Matt Kramer, long-time columnist for The Wine Spectator and author of a definitive book on Burgundy from 1990 (!) and worth getting today, “Making Sense of Burgundy,” wrote: “Rioja, uniquely in this observer’s view, routinely offers the world a level of matured wine quality like no other.”
We agreed after tasting hundreds of wines available in the U.S. in advance of going to Spain, spending three days exploring Rioja and then being impressed with new discoveries and wines priced from $10 to $100.
For background and planning your own tours, check the Rioja Wine Website. The Spain Wine Tourism has an excellent website, with deep resources, including for viewing potential road trips in the many wine regions of Spain. The site noted: “Overall, La Rioja is a land of beautiful medieval villages, wineries and beautiful scenery…The cultural landscape of the wine and vineyard of La Rioja and Rioja Alavesa is on the list for potential UNESCO World Heritage Sites.” To maximize our time for research, we secured two days of scheduled wine tours and tastings through Thabuca Wine Tours.
According to an expert guide in the Guild of Master Sommeliers, winegrowing in Rioja is believed to predate the Roman conquest. “Spain’s wines are organized under a quality pyramid similar to the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system in France, Denominazione di Origine Controllata in Italy, or Denominação de Origem Controlada in Portugal. The first Spanish Denominaciones de Origen (DOs) were awarded in 1932, four years before the codification of France’s first AOCs.”
For tasting of red wines, these three categories are worth remembering and using as a general pricing guide, from lowest to highest:
- Crianza – Red wines must be aged for at least 24 months, of which 6 months are spent in small oak barrels. Rioja: 24 months total, one year in oak barrels.
- Reserva – Wines from selected vats of the better vintages. Reds must be aged for at least 36 months, including at least 12 months in small oak barrels and the rest in bottle. Rioja: three years total, one year oak, six months bottle.
- Gran Reserva – Wines only produced in exceptional vintages. In order to qualify as Gran Reserva, red wines must be aged for at least 60 months, of which at least 18 months in small oak barrels. Riojas: two years oak, two years bottle.
GuildSomm notes that Tempranillo is generally regarded as Spain’s signature grape and predominates in Rioja red wines. Globally, Tempranillo is the fourth most planted variety among wine grapes, trailing only Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot among reds. “The wines of Rioja have long been typified by aging in American oak barrels, partly due to Spain’s longstanding trade ties with North America, but also because these could be sourced more cheaply than expensive French barrels…Many producers today have shifted toward newer European oaks and blends of French and American oak.”
The following are notes from our first three tastings. Others will follow in a subsequent post, including wines enjoyed at lunches, dinners and just relaxing at the end of the day.
Founded in 1886 in Barrio de la Estación, the boutique winery is producing a fine array of affordable, quality wines. Our notes:
- 2016 Gomez Cruzado Rioja Blanco (75% Viura, 25% Tempranillo Blanco). €15. Sharp green-gold; green fruit, citrus, light floral nose; mid-plus acids; mid body (13.5 alc.); long tight slightly sour citrus finish. 15.5 UC Davis scale, 89 other scales.
- 2018 Gomez Cruzado Rioja Montes Obarenes (€46). Terroir Selection (65% Viura, 25% Tempranillo Blanco, 10% other). Mid-gold, viscous; citrus, wine lees, vanilla, floral nose (aged in French oak); medium acids; round, ripe, semi-lush wine lees finish. 16-16.5 UC Davis scale, 90-91 other scales.
- 2014 Gomez Cruzado Rioja Reserva (€19). Mid-ruby, fading rim, viscous (14.5 alc.); red fruit, cinnamon, sweet wood, vanilla nose; mid-acids, tannins; long fruity semi-chewy finish (aged 18 months in French and American oak). 16.5 UC Davis scale, 91 other scales.
- 2017 Gomez Cruzado Rioja Honorable Cosecha (€26; field blend of five grapes, mostly Tempranillo, some vines over 50 years old). Dark garnet, viscous (14.5 alc.); red and black fruit nose; French oak, ripe grapes, some floral; mid-acids; mid-plus tannins; long deep semi-chewy ripe grape and wood finish. 17 UC Davis scale, 92 other scales.
- 2019 Gomez Cruzado Rioja Cerro Las Cuevas (€42). 90% Tempranillo, old vineyards, pebbles and limestone. Darkest purple, viscous (15.0 alc.); big ripe grape nose; peppery, woody, prunes; mid-plus acids; full tannins; full alcohol; long deep fruity finish, but not hard. 16-16.5 UC Davis scale, 90-91 other scales.
