Wine Region of the Year 2011

The power of Rioja


Looking back upon my reams of tasting notes and experiences, one thing really stuck out in 2011. And while I say that it is one thing, it is actually (as these things tend to be) the culmination of many experiences that put me in the position to grasp the obvious.

So what is that obvious fact? That Rioja is producing some of the finest wines available at prices that can make a Scotsman blush. It’s an easy statement to make, but one that needs support, especially when accompanying this announcement: Rioja is my region of the year for 2011!

Rioja has proven that it ages as well as any other wine made, and can age even better than many more famous and costly examples. The ability of a wine to age, to improve in the bottle while morphing into something profound, is one of the core elements that makes wine such an attractive and enthralling subject matter. That’s basic point number one.

Photo courtesy Alex Porta via Flickr/CC
Basic point number two is a bit more complex and certainly more subjective. Like many regions, Rioja went through a rather convulsive final decade of the last century. With massive investments, technological temptation and a marketplace that seemed intent on replacing all that had come before with oaken power, it was obviously difficult for many producers to resist the urge to join the pack of modernism.

As with almost all regions that saw their pendulum swing past their apex, we are now seeing it come back down, perhaps more slowly than on the way up, but without a doubt, the tide of Rioja is changing. Let me just state for the record that while I appreciate a good Luddite, I am not myself a practicing member. Having a variety of wine styles successfully implemented in a region is, if nothing else, a safe and secure business choice and one that I applaud.

Not only do I applaud it for the simple financial advantages it confers, but also because not everyone is cut to be a Luddite winemaker. Being a Luddite takes certain attributes, not to mention terroirs, of which there are simply not enough to go around. If we forced all winemakers to make the style we preferred, say ‘natural’ or ‘unmanipulated’ for example, I am afraid that many would fail and the few who succeeded would have the market all to themselves. We would be kicking our collective selves as people would be given no choice as to what to drink and would be paying more.

That my friends is a double fail of the vainest proportions. Rioja, with wine made in hyper-traditional and hyper-modern styles and all that falls between, is able to supply nearly all palates with wines of preference.

And the final point, the basic keystone of my selecting Rioja as Snooth’s region of the year in 2011, is simple. It is pricing. I tasted so many $30 and under wines from Rioja this year that simply blew away almost all other wines at the same price point. Even at higher price points, the values are still there. And at lower price points, there is simply no competition.

Think of what you get when you plunk down $20 on a 2004 Rioja Gran Reserva, for example. You’re getting a beautiful wine that has been lovingly aged for you! Yes, part of Rioja’s appeal is the bureaucratic nightmare that require the producers to age your wine for you, and before you even pay for it! This is no futures scam, it’s some sort of bizarre anomaly that is the exception to the rule, the rule being the bureaucratic rules governing winemaking that don’t generally make for better wines.

So there you have it. Rioja is a region you must explore in 2012. The wines are simply too good to ignore and they are continuing to improve. Producers are learning where to join the line with more modern interpretations of Rioja, and even the traditionalists can’t argue that they benefit from increasing awareness and improvement of viticultural and cellaring concerns.

To get you going, here’s my top 10 list of best Rioja of 2011. See which ones ring your bell and learn to love the best of Rioja!

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  • I agree with your comments about the value of Rioja wines at most price points. But what I find particularly wonderful is that Rioja is raising the bar for all Spanish wines. Spain's tradition of winemaking is so deep and rich. There is real variety out there so a wine consumer can find versatility in connecting spanish wine with many food styles. Spanish winemakers from other regions have recognized Rioja's success and are trying to break into the American market with other quality wines. They are adopting modern winemaking techniques and applying them to other Spanish wine grape varietals, such as Monastrell, Albarino and Mencia. It means there is a fantastic opportunity right now to discover the great diversity of the wines of Spain. It has become my go-to European region for great food-friendly wines at an affordable price point.

    Jan 19, 2012 at 9:08 AM

  • Snooth User: Ruski
    Hand of Snooth
    144341 409

    I agree with this story. Spain and Rioja in particular has been one of my very favorites regions ever since the great vintage of 1987. Then came the OK vintage of 1991 and again a great 1994, and so on.

    One of my overall top picks has been the 1998 Baron de Ley, Vina Imas Gran Reserva, Alexander von Essen Gold Edition - a terribly pompous name for a simply fantastic wine with all the right characteristics of a great Rioja. I just wish I could find more of those bottles as my cellar is running out of that great wine.

    Jan 22, 2012 at 7:36 AM

  • Snooth User: duncan 906
    Hand of Snooth
    425274 2,290

    I am also a fan of Rioja but I have drunk far more claret in 2011.Because I have made use of and I had made a couple of visits to one of Calais's hypermarkets I did not pay a fortune.Last week I had a bottle of Chateau Capodet Listrac-Medoc 2000 which was absolutely gorgeous and only cost siox pounds 50 pence

    Jan 22, 2012 at 5:28 PM

  • I visited Rioja last year and the thing that struck me was that whether you visit one of the larger more famous producers, or a niche village one they seem to make their wines with the same love, care and attention. There is very little of the mass produced uncared for rubbish of other countries. Even the Joven wine has it's place in daily life over there, someone told me the older men of Spain drink it because of the purity of the fruit and it hasn't been 'messed about with' in oak! My personal favourite when I was over there was a small winery in La Guardia called Fabulista it had a wonderful story behind and still used all the traditional methods, their wine 'Fabula' was fantastic it was their equivalent to reserva ( I think they broke the rules a bit!), but was amazing, the red fruits and oaky vanilla flavours were perfectly in balance. We only have one bottle left!

    Feb 16, 2012 at 5:43 AM

  • The diversity of Spanish wines in general has always fascinated me, from various types of Sherry to Brandy to Rioja to Ribera del Duero to Albarino to Penedes even Txakoli . . . the list goes on and on. But Rioja is still my favorite, and I can get a great Valserrano Crianza for about $11 per bottle if I buy a case. You can't beat that quality for that price, smooth yet tasty, powerful but not overpowering.
    I've been going to Spain since 1983 when I spent a semester in Spain and first started to learn about wine. My collection (besides cases of Valserrano) now includes various Riojas including LAN, Faustino, Ramon Bilbao, Pesquera, Campo Viejo, Muga, Glorioso, Remelluri, and my favorite Rioja "Onomastica" (sorry, you can't get it here in the US!).
    So if anyone goes to Spain, try to find Onomastica, if not, try one of these other ones. You can't go wrong.

    Feb 16, 2012 at 8:58 PM

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