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Rioja

Senorio de PecinaSometimes, you just need a glass of finest nectar: aged red wine, the drink par excellence. Sometimes you need a wine of utter harmoniousness, depth, sheer complexity; warmth at work against the cold of winter.

Just say it, slowly – let the syllables drip from your lips:

Rioja.

For those frigid nights when your friends have gathered, when the roast is in the oven, when only such a wine will do, perhaps you would be tempted towards a younger vintage, to savor lively cherry fruit and (if produced traditionally) that delicious vanilla and spice flavor. But on those coldest of nights, when one wants to swoon into the happiness of kinship, as Galway Kinnell would say… an aged Rioja can best capture the essence, the brilliance of what a great wine can be.

So, for tonight’s post, just such a thing: the 2001 Señorío de P. Peciña Reserva Rioja Reserva. It has much to offer. For one, it spends 36 months in used American oak barrels, and then is bottle-aged for another eight years. This surpasses Gran Reserva aging requirements, making the Señorío de P. Peciña a very unusual wine, to say the least. It is 95% Tempranillo, with the rest a blend of Graciano and Garnacha. At this point, with 13 years behind it, this is a wine that is ready to be enjoyed.

And what enjoyment! In glass, the classic brick red color, with its age beginning to show a little paleness at the rim. Still bursting with sour cherry, plum, and cranberry fruit on the nose, along with oaky vanilla, hints of toffee, black pepper, and leather… just a fantastic set of aromas. Velvety and round in the mouth, delicious and juicy as well, balanced in all its parts, quenching, beautiful. A lovely hint of candied orange peel whispers in the finish, which is long and silky. At $26, you must.

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Today was a cooler day in an otherwise warm month, followed by a pensive evening full of planning. Before summer hits full-tilt, I want to gulp down as much Rioja as time and my budget allow. Yes, that was as far as my planning took me. “Wait,” you say, “why Rioja?”  Well, stop talking to your screen, and I will tell you why Rioja.

Spoiler alert: Rioja is from Spain. For those who have read my previous post and already knew this, thanks for reading. It is generally a blended wine. In fact, the vast majority of Rioja has traditionally been blended wine, featuring juice from three different regions: Rioja Alta, which has the highest elevation and coolest climate of the three; Rioja Baja, with its heavy Mediterranean influence and dry weather making the vines struggle, leading to deep, rich wines; and Rioja Alavesa, where poor soil conditions are ideal for grapevines and wines tend to have higher acidity.

And now let me drop some more knowledge: Rioja is generally thought of as a red wine. Oh yes. It may surprise you that white Rioja is also made – usually with the Viura grape, also known as Macabeo. Viura tends to produce mild white wines with citrus notes and snappy acidity, meant to be consumed young. It is one of the main grapes found in the esteemed Spanish sparkling wine Cava, and is generally blended with Malvasia, which adds softness as well as aromas of peaches and apricots, and Garnacha Blanca, which acts to round out the wine’s texture.

For the red wine, which wine people (like me) usually rave about, the blend tends to be Tempranillo and Garnacha (known in France as Grenache). Tempranillo offers fruity aromas such as berries and plums to the mix, with secondary notes such as tobacco and dried herbs. It can also possess good acidity, a crucial element when evaluating a wine’s balance. Garnacha generally contributes structure in the form of alcohol, as well as a nice spicy character. I won’t get too specific, as this has been covered elsewhere, but the three “tiers” of Rioja – Crianza, aged at least two years; Reserva, aged for at least three years, one in oak; and Gran Reserva, aged for at least two years in oak and three years in bottle – encompass a great variety of styles, resulting from various decisions made by the winemaker. Decisions about French oak vs. American oak. Decisions about percentages of grapes in the blend. Rioja brings enough to the table to appeal to the most discerning of drinkers, at every level of quality.

For a drinker as discerning as myself, there is this: the 2007 “Banda Azul” from the Paternina winery. The vines maintain a precarious existence at an elevation of 1500 feet in Rioja Alta. Shorter growing seasons in this region lead to lighter wines, and lend a nice sappy quality to the fruit aromas in the glass. In this case, the blend is 75% Tempranillo and 25% Garnacha, and the wine is aged in American oak barrels for 14 months after fermentation. A lovely ruby in the glass, this wine immediately wafts fragrant aromas of dark cherries when opened, as well as redcurrants, loam, cedar, and allspice. Extremely soft on the palate, like velvet, but with enough acidity to make it a food-friendly addition to the table. Medium finish, tending towards baking spices. This wine absolutely kills with braised lamb shoulder. $13.