- 2011 Gomez Cruzado Rioja Gran Reserva Viña Motulleri (€90 magnum). 60-year-old bush vines cultivated in Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. 70% Tempranillo, 25% Garnacha and 5% Viura. Clay-calcareous soils with limestone. Aged five years in French oak barrels, five years in the bottle. Light-mid ruby, amber edges, viscous (14.5 alc.); red fruit, older nose; dried leaves, wood, potpourri; mid-acids; mid-tannins; balanced; long elegant red fruit finish. 17-17.5 UC Davis scale, 92-93 other scales.
Laguardia is a pretty walled town with its origins in Middle Ages. Casa Primicia is tucked into the walls of the ancient town. Its a history goes back to 1420 and produces 60,000 to 70,000 cases of wine a year from different parts of Rioja. Prices range from €8 to €32 a bottle, offering some of the best price-to-quality wines we tasted during our recent visit. We enjoyed a tour and tasting with Iker Madrid, CEO. The ancient wine-making areas have been preserved and can be viewed through plexiglass floors. We went down a level, to barrel-aging rooms carved into the rock centuries ago, learned more about winemaking history, then tasted.
- 2021 Flor de Primicia (Blanco Barrica), barrel-fermented Chardonnay (€8). Sharp, dark gold; citrus, green fruit, oak, floral nose; mid-acids, mid-depth; long balanced varietal finish. 16 UC Davis, 90 other scales.
- 2018 Graciano (€10). Dark garnet, viscous (14.0 alc.); ripe grape, peppery, violet nose; mid-plus acids, full tannins; long tight fruity finish. 16-16.5 UC Davis scale, 90-91 other scales.
- 2018 Carravalseca (€13) Crianza Ecologico (organic, French and American barrels; 100% Tempranillo). Darkest purple, viscous (14.0 alc.); ripe grape, prune, peppery nose; low-medium acids; medium tannins; long, round, fruity finish. 16.5 UC Davis scale, 91 other scales.
- 2016 Casa Primicia Julian Madrid Reserva (€20). 100% Tempranillo, 20 months in French oak; dark purple, viscous (14.0 alc.); peppery, anise, raisin, oaky nose; mid-plus acids, tannins; long balanced red fruit finish. 16.5-17 UC Davis scale, 91-92 other scales.
- 2014 Casa Primicia Cofradia (€32). 100% Tempranillo, 20 months in new French oak. From oldest vineyards, average age, 82 years. Dark purple, ruby edges, viscous (15.0 alc.); black fruit, anise, berries and wood nose; vanilla; mid-plus acids; mid-plus tannins; big fruit; long chewy slightly hot black fruit finish. 16.5-17 UC Davis scale, 91-92 other scales.
The winery was founded in 1989 and sources grapes from vineyards that average some 50 years of age, with some 80 hectares of Tempranillo, Graciano, Viura and Malvasia. The winery is selective in harvesting its grapes and has lower yields per hectare than some.
- Fincas de Ganuza 2016 Tinto Reserva (€32). 88% Tempranillo; 24 months in 225-liter oak barrels, 85% French, 15% American; average age of vineyards 25 to 40 years; 14.5 alc. Mid garnet, ruby rim, viscous; red fruit nose; cherries, herbaceous, wood; mid-acids; full tannins and alcohol; long chewy hot and woody finish. 16 UC Davis scale, 90 other scales.
- Remirez de Ganuza 2014 Reserva (€53). 95% Tempranillo, 27 months in 225-liter French oak barrels, 80% new; average age of vineyards, 60 years; 14.0 alc. Dark purple, viscous; ripe fruit, big berry and wood nose; mid acids; medium plus tannins; balanced; good fruit; long berry and wood finish. 16.5-17 UC Davis scale, 91-92 other scales.
- Remirez de Ganuza 2015 Trasnocho Tinto Reserva (€80). 94% Tempranillo; 21 months in new 225-liter French oak barrels; manual harvest and sorting; low yields; average age of vineyards, 60 years; 14.5 alc. Extracted press wine. Dark purple, viscous; intense black fruit nose; shoe polish, anise, wood; mid-acids; medium-plus tannins; long berry and wood finish (similar to their Reserva). 16.5 UC Davis scale, 91 other scales.
- Remirez de Ganuza 2019 Blanco Reserva (€34). Blend of Viura, Malvasia, Garnacha blanca and others; 13.5 alc. Aged 10 months on the lees in new 225-liter French oak barrels, which are rotated without opening to accomplish battonage. Mid-straw gold, some viscosity; toasty, citrus, floral, wine lees nose; mid-plus acids; good fruit; long deep fruity finish. 16.5 UC Davis scale, 91 other scales.
NEXT: More Rioja discoveries