The wines of Spain are varied, high quality and great values. They are also not high on every wine drinker’s list, overshadowed by the more en vogue regions and media promoted producers. Yet every wine drinker should know the wines from Spain, and we introduced the topic in our previous blog (which you can read here). In this article we’ll get to the first of the many regions, and some of the specific wines.
Let’s start this journey where we started our personal journey with Spanish wine, in the venerable heart of it. That is Rioja.
Rioja has long been respected as one of the greatest wines of the world, and one of my personal favorites. If you like aged, older wines, then you love Reserva and Gran Reserva Rioja. These wines have always, historically, been about elegance and grace. Some older Riojas can be hard to tell from old Barolo and other Nebbiolo based wines, which also exhibit that elegance and grace. When you think of the great producers of Spanish wines, most names people would recognize are from Rioja. Things are changing even there, alas, as Spanish wine surges into the new century. Hopefully they don’t change everything.
I vividly remember buying a few bottles of Conde de Valdemar Crianza from Bodega Valdemar decades ago, having no knowledge of it whatsoever. It was great, and it was the low end of the Conde de Valdemar line. We would expand our knowledge continuously over the ensuing years, however, and there are now always several choices of aged Rioja in the cellar. This is a very good thing.
As part of the European Union, Spain has wine laws which classify its wine into categories very similar to other European countries. Their better regions are classified as Denominación de Origen (DO), which indicates a demarcated zone where production is prescribed as far as grape varieties, yields, winemaking methods and aging. There is a higher classification as well, but there are only two of these premier vinicultural regions. This designation is the Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa). To achieve this the region must be a standout, with superior quality, and demanding superior pricing than other wines in Spain. One of the two is Priorat in Catalonia, the other is, of course, Rioja.
There is a considerable variation in soil and elevation even within the Rioja DOCa, and the region is divided into three subregions. You can see these in the map, and the vineyards lie along the Ebro River valley, stretching from the La Rioja province and into neighboring Navarra. Rioja Alta enjoys the milder climate resulting from the higher elevation, and hilly land. Rioja Alavesia is in essence the part of Rioja Alta that extends north of the Ebro River, and is similar in climate. Rioja Baja, the lower section, is hotter and drier. Some wines are made from grapes grown in only one region, although many will have some from two or all three.
Ninety percent of all wine produced in Rioja is red, and that is what it is known for. Specifically age worthy, hearty reds. Oak aging is essential to these wines, and the amount of time in oak barrels is really the underpinning of how they are classified.
Rioja – these are younger wines, usually in their first couple of years. They will have a vintage and are from Rioja, and actually may have been aged longer but for some other reason do not qualify to be designated as one of the higher classifications. In general these will be more youthful and fruity. The term Joven may also be used, and it literally means “young”.
Crianza – wines with this designation have aged at least 12 months in barrel, and at least 24 months over all prior to release. Rioja differs from the rest of Spain in this, as elsewhere only 6 months in the barrel is required to carry the Crianza label. These can be quite complex, and start to develop the classic characteristics of aged Rioja wine. The fruit is likely still fairly vibrant.
Reserva – now we move to wines aged at least 12 months in barrel, and at least 36 months total before being released. These will show more complex aromas and flavors, with the classic leathery notes. I frequently get some orange or orange peel from Reserva and Gran Reserva wines as well, especially at the back, as one of the last, fading flavors. Reserva wines are generally still very modestly priced.
Gran Reserva – The top tier requires barrel aging of at least 18 months and a total of 5 years minimum before the wines are released. These are serious wines, which develop a myriad of aroma and flavor profiles. They may show some signs of age with an amber rim. They tend to last a long time. Old Rioja is one of the great pleasures in the wine world.
So what’s in that bottle of red Rioja wine? Well, chances are it is mostly, if not all, Tempranillo. This grape is the workhorse of Spanish reds. Here in Rioja it is classically mixed with small amounts of other red grapes, such as Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano. Newer winemakers seem to be leaning toward more 100% Tempranillo wines. Also, American oak has traditionally been exclusively used, but this is changing as well. Single vineyard and single variety are growing in popularity.
