The Friday Fermentable: Spanish wines from Ribera del Duero and Rioja, by Erleichda

Another Wine Experience – Spanish wines from Ribera del Duero and Rioja
By Erleichda

The gathering of Jim’s Disciples met at a nearby BYOB restaurant that we had used before for the monthly wine dinner. Most of the diners were outside on the patio enjoying a marvelous summer evening, while the ten of us gathered indoors (in what had been an 18th century stone barn) so as not to disturb the more genteel crowd. I would have preferred dining under the stars, but I understood the difficulty in attempting to accommodate us in the midst of romantic twosomes. Instead, we had to content ourselves with each other’s company and the 10 bottles of Spanish wines that would soon share our table.
Rioja_o.jpgThe theme that evening was Spanish wines from the Ribera del Duero and Rioja regions, and all 10 wines that were brought were red. It was to be an evening with only slight variations among the offerings, with many good wines but nothing earth shattering. (However do wine writers find the words to describe dozens of similar wines from the same grape and same region? No wonder the arcane vocabulary of the enophile is developing to accommodate nuances and sensations based on perceptions that are likely personal or shared but with a few.)
Since for most, if not all of us gathered, these wines were unfamiliar, there was no need for a blind tasting. So little did we know about what we were about to taste that no particular order was devised for drinking the wines. And so, before the first morsel of duck pate, steamed mussels, or crab bisque was set down, the Disciples decided to pass around the first two wines of the evening.

