As you may know, Rioja is a wine that is dominated by Tempranillo grapes. Despite this, it remains a wine based on the art of blending. Besides the dominate Tempranillo, Rioja calls on the services of Grenache, Mazuelo (aka Carignan) and Graciano. There are even some exceptional examples of other grapes being allowed into individual bodegas’ productions, like Cabernet being allowed at the Marques de Riscal. This can occur because use of these so-called “foreign grapes” predates the creation of the current set of Rioja winemaking rules.
Blending grapes allows a wine maker to compensate for some of the vagaries of each growing season, though the fundamental nature of the wine produced may turn out to be stylistically different. In Rioja, vintage variation may end up being more about the style of a specific vintage vis-à-vis its peers, as opposed to the quality.
Photo courtesy pasotraspaso via Flickr/CC
Fortunately for us, we are in the midst of a set of attractive vintages. Every vintage since 2004 beige is considered very good or excellent by the Denominación de Origen Rioja. In truth, they have a vested interest in saying that. Those simple ratings don't tell us much, especially when one considers that the last “bad” year according to the D.O. was 1984!
So what are the styles of these recent vintages? I can only give my brief opinion based on the wines that I've been tasting, but from where I sit, 2007 seems to be the best balanced of the recent vintage. I am liking the feel of many 2008s, but the fruit seems to be a little shy in many. The 2009s are very young, obviously, but they also seem to have fruit that will be best young, so these might be best for early drinking. And finally, since I am basing this on my recent consumption, 2006 is looking to be a classic vintage, rich, fairly powerful, balanced and ripe, yet perhaps lacking some of the elegance of the younger vintages.
What follows are some of my favorite wines from a recent Rioja tasting.
Photo courtesy Alex Porta i Tallant via Flickr/CC
2008 Massimo Rioja Cosecha 13.5%
This is intense and high toned, with a lovely balsamic note that pierces the dark raspberry fruit on the nose. There’s a good lashing of oak, but it is currently held in check by the fruit. Bright and nicely lightweight on entry, with small, polished tannins. Firm if well integrated acidity is wrapped inside a blanket of raspberry fruit, with soft balsamic and forest floor elements emerging on the back end. Really showing impressive complexity for the weight and power, this is ripe but not forced. This is a touch dark with some jolly rancher wild cherry coming out on the finish, but is a lovely modern example of Rioja Crianza. 89pts
2007 Ramon Bilbao Rioja Crianza 14%
This shows a nice layering on the nose, with slightly jammy, wild strawberry fruit that is well matched by lightly nutty oak imparting a nice smoky top note. In the mouth, this combines a touch of extra richness with nice refreshing acids, giving this a rare combination of weight and energy. The oak comes up on the mid-palate, adding additional depth and complexity, but never covers the fruit. Fruit turns a bit more red currant-like with edges of astringency. The finish is a touch dry, with lovely tension created by the edge of astringency and the soft richness of the fruit. This lacks a touch of elegance, but it packs a nice mouthful of fruitiness with a lovely hint of rusticity. This is a wine made for roast or grilled goat or lamb. 88pts
2007 Bodegas Riojanas Monte Real Rioja Crianza 13%
Decidedly oaky with some tootsie role notes, but with delicate oak accents as well. A core of black cherry fruit gives a big blast of camphor on the back end. Soft and loose on entry, this then turns nicely round with sweetness to the small ball of black cherry fruit on the mid-palate. The oak is very well integrated and lends this some nice support. A rather elegant if small scaled example that finishes with good length and energy, revealing the depth of the fruit as well as the very well judged oak. This needs a nice simple steak. 88pts
2006 Finca del Marquesado Rioja Crianza 13.5%
Meaty and rich early on the nose with some persimmon and funky edges adding complexity. This really pulls itself together well, with a nice vanilla top note over warm raspberry fruit and hints of chocolate and bacon. Medium bodied in the mouth and fairly rich, perhaps a bit extracted, yet retaining freshness of texture and of flavor. This is bright, just a bit chewy and packed with crisp red fruit flavors, all wrapped lightly in oak. The finish shows a touch of austerity that refreshes the palate and nice tannins, though it lacks some fruit persistence. I could drink this all night. 88pts
2008 Bodegas Riojanas Puerta Vieja Rioja Crianza 13.5%
Toasty and warm on the nose, with spice, vanilla, milk chocolate and sandalwood tones over a bed of slightly musky red currant fruit. This is smooth on entry but with nice supporting acidity. The tannins are soft and fuzzy adding volume in the mouth while softening the clarity of the fruit a bit. The mid-palate shows plenty of red currant fruit, a touch of red apple skins and some spicy pomegranate seed notes all laid over a bed of slightly creamy milk chocolate and toasty oak. The finish shows the structure again, revealing some uncovered acid and tannins, yet the fruit does hang on for a reasonable length of time, reemerging on the finale with nice clarity. This is just what I would expect from a good Crianza. 87pts
2006 Ijalba Rioja Crianza 13%
This is dark, earthy and oaky on the nose, but with excellent complexity. This is expressive with a touch of honey oak, floral note, exotic notes of saffron and fenugreek, smoke and wild strawberry fruit. Almost sweet on entry, this has a touch of density to it but is right on the border between exuberance and maturity. The fruit remains fresh and intact. Light red fruits are framed with some vanilla oak and topped with lovely floral and herbal, almost grassy elements. The finish is quite fresh and crisp with a wash of red currant fruit that shows good persistence and a nice spritz of refreshing acidity on the vaguely caramel finale. 87pts
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