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

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.