They do make some white, and White Rioja is actually quite excellent. This is generally made from the Viura grape, and by regulation it must contain at least 51% of the grape to be so designated. Most these days is released young, although some producers still use oak aging and barrel fermentation. I like both styles, personally.
We’ll begin our review of Spanish wines here in Rioja, and specifically with some wines from Ramón Bilbao.
The town of Haro sits at the very western edge of Rioja, in Rioja Alta. This is the home of Ramón Bilbao. They started making wine here in 1924, and over the years there have been many accolades, including the International Wine & Spirits Competition naming them the Best Spanish Wine Producer in 2014.
Their wines are mostly red, but do include some Rose and a Verdejo from grapes grown in Rueda. Generally, though, this is classic, Tempranillo dominated Rioja, and we have three bottles of the reds to evaluate. Lets’s see what we have:
2013 Ramón Bilbao Crianza – as all Crianzas from Rioja, this was aged a minimum of 12 months in oak barrel, and at least 24 months overall before release. It is 100% Tempranillo. The 2013 growing season was unusual, as early rains and lower temperatures delayed everything a few weeks. Fortunately the weather later in the year was excellent, although the grapes did ripen unevenly, forcing the harvest to be completed over an extended period. Our thoughts:
This is dark red, with a rich nose of darker fruits and toasted wood. There is a touch of tar and black licorice as well. On the palate the wine is quite expansive, with great mouth feel. It is just shy of full bodied with well integrated tannins that build a bit toward the back. Finishing with a long and luxurious exit, this wine is a pretty amazing value at a suggested retail of $12.99. This is a case buy.
2011 Ramón Bilbao Reserva – While only required to be aged in barrel for 12 months, this Reserva was in the barrel for 20. This was followed by 18 months in the bottle prior to release. The growing season in 2011 was pretty perfect, resulting in high quality fruit, although vineyard production was a bit limited. The result was a classic vintage regarded as one of the best in decades. This wine saw extensive maceration to maximize fruit extraction, pointing toward a more modern style. It has classic Rioja grape proportions, however, with a blend of 90% Tempranillo and 10% of a combined Manzuelo and Graciano. Our impressions:
This is not quite full bodied,but close. The nose is complex, and there are some nice baking spice nuances as well as lots of fruit. Typical leathery notes present as well. On the palate this is classic, with dark fruit, leather, spice, oak and a long finish. The perfect word would be “elegant”, but with a little attitude as the tannins are a bit brisk. It is very long, and another wine which drinks well above its price point. Suggested retail here is $19.99, and it is a great value there.
2013 Ramón Bilbao Limited Edition – this is 100% Tempranillo, all sourced from old vineyards around Haro, where Ramón Bilbao is based. Only the best grape clusters are selected, and they are fermented in the traditional wooden vats. Following fermentation the wine spent 14 months in new French and American oak casks. Another ten months was spent in bottle, quietly aging in their underground bottle cellar. How did we like it?
The color is a dark, purple/red. A big nose of dark fruit hits you, with lots of complex nuances as well. There is a lot going on here. Spices for sure, and tobacco. Dark fruit coats the palate,and you get all that other good stuff as well. Black cherry seems to stand out. It is long and rich, with soft tannins. Each bottle in the Limited Selection is individually numbered, and we had bottle #9722. This has a suggested retail of $16.99, which is ridiculous for the quality.
This is a great way to kick off our series on Spanish wines. First, Rioja is the region we were first exposed to, and it is still my favorite. Second, because these wines from Ramón Bilbao are really excellent, and pretty remarkable values. They embody one of the best qualities of Spanish wine, and that is you generally get a lot for your money.
We’ll spend more time over the next few months exploring more wines from Spain, including Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Priorat, Toro and other regions. This should be fun.
You can learn more about Ramón Bilbao at their website: http://www.bodegasramonbilbao.es/en/.
You can learn more about the great wine region of Rioja at: http://us.riojawine.com/en/.
A votre santé!