 747 to check out the region of Rioja, and while there satisfied our ever-burning desire for hot, fresh-baked tortilla.
During a short car ride to the town of Logrono, in the center of Rioja, we tried to resist the allure of the postcard-worthy rolling vineyards speckled with historic bodegas and happy cows. The scenery quickly changed to massive feats of modern architecture, which also happen to double as wineries. That quickly became a theme we would see throughout our visit – the contrast of old and new, living side-by-side, just trying to get along.
Ironically, it was one of the more traditional wineries, Marques de Murrieta, which said, “you could never turn you back on technology.” Yet a moment later, they were quick to point out with money you can create everything but you can’t create history and tradition. These disparate thoughts seemed a bit disjointed at first – modern ideas built on science coupled with traditions rooted in years of family pride. Was this going to be a schizophrenic winery? Not really sure whether to hang on to the past or embrace the future? The result: forgettable wines that lacked in identity. Nah, they were delicious.
And thus began our re-acquaintance with Rioja. Perhaps some of the most exciting wines we’ve had all year.
Since there is so much to share, today will be half the story. Here we are going to focus on the biggest surprise of the region, Rioja Blanco, our new favorite summer white wine. Next week, we expose the red.
The whites -- our immediate gravitation to Rioja’s white wines may have seemed a little clingy at first. We were so enamored by it’s unique floral and mineral notes that we sought it out every place we visited. Yes, even breakfast. With tortilla, of course. The complexity and character reminded us of a great white burgundy but with softness created by the light floral notes of the viura grape. These wines are probably the best-kept secret in Spain in terms of quality and price. When done in the traditional style, this wine has rich nutty notes with a velvet texture and a hint of oxidation. The more modern approach is crisp and refreshing with minerality and layers of flavor.
Marques De Murrieta Capellania Reserva 2002
This has everything we want in a white wine to have with food - a full, rich body with bright, intense flavors. In this case butter, hazelnut and floral notes. They linger long enough to remind you how tasty it is and that it’s probably time for another sip.
Lopez de Heredia, Vina Tondonia Gran Reserva 1981
In terms of character and personality this wine may be the New Yorker of Rioja (it’s that good.) The light oxidative notes add layers of flavor depth, reminiscent of a fine fino sherry with hints of almonds and hazelnuts.
Bodegas Beronia Blanco 2006
This wine is crisp and refreshing with notes of lime, minerality and grapefruit. It’s the perfect alternative for those who find themselves stuck in a Pinot Grigio rut.
Esencia Valdemar Blanco 2006
Also bright and refreshing, this wine has light floral notes complemented by ripe green apple and pear. The intensity of flavor and acidity reaches out to wake up taste buds we didn’t even know we had.
Each sip of these dynamic wines began to shatter the perceptions we carried about the region. Just a few short weeks ago White Rioja wasn’t even on our radar and now it’s all we can think about. Although that’s the good part about perceptions -- they can easily be changed.