The Noble Writ Wants Rioja...But Knows When to Fold 'Em

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This week's post is the story of trying to write this week's post. Well, not exactly of writing it, but of finding good examples of the wine I want to write about, one which I've enjoyed a great deal over the years: Rioja, a very interesting region of Spain.

However, most of my experience with Rioja has been through two very traditional producers, Lopez de Heredia and CVNE (don't ask -- just look for CVNE on the label ), neither of which, as far as I can tell, are available in Missouri. So I undertook a quest to find quality examples to taste for this post.

click to enlarge A vineyard in the Rioja region of Spain - User "Shaury," Wikimedia Commons
A vineyard in the Rioja region of Spain
I knew this would be a somewhat perilous journey as Rioja, like much of Spain, is a bit of a minefield. "Modern" winemaking has infiltrated deeply into many areas, including Rioja. As a result, it's a transitory time for the region. While there is enthusiasm for new techniques and approaches, many of the resulting wines speak only quietly of Rioja and therefore hold little interest for me.

If I wanted overripe, super-extracted, oaky messes, I could get them from just about anywhere -- and for quite a bit cheaper than the tariff Rioja carries.

Rioja has a storied history of producing elegant, aromatic red wines and unique (if polarizing) white wines, both the result of long aging in American oak. For centuries Rioja was considered "the" wine from Spain. However, over the past decade previously obscure regions such as Navarra, Priorato, Jumilla and Ribera del Duero have gotten much of the critical acclaim after many producers in these regions adopted boldly "modern" winemaking techniques. The sudden popularity of these "lesser" areas and the stratospheric rise in prices the new "modern" wines commanded must have been an awful temptation to abandon the traditions of Rioja.

As a result, many Rioja producers are trying something different. This has happened in countless other regions around the world, and the learning curve is predictable: producers push the "different" envelope too far and eventually have to dial it back toward "tradition." Where Rioja stood in this process I didn't know. So over the course of several weeks, I hit three of my favorite shops for some Riojas to taste.

At one shop, I was able to pick up a white Rioja from a producer I have enjoyed in the past, though I knew this producer had "modern" tendencies. I'd heard it had moderated its practices some, but this wasn't borne out by the wine I tasted. I simply couldn't recommend this wine and was unable to find another white Rioja in the market to sample.

My second store visit was a complete bust; there were only a couple of Riojas in the store. I thought I'd hit paydirt at the third as it sported a healthy selection of red Riojas, but both wines I picked up simply didn't make the cut. The first was essentially characterless, despite being imported by a good company. It did have hints of Rioja about it but really could have come from just about anywhere.

The second was an absolute nightmare, with every "modern" winemaking technique employed in excess: overripe to the point of being candied, deeply colored, thick mouthfeel and new-oak city. Blargh. I'd known this could be a possible result: The importer brings in a lot of "modern" Spanish wine, though he also brings in some real gems. But given the price point of the wine (about $15), I'd thought it more likely that this might be one of the good ones. Boy, was I wrong.

So I'm folding. Though I'm not yet ready to walk away. My research into the history and tradition of Rioja is saved for a future week, one in which I find a wine worthy of being labeled a Rioja. But I thought it worth sharing that even when you try to shop well -- hitting good stores, making wise choices (or at least well-calculated gambles) based on importers -- you can still lose. And sometimes you lose three times in a row.

Dave Nelson is the author of the blog Beer, Wine and Whisky. He writes about wine every Tuesday.
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