Beverage Break: Take Me To Rioja!
The well-traveled Deborah “Goldie” Goldstein has been through Europe countless times, but has somehow managed to disregard Spain. She, like I, typically think of Europe (or any place in the global viticultural belt, for that matter) in respect to the taste of their regional wines first. Our combined passion for enjoying Spanish juice, multiplied by the fact that I’ve had the fortune of visiting Spain twice, has Goldie perpetually pleading with me to “take her through Spain” (as if I’d memorized how to navigate the entire nation in 20 days from the back seats of cars). My usual response is “after you take me to Champagne”. Running the WAC full-time will probably prevent either excursion from unfolding anytime soon, but it won’t stop us from continuing our exploration of authentic, often surreally-majestic Spanish wines, right at home.
My years in the New York wine trade have allowed me privileged access to rare and special Spanish wines, many of which never quite make their way to the retail consumer. I loved it when I presented Goldie with my latest acquisition, and her eyes would bug out! Often, it would be some mature Rioja that just landed in the US straight from the bodega’s cellar. Her culinary wheels would instantly begin turning, and by the end of the week, a rack of lamb or breast of duck would be on the table, that very wine decanted and in our glasses.
One of my final scores before joining the WAC was from one of the last remaining old-guard Rioja estates: La Rioja Alta. This producer grows Tempranillo vines on several of the greatest vineyard sites in the Rioja Alta region— sites that they acquired 100 years ago and longer. The red wines they produce are a stylistic snapshot of the taste of Tempranillo from the 19th century, as they have done little to tweak their formula since then. Maturation is strictly in American oak casks, the wine is racked off to different casks every six months, and the final product is released far later than the local rules prescribe. We love wines like these because they flaunt all the intriguing aspects that foodies and wine geeks like us chase after: perfect weight and silkiness, old-world fruit/acidity, classy oxidative Sherry-like character, immense complexity, and low (12%) alcohol, all wrapped up in a well-aged presentation, yet still with decades of cellar life left in them. Their “ultra-traditional” personality is rivaled only by a small handful of other European wine regions, which like Rioja, are struggling with the temptation to modernize their own approach and style.
When a very special “broken vertical” offering of Viña Arana came through the wire in 2012, I pounced on two (can you imagine Goldie’s eyes?)! By Viña Arana, I’m referring to the brand name of one of La Rioja Alta’s bottlings designated as a Reserva, meaning the wine must be aged for at least 3 years before release, one or more years of which must be spent in oak (Arana is typically held for 7 years before release!). And by “broken vertical”, I mean an assortment of the best vintages (in this case, 6 in all) from the last 25. We spent a few weeks during 2013 pairing each vintage with a different meal— for enjoyment, of course, but also to get a feel of how these wines evolve through different stages. Each was decanted approximately 3 hours before serving. Get a load of our notes on each, and learn why it’s beneficial to take Deb up on her offer anytime she mentions “dinner, our place”:
2005: Celery root, herb oils, baking chocolate and a savory personality throughout describe this special, place-specific Rioja that has just been released. Its fruit is still caught up in its tannins for now. It’s the only vintage from the vertical that’s still available in the market, so acquire it (around $25), and hold it for 10 to 30 more years.
2001: Intoxicating nose of boysenberry, cranberry, chocolate, white pepper, and liver fat. Exceptional weight; rich and slick on the palate with sweet molasses personality. Intense, and perhaps perfect. Hold for a few more decades.
1996: The aromas are evolving distinctively. Ultra-complex on the nose: steak juice, desk drawer, cherry mocha, mint, soy sauce, melted licorice, and flowery soap. The structure is angular; the fruit is fat but well-toned with cleansing acidity.
1994: Laser-focused, reductive flavors. Has all the great elements of the other vintages, but more pronounced. The acidity is so perky it might outlast the fruit. Coconut and suede leather notes distinguish this. Beautiful, and will be for quite some time to come.
1991: A highly-complex one, aromatically flaunting licorice, suede, sage, autumn leaf, animal fur, and burnt orange skin. The palate is super-savory— downright animal: suckling pig’s skin/lamb’s blood flavors are within the fruit, carried along by high acidity. This has a great vibrant, youthful color and profound silkiness. Drink up!
1987: Almond, raisin, spice, deep sweet leather and old desk personify the nose. The palate is owned by raspberry fruit, complicated by mushroom, coffee and toasty brioche. Truly an old-world wine nearing peak maturity. A stunner!