Thursday, February 4, 2016

Characterizing Rioja wines: A blind tasting

There is a group of young Somms here in the Orlando area who are at various stages of the Guild Of Sommeliers certification process and have banded together to hone their skills as they pursue higher levels of individual accreditation. From time to time I act as a resource for the group by facilitating focused tastings, allowing the group to do deep dives into a region, variety, or soil type. Our most recent previous exercise was an exploration of the varying instances of Nebbiolo.

Last week we conducted another focused tasting, this time on the wines of Rioja. This tasting was held in the back room of Luma on Park (Winter Park), with approximately 15 people in attendance. In addition to the Somms, I had invited Ron Siegel and Andres Montoya to lend their expertise to the effort.

In that one of the Somms found Rioja wines rather challenging, I decided to conduct the tasting blind. The objective was to see if there were any natural groupings in the offered wines and to identify the characteristics which caused that grouping (if any). Towards that end, the wines were placed into numbered paper bags and were only referenced by number until a global reveal at the conclusion of the tasting. Of the wines tasted blind, six came from my cellar, five were purchased on the day of the tasting, two each were brought by Ron and Andres, and one bottle was brought by Kevin Quijano.

The traffic was brutal that afternoon so we got a late start waiting for some of our colleagues. But it was not wasted time. We whiled the time away first with a 1994 Lopez de Heredia Gravonia Blanco and then with a 1994 Tondonia Blanco. Melissa (Swirlery) felt that the oxidative notes of the Gravonia felt more like a Jura wine, or even a Sherry, while the Tondonia had a richer, nuttier feel, like a black walnut. I like oxidative notes and I like Lopez de Heredia so I was receptive to whatever was in the bottles.

I began the session with a brief overview of the factors that influence the character of a Rioja wine. This presentation was a summary of my detailed treatment of the region.

Tasted blind, the wines seem to fall into five groups which I will characterize as follows: Modern, Faulty, Over the Hill, Other, and Traditional. It should be pointed that while the wines were placed into groups during the tasting, the actual names of the wines within those groups were not revealed until the conclusion of the tasting. Now let us examine the wines within the identified groups.

The wines falling into the modern grouping are shown in the picture below. The Muga 2009 Seleccion Especial is not pictured here but is a member nonetheless.

Photo Credits: Anne Ryan
Andres characterized the 2009 Marques de Legarda as a wine with a very extracted style with dark mint chocolate and plenty of new oak. It reminded him of a Paolo Scavino Barolo. The 2009 Muga Seleccion Especial was also modern but its extraction, blackberry jam notes, and French oak was reminiscent of a Napa Cab. The 2005 Muga Aro had a very dark color, too much oak, and appeared unbalanced. Ripe fruit and sweet oak. I saw Super Tuscan characteristics while Andrew tagged it as a Cab-based Bordeaux. Melissa agreed with its modernity. The 2005 Capricho and the 2001 Faustino hewed closely to the unfolding story line. Surprisingly for us, the 2004 Castello Ygay showed up in this list. In the blind tasting I had described it as having raspberry notes along with vanilla, coconut and dried herbs and had placed it in the middle between a modern and a traditional Rioja. Andres described it thusly: "fresh-picked raspberries, floral but with high alcohol on the nose. Modern in style (or appeared to be)."

The 2005 Cincel Gran Reserva was identified as faulty due to an excess of sulfur on the nose.

Photo Credits: Anne Ryan

Over the Hill
The 2001 Berceo was characterized as "dark, port-like, oxidized, and disjointed."

Photo Credits: Anne Ryan

The Remelluri 2007 (Iron, meaty, potted soil, french oak on nose) and 2006 Coleccion Vivanco Graciano single varietal (Dark, unfiltered. Naphthalene (mothball) on the nose. disjointed, extracted. Reminiscent of an earthy Cab Franc from Saumur-Champigny) were classed as the "other."

Photo Credits: Anne Ryan

The wines that were placed into this category were everyone's favorites. While what had gone before was somewhat confusing, the wines that populated this category brought order to the tasting. As soon as you brought the glass up to your nose you knew that these were the aromas and flavors that you had found pleasing in an earlier wine.

Photo Credits: Anne Ryan

The 1994 Rioja Alta 904 was Andres' Wine of the Night! "Gorgeous nose of mushroom, forest floor, pine needle, pickled fruit, beef broth (umami sensation) and great acidity. Drinks like a Gevrey Chambertin!" As shown in the section below, this was also Ron's wine of the night (but for different reasons). 

The 1991 Lopez Heredia Bosconia exhibited coffee, earth, and great integration between oak and fruit. Intense pepper spice, great acidity, and an expressiveness on the palate. This wine was drinking beautifully. Andres tagged it as his second wine of the night: "dried flower, wet earth, forest floor, road tar, lovely aromatics, very Burgundian." 

The Cune Imperial 1994 showed barnyard, cherry, spice, fruit, herbs and flowers. Restrained, subtle, elegant. For Andrew, "Delicate, floral, pinot-noir-like intensity, gravel/mineral, chewy tannins.

Andres found the 1973 Valoria to be surprisingly youthful, exhibiting scorched earth, ripe cherry, and tobacco. Bold. He was extremely surprised at the reveal because he had had this down as a wine from the 90's.

One of the surprises for us all, and not necessarily fitting neatly into this category, was the 2011 Vivanco Maturana Tinta. It had an intense color along with black cherry, olives, and leather on the palate. Balanced. Northern Rhone character. Everyone liked this wine. 

Post-Tasting Thoughts
I really enjoyed the tasting as it gave me a good perspective of the different styles being made in the region. The wines that were poured represented a good mix of the top producers and their styles. while some showed over-ripe fruit -- and seemed clunky, out of balance, and short of finish -- another style seemed to show a wine that was made in a region such as Tuscany or Bordeaux. Those wines displayed dark colors, primary characteristics, and bell pepper and were made in a modern style including the use of French oak. 

My favorite wine was made in a more traditional style that was elegant, floral, and displayed bright fruits, good acids and had a silky texture. I felt that the wines showed so much better when they had some age on them, usually 10-20 yrs where they had developed complexity and had lost the dominant dill and vanilla flavors associated with American oak.

My top wine of the tasting was the 1994 Rioja Alto 904 which had bright cherry and berry fruits with cinnamon, leather, tobacco, and licorice It was elegant and floral with silky tannins.
My second favorite was the 1991 Lopez Heredia Gran Reserva Bosconio which displayed cherry and strawberry fruits and had an earthy, leather, and blood orange component along with lavender.

I also liked the Il Vivanco Maturana which had a completely different style that reminded me of a Northern Rhone with dark cherry and black olive notes. 

Tasting through 18 different Riojas was enlightening.  I was fascinated by the uniqueness of each wine--some due to winemaker manipulation and others simply a result of terroir.  Exploring them side-by-side really heightened the observation of the differences between each bottle, and made me quickly realize that Rioja is complex region that has distinctly varied styles.


In my opening remarks to the group I had characterized Rioja wines as shown in the chart below. 

The tasting panel very clearly opted for the classic Rioja style and traditionalism, soundly rejecting the modernist wines that were on offer. The tasting also revealed a few wines that did not fit neatly into any of the above molds and, of those, the Maturana was exceedingly pleasing with the others being eminently forgettable.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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