Wine Talk

Snooth User: Benzibar

Rioja: Does it work without oak?

Posted by Benzibar, Mar 28, 2010.

Ok, so I just polished off a young Rioja called Vega Ariana (see my tasting notes). It was only a Joven (i.e. not even a Crianza) so it's a young pup without the benefit of oak. To be honest, it was palatable and the fruit was refreshing, but in the end it didn't really float my boat.

So this got me thinking - can Rioja do well without the strong oak and toast flavours that mark a Riserva or Gran Riserva, or is it just lacking in complexity? Are there some great examples of unoaked Rioja which blow your mind? Send me your recommendations and prove me wrong!


Reply by Rupert Degas, Mar 28, 2010.

I get so wrapped up in my Bordeaux and Aussie Shiraz, that I always forget how much I love great Rioja (preferably a Reserva or Gran Reserva) - it's such a perfectly balanced wine.  The oakiness and vanilla really stand out and the nose always reminds me of a Strawberry Mivvi ice-lolly we used to get in the 80s. 

I'm not too keen on Crianza, so I suppose longer oak aging does make all the difference.  I find it too astringent, almost like a young Montepulciano, so I can only guess what the Joven must have been like.  

My buddy Felipe owns a Spanish restaurant in Richmond.  He goes on buying trips to Spain once or twice a year.  I think we should organise a Spanish tasting with him.


Reply by GregT, Mar 28, 2010.

You guys need an expanded view of Rioja.  It's not only a question of crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva.  Those are the traditional and increasingly dated labels.  Joven simply means young, but it also means something that does not fit those categories, which is something most people don't realize.  So you can have a joven that has seen much more wood than a Reserva.  In fact, you can pay upwards of $100 for a wine that would technically be called joven.

Also, the idea of wood is interesting.  The wine can be in large old barrels and you're not going to get much oak flavoring.  Some producers leave the wine in oak for many years.  The idea is not to flavor the wine but to stabilize it.

Furthermore, there isn't any requirement as to the type of oak used.  I've had the same wine in French, American, and Hungarian oak because the winemaker wanted to see how they affected the wine.  Others use Slovenian oak.  And within those very large categories, there are far more specific sources of oak, all of which can be raw or toasted.  So you don't always get toasty flavors in your wine just because it's seen a lot of oak.

Fundamentally what matters is the grape itself.  In Rioja you have a bit of garnacha and a bit of graciano and even manzuelo in addition to tempranillo.  I happen to think that tempranillo is one of the great red grapes of the world.  In different areas of Rioja of course, it behaves differently.  But in Toro and Ribera del Duero, there are some very good examples of unoaked straight tempranillo.  Those places tend to produce a more tannic grape and perhaps that's why I often prefer those. 

The thing is, if you've got great grapes, you usually want to get the best price you can for them.  And the best price usually involves putting out a wine that will improve over time.  That almost always means some kind of oak.  Doesn't mean new oak, doesn't mean barrique, and doesn't mean toast, but you want the mechanical properties of the wood to help your wine.  Consequently, you rarely find great versions of unoaked Rioja.  However, if you've tasted barrel samples, you know that the wine doesn't "need" oak to be good.  I'll be there in a couple weeks and I'll let you know.

Reply by zufrieden, Mar 28, 2010.

My own experience with Rioja is, admittedly,  a bit spotty - the first time I experienced a decent exemplar was too many years ago to relate, but was a gift of a Spanish friend when I was a student abroad from the Great White North.  But the fundamentals of your argument are without a doubt sound; the best grapes are indeed meant for last - in terms of consumption - and this is an economic consideration as well as an artistic (or aesthetic) one.

This was a great little textual clarification.  Dare we look for more - particularly after your trip to that romantic peninsula of Iberia?



Reply by Rupert Degas, Mar 29, 2010.

Wow Greg, that is an extremely well-informed post - thank you.  I would love to try Ribera del Duero (especially Pesquara), but it's a little out of my price range right now.  I do like my oaky wines though, so an education in Spanish wines is definitely on the cards.  Thanks again.

Reply by GregT, Mar 29, 2010.

Rupert - other than Pesquera, Fernandez makes Condado de Haza which is a bit cheaper, although moving up in price these days.  You might also want to try Dehesa La Granja which he makes in Zamora, or El Vinculo, which he makes in La Mancha and which should be the cheapest of the lot.  Interestingly, they all seem to have his touch and it's a great way to see how a grape behaves in different areas.

Not to go on a rant about crianza, but if you think about it, it's kind of a dumb category.  The winemakers will put their best wines into Reserva or GR, because they can get the most money for those.  So if they're making crianza, under the traditional system, they're taking their worst grapes and putting them in oak for a year!

Who came up with that brilliant idea?

As a result, people are increasingly using names like Roble, Selección Antiguos viñedos, and other non-traditional classifications.  

Also, often the unoaked wines of Rioja and elsewhere will be done with carbonic maceration, so they'll be reminiscent of something like Beaujolais, although a bit bigger.  Some of them can be quite delightful.