What can do a great wine justice? What words, what anecdotes? How can I summon the verbiage to explain the greatness of a perfect bottle? Or, as the greatest poet who ever lived, Stanley Kunitz, once put it: “Some things I do not profess/to understand, perhaps/not wanting to…” In the end, when wine is so good it becomes something I scarcely understand, what remains? What can I, a humble listener, say about the finest things in life?

I only know that if I did not try, I would regret it. And so here goes, a description of a bottle that defies easy definition: the 2001 Viña Ardanza “Reserva Especial.” First, something about the maker… La Rioja Alta was formed in 1890 by five quality-minded growers eager to exploit the vacuum left by the phylloxera epidemic, with French vineyards being ravaged by the deadly louse. Taking advantage of the newly built railway to Bilbao, the new bodega flourished, then incorporated Bodegas Ardanza into its holdings in 1904. Although Rioja has seen its ups and downs, La Rioja Alta has always been a source of top-notch Rioja wine. Even considering this, the 2001 bottling of their Viña Ardanza is something special indeed. I’ll let them say it in their own words, straight from the bottle:

En toda nuestra historia, solamente tres añadas de Viña Ardanza han merecido la calificación Especial: 1964, 1973 y 2001. La lluvia, el sol, el frío y el calor se alternaron de la mejor manera posible para hacer de Viña Ardanza 2001 un vino único.

But what makes this wine so remarkable? Besides long aging in new American oak casks, and the top-quality fruit (80% Tempranillo grapes, 20% Garnacha, both varietals which I often overlook for no good reason), this wine is an example of the benefits behind tradition. Because no French oak is used, the wines have a more pronounced vanilla note, which deepens into complex spice aromas after five or more years in bottle. Because these wines are unfiltered, they have a far more robust flavor and greater structure. But beyond that, the terroir itself, the perfect location that is Rioja Alta, is what allows Tempranillo to reach its fullest expression in Viña Ardanza, to the point where this bottle is one of only three vintages in over a century to receive the title “Reserva Especial.”

And let’s not forget to discuss why it’s so special: a nice ruby red in the glass, fading to brown at the rim, this wine just bursts with aromas. Leather, vanilla, baking spices, and a bright cherry which rings through like a bell. Some nice fig notes in there, as well. These aromas continued to deepen and grow more complex for over 30 minutes; I could have decanted this wine for an hour and still had time to let it sit. Brilliant. Then the mouthfeel: soft, supple, yet firm with a nice silky texture, and enough acidity to carry the day. Impeccably balanced, with the fruit riding the backbone of tannin just so. Long finish, tending towards dried fruit and spice, and just goes on and on. Pair with roast lamb. Yes, you could enjoy this wine with pancetta and Brussels sprouts pizza (which I did), or a nice herb-encrusted pork loin with roasted vegetables, but trust me… lamb. I managed to grab a few bottles for $28, but it normally sells for $35. Pray you find some.


I love Spanish wines. I love them for the simple reason that they are perfect accompaniments to Spanish food: tapas, roast lamb, or paella. Especially lamb. Just thinking about sipping a glass of the 2005 Marqués de Cáceres Crianza with a huge hunk of roast lamb makes my mouth water.

Here’s why: stainless steel fermentation has preserved the wine’s naturally lively fruit aromas – it is made from hand-picked Tempranillo, Garnacha and Graciano grapes, while aging in French and American oak lends it a nice touch of vanilla to balance the fruit. Showing bright ruby in the glass, the wine has decent clarity. The nose is dominated by blackberries and dark cherries, with a hint of spice. A lush mouthfeel, with silky tannins balanced to more red berry fruit and cinnamon, leads to a succulent finish. I found that this bottle benefits from an hour of decanting. Good value; good dinner wine. $11.


Why does the word “Rioja” always send me scrambling for a glass? Perhaps it’s the supple, earthy, delicate nature of the wine, which generally sees more oak aging than any other. Maybe it’s the bright berry fruit in young crianza Rioja, redolent with cherry, spice, and vanilla flavors; or perhaps it’s the earthy lushness of reserva Rioja, with intense notes of leather and dried leaves resulting from the mininum three years spent aging – generally in American oak barrels, but sometimes French oak. Especially fine, and probably the real reason Rioja is so compelling, are the gran reserva wines, made in only truly fantastic years, showing a silkiness and elegance normally only seen in great Burgundies. These wines, world-reknowned, see a legal minimum of five years of aging in oak barrels, although the average is eight and a half years. Aging wine is the most important part of making Rioja, and it is this science I respect about it most.

But moving on to the offering at hand: the 2006 Ramon Bilbao Crianza is a dark violet-red in the glass. The nose reveals concentrated aromas of plum and berries, with hints of leather. Juicy and lush on the palate, the wine is rich with jammy black cherry flavor, along with chocolate and tobacco notes. Also provided a nice earthy finish showing well-integrated tannins. $12.