Rioja is Spain’s best-known wine, but even among experienced wine drinkers, it can be overshadowed by its more popular counterparts from France and Italy such as Bordeaux and Barolo. Which is a shame – as we experienced at the 2016 Rioja Wine & Tapas Festival last Saturday at Union Station, Rioja can be just as enjoyable and revelatory as its peers, at a fraction of the cost. Nearly three dozen bodegas from the region were represented, including such well-known producers as Marqués de Riscal, Bodegas Muga, and Marqués de Cáceres.
First, some background. The Rioja wine region is located in a mountain-ringed area of Northern Spain, near Basque Country. With a history of winemaking dating back to at least the 11th century BC, it is certainly the country’s oldest viticultural area. Much has changed since then; in fact, much has changed in Rioja in just the last few decades.
Rioja wines are certified according to the time and type of aging that the juice receives prior to release. Cosecha and Crianza wines are the young, daily drinkers, while Reserva and Gran Reserva are the heavy hitters. Blancos, reds and rosados were poured from a variety of categories and vintages, and while we focused mainly on red Reservas and Gran Reservas, we tasted a bit of everything and were impressed across the board.
The offerings from Marqués de Cáceres alone were enough to make the festival a success. In addition to their highly drinkable 2014 Excellens Rose, the vineyard poured an incredible vertical tasting of their 2010 Reserva, and Gran Reservas from 2008, 1995, 1994, and 1990. Featuring a classic blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha and Graciano, each vintage was delicious in its own right, while the older wines showed how age worthy great Rioja is. The 1990 featured soft tannins and doubtless can be enjoyed for many years to come, but the ‘94 and ‘95 were in their absolute prime, still offering rich, dark fruit in the nose and palate. Retailing from $24.99-$89.99, these wines offer an incredible value relative to what you would get in that range from Bordeaux or even Napa. Other favorites included the 100% Tempranillo El Coto Imaz Reserva from 2010 and 2008 Gran Reserva, as well the 2005 Gran Reserva from Marqués de Riscal, Montecillo’s delicious $15 2010 Reserva and Gómez Cruzado’s wonderful Gran Reserva 2007.
An old charge from wine snobs, particularly regarding white Rioja, is that the producers tend to favor age for its own sake. While there may have been something to this criticism in the past, the whites we tasted from Muga, Viña Eguía, Bodegas Corral Don Jacobo and others, made primarily or exclusively from the Viura grape, were crisp and vibrant, and not at all maderized like the stereotypical white Rioja. Rosados, such as Muga’s blend of Garnacha, Viura and Tempranillo, were similarly refreshing.
But the stars were the reds, particularly the Reservas and Gran Reservas. They were rich and delicious, but seldom overpowering. Like the Italians, Spanish winemakers blend their wines to go with food.
And oh, the food. We’ve been to many of these types of festivals so far and no other has featured food and wine that were this complementary. Highlights were Rich Penny’s Spanish clams with saffron waffle from Chart House San Diego; cabeza de puerco with pickled vegetables from The Cannibal Beer & Butcher in Culver City; lambcetta and Spanish cassoulet from Barrel & Ashes; duck heart with jalapenos, crispy onion and shallots from Broken Spanish; and Spring vegetable paella from chef Jeffrey Weiss of San Francisco who wrote a great cookbook, “Charcuteria: The Soul of Spain.” It was lovely to grab a new wine splash and plate, find a shady spot and explore the taste sensations of the food and wine together. Of course, we also discovered that Rioja goes perfectly well with a simple plate of thin slices of jamon Iberico (from pigs only found in Spain), some cheese and Spanish olives. Remember that for your next party.
This was the third such festival sponsored by Rioja winemakers, the first two in New York and Chicago over the last few years. The day was complete with sounds from DJ Lord’s (of Public Enemy) turntables, featuring Latin jazz and other fitting genres. He seemed to be enjoying the wine too.
*written with Ted Kane