Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Rioja Experiment, Part 1

Is Rioja a great wine?

Matt Kramer, a veteran wine critic, once made a bold claim to the contrary. In his book, Making Sense of Wine, published in 1989, Kramer mentioned that the best wines do not age so much as they transform. He also noted that while Tempranillo, the main grape in Rioja, makes age-worthy wines, it does not transform with age.

Reserva & Grand Reserva
Rioja's age-worthiness is a well-known fact. The famous Spanish red is classified by how long it is aged prior to release:
  • Generic (or Joven) - No aging requirement
  • Crianza - Two years of aging, with at least one year in barrel
  • Reserva - Three years of aging, with at least one year in barrel
  • Gran Reserva - Five years of aging, with at least two years in barrel

Generally, the higher quality grapes will be aged longer and are designated for the higher classification. However, Kramer claims that because Tempranillo resists oxidation more so than other grapes, it is limited in its ability to transform and evolve into secondary and tertiary flavors that you would normally find in a Cabernet Sauvignon or my personal favorite, Nebbiolo.

Let's unpack what all this means.

Wine has a love-hate relationship with oxygen. Oxygen at the right level plays a critical role in wine making and maturation. If you think of wine as a living product, which many wine geeks do, oxygen is the catalyst that helps the wine mature and evolve.

Too little oxygen, the wine becomes reduced and develops a skunky aroma. Too much, the wine becomes oxidized, which translates to a sherry-like aroma with a vinegar taste. Like any living thing, a wine may start off young, mature and peak over time, and eventually tire and expire.

Letting wine breathe is allowing oxygen to wake up its flavors

As wine matures with the perfect Goldilocks-level of oxygen, the tannins in wine will become softer. The aromas will develop from primary to secondary and tertiary flavors. A well-made wine with the right grape(s) develops a complex flavor profile as it ages. Some examples of the flavor profile include:
  • Primary flavors (from the fruit and primary fermentation) - Fruit, floral, herb, mineral
  • Secondary flavors (from secondary fermentation and the barrel) - Bread, cream, wood, spice, coffee
  • Tertiary flavors (from aging and oxidation) - Leather, tobacco, nuttiness, mushroom, earthy
So I recruited some friends to help me do a two-day social-distancing experiment to taste through the simulated aging process of Rioja. We each picked a Rioja of our choice that has at least a Reserva classification and tasted it about 4-5 times over two days. Each tasting would be about 6 hours apart. A bottle of Barbaresco was also added to the mix for comparison.

Rioja Experiment

The goal of the experiment is to answer two questions:

1. Does Rioja age and evolve well?
2. Does Rioja fit your definition of a great wine? 

We completed the experiment and are in the process of sharing our observations. We will do the big reveal in the next post. In the meantime, I'd love it if you try this experiment along with us. Feel free to drop me a note with your observations as well. I look forward to hearing from you and sharing our results.