This is a subject that I can't avoid….Rioja and its various styles…I love it! I've had a few comments saying that I've been unfair to classic Rioja and perhaps I have. Some have said that long barrel aging does not kill fruit flavors, but enhances them…this I have to disagree with. Classic Riojas are not fruit-driven wines…they have many characteristics that make them attractive but the fruit is often oxidized and faded. The bottom line for me is that I appreciate all the various styles that Rioja has to offer today, but I think it is a disservice to the consumer that you have no idea of what style you might get…especially at the reserva level….maybe style should be indicated on the label. I think having so many styles that are not indicated on the label is also a disservice to Rioja as well…it's hard to project a coherent wine image.
I digress! This tasting was very interesting---it was labeled Classic vs modern Rioja, and it was for a group of 15 Spanish folks. We discussed Rioja characteristics and then tasted five wines blind. The first set was two crianzas, one that was modern in style and one that was classic. The Luis Crianza Crianza was a simple, fruit forward wine (12 months in oak)…the Campillo Crianza was a much more wood driven wine (20 months in older oak), with an attractive but delicate cherry fruit. Overall the Campillo was more complex, a little more expensive, but the Luis Cañas won the group over for being an attractive, easy drinking red.
The three reservas were a lot more divergent in their styles. But it was also a trickier exercise with three wine served blind. I picked a modern style wine, a classic style wine and what I call hybrid Rioja…a wine that tries to take the best of both. The wines were very characteristic of their styles, going from the classic with low alcohol, high acidity, oak driven through the hybrid to the modern with high alcohol, lower acidity, fruit driven.
1. Campillo Reserva 1999: 75% Tempranillo, 15% Graciano, 10% others (Cabernet Sauvignon) – 25 months in French oak - 13% - Classic Rioja
Visual: very fresh color…not showing age much
Nose: Medium intensity. A little funky animal shows first, the older oak notes: toast, smoky. Little fruit on nose
Mouth: Smooth and elegant with wonderful, fresh acidity. Great balance of structural elements…except there is little fruit. A bit of delicate dried cranberry, which seems a contradiction, but the high acidity gives the fruit a pleasant tartness. Smooth light tannins, but the delicate fruit fades fast leaving a woody finish.
2. Finca Valpiedra Reserva 2001: 90% Tempranillo, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Mazuelo y Graciano - 20 months in new oak, 80% French, 20% American - 13.5% - Hybrid Rioja
Visual: medium intensity ruby
Nose: Medium intensity. Cherry fruit hits you first, with lots of attractive oak…a hint of leathery, animal notes as well. Quite complex…crianza (wood aging dominates nose).
Mouth: A burst of intense cherry fruit is followed by more oak complexity. Great length, very smooth tannins, but fruit lingers. Very fresh acidity. Fruit at its peak now. Opposite to the nose: fruit dominates the mouth.
3. Roda Reserva 2003: 85% Tempranillo, 11% Graciano, 4% Garnacha - 16 months in new French oak - 14%
Visual: palest of three wines, youthful color
Nose: at first the most closed nose…a few milky malolactic notes. Later the nose opens up to liqueur cherry notes, chocolate and great French oak notes…needs a lot of air!
Mouth: Though the nose was closed at first…the mouth was intense from the beginning! Spicy fruit explosion! Clove, black cherry, black berry, hints of yogurt, some chocolate. Full bodied, with good acidity (the least acidic of the wines). Very long finish with big smooth tannins and lots of fruit...tannins finally shut it down…they could use some more time in bottle.
The group had a hard time distinguishing between the styles blind…strangely foreign groups tend to do better at this exercise. The group voted for the wine they preferred before the unveiling:
Campillo: 1 vote
Finca Valpiedra: 5 votes
Roda: 9 votes
The Roda is bound to outmuscle the competition in such a blind tasting, but the results are very interesting nonetheless. There was a big gap between the Finca Valpiedra and the Campillo. The one gentleman who preferred the Campillo was the oldest person at the tasting and said the following:
"The wine (Campillo) is what I look for in Rioja…if I want a big, powerful red I go for Ribera del Duero." In my mind he represents an older generation of wine-drinkers in Spain. As we can see from the results the Spanish palate is changing a lot!
For my tastes, the Finca Valpiedra is the wine I would have picked in the moment….the Roda needs more time.
I've done this exercise with quite a few Spanish and foreign groups, and the result is always the same.
The Finca Valpedra for me represents the perfect balance between the two schools. It has that elegant, smooth style that so typifies Rioja, lifted by great acidity…yet it also has that fresh fruit intensity that appeals to the international palate. Some would say that Finca Valpiedra is a well-made classic Rioja! I would disagree….
Some may criticise the Roda for not being Rioja-enough, but it is an awesome wine anyway! What does Rioja mean today anyway?
Honestly the Campillo is a style that I recognize as a well made, elegant wine, but this international palate of mine just doesn't appreciate it….I'm afraid to say I would be joined by many a wine drinker in this. Though it is always enrichening to have multiple styles, we also need to ask….what future does classic Rioja have in a world of modern palates?