After a little bud swell began to appear in the vineyards of Napa Valley , us lady farmers hopped on a plane and quickly took our annual vacation to Spain for some fabulous wine, cheese, pinchos and to see our fabulous cohort Hayley Hossfeld. Exploring both Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja, our other posts will include our visit to Priorat and Sant Sadurní d’Anoia the infamous cava region.
We loved all the wines and the vineyards. The viticulture although similar did have its regional twists and the age of the vines ranged from young vines to 90 year old vines. The wines and grapes that are approved to be made and grown in La Rioja consist of Tempranillo, Granacha, Graciano, and Macabeo . The Tempranillo is an early ripening grape variety , its name was derived from the word temprano which in Spanish means early.
We enjoyed learning about how La Rioja has been branded and the rules and regulations regarding its D.O.C. Denominación de Origen Calificada. Specifically , how the Spanish label their wine and how the age in barrel affects its name. In the La Rioja region , wines are called vino joven , crianza, reserva, and gran reserva based on the time that the wine was on oak or aged in oak barrels as well as how long it has been aged in the bottle. Vino joven implies that a wine that has had no oak in its aging process. Crianza is up to one year in an oak barrel, reserva is at least 1 year in a barrel and 2 years aged in the bottle. Gran reserva is over 1 year in an oak barrel and at least 5 years in the bottle.
This aging process and the specificity for aging time in the barrel adds to the time from when the wine is bottled to when it is sold. Wine is often stored without a label during the bottle aging period of that wine’s life.
We enjoyed learning about the wines and tasting relatively old wines compared to those wines we find in Napa tasting rooms. The oldest wine we tasted in La Rioja was a 1991 Reserva from Bodega Urbina which consisted primarily of Tempranillo. Although the wine was 22 years old it still retained acid and the color wasn’t totally brick or rusty.
During our travels in La Rioja, we visited a variety of wineries mainly located in Rioja Alta. Our first visit was to Bodega Ontonon whose mythical influence was not only apparent from the beautiful art work but also reflected in the wines. They really demonstrated their interest in maintaining the origins of wine and winemaking through the ages as well as incorporating a new generational approach through their use of social media.
The most notable was Bodega Urbina where we met el nariz del oro or as we would refer to it as the ‘golden nose’ which is one of the highest ranking sommelier certifications in Spain. He is in the Urbina family and their winemaker.
At Bodega Urbina we tasted through their entire lineup of 12 wines. Starting with a clarete or a light rosé and finishing with the 1991 gran reserva , tasting through wine made from rehydrated wine grape raisins and a fabulous crianza made out of garnacha or granache.
Our next stop was the infamous Bodega Marqués de Riscal, known for the beautiful gold netting enveloping their bottles of wine. This was their initial defense for counterfeit wine and now although the risk is low it is now purely aesthetic. It was an interesting stop and a huge facility but a little too corporate for us artisanal boutique Napa ladies.
In between the second and third winery we visited the medieval city of Laguardia perched high on a hill where we could observe the beautiful old vines on the hillsides and in the valleys as well as the colorful mountains surrounding the La Rioja region.
One thing that is notable about the Spanish wine industry is their attitude towards young vines vs. old vines. To the Spanish young vines are any vines younger than 20 years old and those usually go into just vino joven or crianza production. The grapes that are selected for the vino reserva and gran reserva are vines usually around 70-90 years old. I think in Napa we should continue the tradition and really cherish old vines and the complexities that they impart on the wines that are created from them.