Wine #1 was a 2003 Alonso del Yerro from Ribera del Duero ($22). A full nose of dark red fruit and other more complex things my olfactory senses appreciate but can’t quite identify, maybe strong coffee, or black licorice. (And this is on a clean palate.) The flavor was strong and delicious with enough alcohol and tannins to be a bit chewy but not rough. What a nice beginning. I meant to revisit this first wine when some food got delivered to my place setting, but my notes do not indicate having done so. This wine never received wide acclamation by the group when we conducted our end-of-evening voting, but I’d give it an honorable mention.
The other wine tasted before the arrival of any victuals, wine #2, was another Ribera del Duero, “Vina Solorca”, a crianza from 2002 ($19). (Note: crianza refers to the amount of time the wine spends aging, some of which is often designated to occur in oak. Crianzas require two years of aging. A red reserva wine must have three years of aging, with a minimum of one year in oak. Gran reserva reds must be aged for at least five years, with a minimum of two years in oak.) This offering was a bit rough on the edges in comparison to wine #1, but it softened over time. At 14% alcohol, full bodied is an apt description. Glancing at Sweetpea’s notes, only one word appeared: “rough”.
Finally, food. I once again succumbed to a mixed greens salad with warm goat cheese, this time encrusted with pistachios, and a few strawberries thrown in too. Those around me were trying escargot in a red wine demi-glaze, or veal and pork pate. The arrival of food signaled the occasion to pass along wine #3. It was a 2001 crianza from Ribero del Duero, “Vina Sastre” ($30). All of these tempranillo-based wines we were having had more in common than points of differentiation. At least that was the feeling voiced over and over again by the gathering of wine enthusiasts. This particular wine was a bit more acidic than the previous entries, a pleasant fragrance on the nose, but an imperceptible difference in flavor. It also opened up notably upon 10 minutes in the glass. Still, it was basically a dark fruit, woodsy or tobacco-flavored affair that perhaps would have paired better with the Steak Diane that was on its way. Sweetpea, after not liking wine #2 at all, wrote that Wine #3 was “smooth, very nice”.
Wine #4 was the first of the Rioja offerings, a 2000 Bodega Muga “reserva seleccion” ($30). More subdued on the nose, but a nice, soft wine with flavors of plum, perhaps raspberries, tobacco, spice and coffee. A respectable entry, but not quite the fullness we experienced with wine #1. Essentially, the same profile greeted me with wine #5, a 2001 “Vina Salceda” Rioja Reserve ($21). The soft tannins in this wine came mixed with an overlay of cherry flavor along with the usual suspects (plum, raisins, tobacco, and smoke or toast). I had written down “very pleasant, very interesting”. Sweetpea had written “nice”. For these first five wines however, only the rare vote would be cast for any of them amongst the attendee’s top three favorites of the dinner.
One of the two Gran Reserva wines of the evening’s selections represented wine #6, a 1997 Gran Reserva “Conde Valdemar” aged for 26 months in American and French oak ($27). It was composed of 85% tempranillo, and 15% mazuelo (carignan) grapes. My notes read : “Full bodied, soft tannins” but not much else. I suspect that the wine was ok, but just didn’t stand out. In the end-of-evening vote gathering, a few folks had this wine as their third favorite of the dinner, and one person had it has their favorite! So, it should be noted that several people thought quite well of this gran reserva.
Steak Diane, medium rare, had arrived. It was a popular dish to accompany these hearty red wines, and I saw several more around the table. Mustard-dusted lamb chops, pork loins, duck breasts in a cherry sauce, and veal medallions filled out the other places. One of my wine entries made its way around the table at this moment, a 2000 La Rioja Alta “Vina Alberdi” Reserva ($21). It was made of 80% tempranillo and 20% mazuelo grapes, similar to the previous wine. Wine #7 had lively acidity with some cherry and spice notes. But of greatest interest to me were the tasting comments of others which included “great nose” and “loved it from the first sip”; that last comment must have come from the individual who voted it as her top wine of the evening. Perhaps it was the coming together of my main course with this wine, but the combination was superb. I wonder if the favorable sentiment voiced about this wine didn’t emanate from the same juxtaposition occurring elsewhere at the table.
Wine # 8 was a 2001 Marques de Caceres Reserve from the Rioja ($27). A little thin relative to some previous wines, but very soft, very gentle tannins and a pleasant nose. A wonderful table wine to go with the foods being consumed. To indicate the generally favorable attitude of the group toward this wine, while no one scored it as their favorite, it appeared on the “top three wines of the night” list for eight of the ten participants.
Wine #9 was bottled by Lopez de Heredia, a “Vina Boscania” Reserva, 1998, from the Rioja ($30). A pleasant nose, but a bit thin overall to me. Sweetpea had no comments for this one. Perhaps I was tiring, my palate numbing, for the wine just didn’t excite me. But it must have excited some, for in the final vote getting, this wine scored two first-place votes and appeared on two other top three lists.
But the big hit of the evening was the last wine, #10. Winning six first-place votes and two second place votes, a 1995 Coto de Imaz Rioja Gran Reserva ($32). It was characterized by red fruit with spicy flavors and a long finish. Various tasting notes indicated it to be: “soft” “gentle” and “caressing” with a “mild earthy nose”. A great finish to the evening.
The comments about how similar were the wines, how there really wasn’t a bad wine in the mix, and “too bad there wasn’t any of # X remaining to re-taste and compare it”, just indicated the difficulty we had in differentiating from amongst many pleasant wines. Just another delightful evening with convivial friends, good food and nice wine.
Earlier this year while in a Los Angeles restaurant, I discovered a Rioja that I liked. I purchased half a case of the wine, A 1998 Bodegas Montecillo Gran Reserva ($19). While I don’t have any tasting notes for it in front of me, I would recommend it. I did not bring it with me as an offering for the Spanish wine dinner only because I wanted to try things I hadn’t already discovered. If you’ve found a Spanish Rioja or Ribera del Duero you like, share the news.

On a sad note, we learned soon after this gathering that our namesake, Jim, had passed away at age 78. He and his wife, Catherine, moved from us a few years ago to the San Francisco area. For awhile, with his health deteriorating, we received reports of their wine tasting trips to the many nearby California vineyards, and offers to spend a West Coast weekend with them to share in their discoveries. For about 8 years, so many of us would gather intermittently at Jim and Catherine’s home for his nearly weekly wine classes. Only 10 seats per class were ordinarily permitted, and popular classes required booking many weeks in advance. Every once in awhile, Jim and Catherine would also hold French cooking classes. And each wine class was accompanied by full course meals whose foods matched well with whatever we were drinking. I typically attended about 4 or 5 classes a year, and discovered many a wine for the first time, most memorable being Condrieu.
Jim wanted to share his passion for wine with all who expressed an interest in the subject. He was a fine gentleman. We will certainly think fondly in our remembrance of him when we sip our favorite beverage.


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