Somewhat of a sensational title…but there are many Riojas I just don't get!
1. Traditional Riojas: Long oak aging in older barrels, higher acidity, lower alcohol.
I can appreciate the last two, but the first one just kills all the fruit in the wine. The type of wood notes it gives are both overwhelming and unpleasant. The best ones can be attractive in an elegant, mellow sort of way. Most are just thin and unpleasant.
Lately I tasted one of the most popular Riojas in the world: Marques de Caceres Crianza 2003.
It had been a while and it will be a long while again!
The nose was not unpleasant…very simple raspberry jam (after all this is the extremely hot 2003 vintage) and a few notes of older wood and oxidation.
The mouth was the big disappointment: thin and vegetal…very little of the fruit from the nose showed in the mouth. Bracing acidity was out of balance with the lack of fruit. Extremely short…died out in a bitter, fruitless way.
It's only about 7€, but there are far better wines it Spain at that price.
Quite unpleasant….I don't get the popularity of this wine…the Yellowtail phenomena I can understand…this I cannot!
I feel bad that so many people's experience with Rioja is based in this wine.
2. Gran Reservas: This is the most elite level of the traditional reservas. You rarely find any modern Riojas in this style. Why? Because the minimum oak aging period is 18 months…this was recently lowered from 24 months in an effort to improve the category. But in reality this is invariably a traditional style where you most often see from 28-35 months in oak! These wines can be elegant, but fruit they do not have!
All the new wave, elite Riojas are uber-reservas, never Gran Reservas. Reserva is the category that requires a minimum of 12 months in wood.
Many people sing the praises of this style as representing a finer time in Rioja, but I personally think that time has passed. I still have a lot of them to taste and I remain open to changing my mind….but there is work to be done!
There is a huge range in prices....from 20€ for the lower end versions to 159€ for Vega Sicilia (obviously a category apart). The cheaper versions have no fruit, but are mellow and smooth. The higher versions, around 70€ have more fruit…but still the oak dominates.
Recently I tasted one of the lower end Gran Reservas: Viña Alarde Gran Reserva 1997 by Bodegas Berberana. 36 months in American oak..and all for 12 euros!
The wine was not unpleasant: gentle vanilla nose with oxidized notes. Mouth seemed alcoholic, despite 12.5% alc! This is because there was no fruit, just strong vanilla and woody flavors. This is a light bodied wine, with a thin mouthfeel. The finish was pleasant, medium long. Not unpleasant, but not attractive either.
As I said I don't get it…
Maybe I have an overly modern palate, blasted to insensitivity by extraction and alcohol…a plate that can't appreciate the subtleties of these wines….but it seems a crime to pay a lot for a wine that has absolutely no fruit and is dominated by older wood aromas. If you want a cheaper wine that has no fruit, go for a lower end Gran Reservas or a traditional Rioja Reserva.