Zu - I don't usually post about trips, wines, etc.  Takes too much work and time!


Reply by Benzibar, Mar 29, 2010.

Thanks for the responses guys, they've been a pleasure to read!

Reply by Rupert Degas, Mar 30, 2010.

Thanks Greg, I shall seek them out!


Reply by skimvin, Apr 6, 2010.

Sorry to jump in this chain so late but thought this article about riojas is a worth a read...the NY Times wine writer found several crianzas worthy of recommending in last week's column:

Reply by GregT, Apr 6, 2010.

Yeah.  Every year or so he gets anxious and feels compelled to write about Lopez de Heredia but this has been less than a year since last time.  He's learning though, and he means well and tries to get things right.  But not knowing the wines all that well, he tends to review the same cast over and over.  His two guests are far better-versed in the wines.

Reply by dmcker, Apr 6, 2010.

Keem 'em coming, Greg. Love all the insights about Spanish wines, and the NY wine trade... ;-)

Reply by GregT, Apr 7, 2010.

Sorry D.  On my way to Spain last year, I picked up the NYT and son of a gun but wasn't there a multi-page article about LDH. Now, less than a year later, here we are again.

I know the other people on the panel - one worked for an importer for a while selling Spanish wine and now is partner in a store specializing in them, and the other owns a few restaurants specializing in Spanish food and wine, so they're a bit more savvy re: Spain.  The NYT is of course a generalist paper, so they write for the non-specialist, and he honestly tries to do a good job. 

No criticism really, just that people feel like they've made a discovery when they try the Heredia wines and then they tend to go on about them all the time, since they don't really know much else and they see big names and assume those can't be any good.  If you look at any of the other forums whenever someone mentions Rioja, someone else jumps in and announces importantly that "you must try the wines of LdH."

Sigh. It's not a knock because the owners of LdH are acquaintances who I like and respect, and I drink their wine too, but that's not all there is of course.And to the degree that they're seen as completely separate from other very good producers, it's not good for the region as a whole.  It's almost like if you're a wine connoisseur, everything is plonk in the region except for one wine that isn't.

Anyhow, the NYT has actually been pretty good to our wines, so I gotta love them for that!

Reply by halfbottle, Apr 9, 2010.


Thanks for the information your obvious knowledge of Spainish wines shines through!  Exactly why I read forums, for the free education.

Reply by atonalprime, Apr 11, 2010.

Thanks @GregT for the mention about differences and similarities between Jovens through Gran Reservas.  When I was in Barcelona, I spoke to a wine exporter who said, "I would never drink an old Rioja unless its a great vintage and at least a reserva or gran reserva."  This seems a little too rigid to me.  I was boggled for a while after trying a few of all classifications and finding that some Crianzas had WAY more oak on the palette than some Gran Reservas, as well as just general quality that you can find without going for a Crianza/Reserva/Gran Reserva labeling.  Its paid off to continually try new bodegas, but somehow I can't get the nostalgic link out of my palette to the Marques de Caceres, a 1995 Gran Reserva that was perhaps my first awakening to the beauty of wine.  Since then, I've given a good deal to Bodegas Marques de Caceres, and that has been very interesting to become familiar the differences between bottlings and vintages.  Out of general curiosity, does anyone have any experience with the Gaudium line of theirs?  Is it really worth the price jump, or am I better off just buying 2 bottles of Gran Reserva (or more) from that particular vintage?



Reply by GregT, Apr 11, 2010.

Atonal - the exporter may have a point because there is a lot of junk out there, but actually I agree with you that he's too rigid.  Right now I'm drinking something the producer chose to call Antiguos Vinedos.  He didn't want to use the traditional classifications because he didn't want the gov't to tell him that the wine needed 2 years in wood when he felt that maybe 1 1/2 years might be better.  Or four years and one in bottle, which doesn't get him a GR classification either.  So the importer misses out on some outstanding wine if he locks into the traditional classifications.

And the vintage limitation is not always smart either.  For example, nobody has anything nice to say about 1997.  Lopez de Heredia had a rosado from that vintage.  They didn't sell it and maybe some ten years later found some.  So they decided to release it.  Technically it would be a GR, but who makes a GR rosado?  And from a bad vintage? But that wine is really good.  It's why LdH is such a cool winery.

If you remember that the regs specify wood, but they don't specify the size or the age of the wood, or the toast, then you can find wide variances in wines of the same classification if made by different producers.  If I use large old casks and you use young small barriques, we can both make a reserva but they'll be really different in terms of oak.  And depending on the blend - e.g. more or less garnacha, graciano, etc., the wines will be very different.  So I think you did the right thing in trying a number of wines.

Caceres is a good wine for restaurants when you don't recognize anything on the list - it's rarely brilliant but rarely disappointing and I'd get that rather than take a flier on some wine that's more expensive and may be horrid.  They aren't an old bodega - only since the 1970s, but they're decent producers.  THeir GR is usually just fine for me.

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