Remember the three for $7 bin? Sorry, but some of us do — and that bin was the way we moved beyond Mateus rosé in the distinctive, squat bottle. (Believe it or not, there’s a market for those bottles today, and they are going for far more empty than they ever did full.) In that bin there was frequently a wine or two from Spain’s Rioja region. Marqués de Riscal was bound to be among them. It seemed brooding, exotic, so quintessentially Spanish.
Times and tastes have changed; the bin bargains of yesteryear would likely seem unsophisticated to most of us today. But Rioja has changed as well. Marqués de Riscal, for one, has recently completed a new hotel, festooned in tinted titanium ribbons, by none other than starchitect Frank Gehry. Time, then, to taste a few to see if the wine has kept up with the window dressing.
Copa Wine Bar, with its menu and many Iberian wines, seemed the perfect place to do so. Co-owner Jeff Bridges hosted and tasted, and we were joined by Tanji Patton, wine tourist and the force behind goodtastewithtanji.com, as well as wine wag and columnist Cecil Flentge, himself a former wine-bar owner. Ten wines were poured and set before each of us before we arrived at the table. Had they been the traditional Riojas, aged years in American or Yugoslavian oak followed by many more in the bottle, this would have likely been a death march.
There was a statistical tie for number two between the 2004 Herederos del Marqués de Riscal Rioja Reserva of former binfamy and an upstart crianza, the 2005 Beronia Crianza Rioja. What’s a crianza, anyway? Aging requirements for Spanish wines are blissfully direct: A wine labeled simply Rioja has spent less than a year in oak; one marked crianza has spent at least one year in oak and another in the bottle; reserve wines are aged for a minimum of three years, one of which must be in a barrel. Rioja Gran Reserva wines are aged for at least two years in oak plus three in the bottle — and are not necessarily produced every year.
Third place produced another tie, this between the young 2006 Cosme Palacio Rioja and the more mature 2004 Glorioso Rioja Reserva, suggesting that while the time-honored system is still producing good wines, the fast-fruit imperatives of the New World palate aren’t being ignored. Two out of the 10 bottles we tasted (blind at first, as always) failed to qualify at all, and the buxom blue ladies on the last-place finish helped it squeak in. Yes, we do give points for label appeal and information — these days wines are rarely grabbed blindly from a bin.
2004 Cosme Palacio y Hermanos Rioja Reserva, $24.50
Old World but with surprising fruit, great balance, “Rioja dust”
It took some time to open in the glass, but when it did, “Finally, the ‘Rioja dust,’” proclaimed Flentge. Numero uno, determined the panel. Bridges also detected saddle leather and cocoa, while Patton praised a “velvet” mouthfeel and prized out a little licorice. “A touch of barnyard,” thought Omniboire — only in the best sense, of course.
2005 Beronia Crianza Rioja, $15
Dark berry, subtle spiciness, mature yet tight
One taster really hated this blend of Tempranillo, the dominant Rioja grape, with garnacha and mazuelo, saying, “I hope it’s a damaged bottle.” But others, while detecting pencil lead and even a little burnt match, liked its “subtle spiciness and pleasant mouthfeel.” Omniboire thought it tasted older than it was, so hurry on this one.
2004 Herederos del Marqués de Riscal Rioja Reserva, $20
Iodine and camphor, smoky, some dark fruit
A paragon of classic winemaking — cleaned up to contemporary standards. “If you wanted to show somebody old-school Rioja, this is it,” proclaimed Bridges. “It has the iodine and camphor I always expect to find.” Flentge liked its smoky quality and suggested it had years ahead of it. Patton’s response was simplest: “Leave the glass!!”
2006 Cosme Palacio Rioja, $14.50
Leather, earth, cocoa, and spicy dark fruit
“This is a good introduction to Rioja,” said Bridges. “It has the spiciness and red bell pepper I like to see.” “There’s a little cocoa on the finish,” thought Flentge. “I see this with aged manchego, a little Spanish sausage …” “Fajitas and barbecue,” added Patton, making it sound like a perfect Texas wine.
2004 Glorioso Rioja Reserva, $19
Red licorice, dried fruit, lush mouth feel
“This one has it all; the more it’s open, the more I like it,” enthused Patton. “There’s a fair helping of acidity,” cautioned Flentge, adding that “the bright fruit wakes you up a little.” Bridges had further words of caution: “I liked this better at the beginning, but the fruit’s falling off fast — so chug it!” We all agreed this wine needed food to work.
2001 Beronia Rioja Gran Reserva, $30
Deep berry with good acidity — mature yet still vibrant
“Too much oak for my taste,” said Bridges, while Patton found excessive acid — yet it scored well overall, with Omniboire claiming a jammy quality along with leather, and Flentge saying, “It has a polish to it and is coming together — but don’t put it away for a long time either.”
2004 Cerro Añon Crianza Rioja, $17
Bright spiciness combined with rustic simplicity
Another relative youngster, the 2004 Cerro Añon Crianza Rioja, barely made it to the finish line. “Nothing too complicated there,” “nice on nose but lost interest on the palate,” and “not a value `at $17` in this market,” were among the comments. Omniboire found it rustic and bright, but noticed the nose turning to fruit gum with time. Another one to drink quickly.
2002 Viña Alberdi Rioja Reserva, $23.50
Meaty, even barnyardy, with bright cherry on a long finish
“There’s bright cherry on the finish, but it’s getting old,” said Flentge. “I wouldn’t consider it age-appropriate — but that’s not a negative,” countered Bridges. “The nose is meaty and the tannins are ripe and round — almost in a cocoon.” One man’s green leafiness (Omniboire) became another woman’s “lighter, brighter style” (Patton), however, and adding up the dart board resulted in the bare minimum qualifying score, 13 out of 20.
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