Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Rioja Experiment, Part 2 - Reserva, Gran Reserva, and a Barbaresco?

Last month, I wrote about the first part of the Rioja experiment. The experiment serves to answer two questions raised from the book, Making Sense of Wine, by veteran wine critic Matt Kramer: 

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

Kramer's point was that Tempranillo, the dominant grape in Rioja, resists oxidation and is therefore limited in its ability to evolve and develop into secondary and tertiary flavors. This transformative quality is found in grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo.

2014 Hidalgo Gran Reserva
To put Kramer's point to the test, I recruited some friends to taste different vintages of Rioja four to five times over two days. The goal was to observe if the wine transformed during an aging process, simulated by increasing oxygen contact in the bottle. After the last tasting, we met on Zoom to share our tasting notes. 

Below is the selection of Riojas in the Reserva and Gran Reserva classifications for the experiment. The corresponding retail prices were for 750 ml unless otherwise indicated.
  • 2015 Bodegas Muga, Reserva ($35)
  • 2013 Marques de la Concordia Vina Alarde, Reserva ($20)
  • 2012 Hidalgo Tradicion H, Gran Reserva ($20-45)
  • 2007 Marques de la Concordia Vina Alarde Gran Reserva ($30) 
  • 2004 Conde Valdemar Gran Reserva ($165 for magnum)


Rioja Reserva classification requires that the wine has had three years of aging with at least one year in the barrel. We tasted two Riojas in this classification. 

The 2015 Bodegas Muga was the youngest wine in the Rioja line-up. It started youthful and aromatic with primary flavors in the form of plum, fig, and black tea. On the second day, it retained its fruit-forwardness with a hint of cherrywood, indicating a bit of the secondary flavor. 

The 2013 Marques de la Concordia started with predominantly dark fruit, such as plum. By the second day, it continued its fruit-forwardness but also picked up some secondary and tertiary flavors with chocolate and tobacco.

Gran Reserva
2004 Conde Valdemar Gran Reserva

Rioja Gran Reserva classification requires that the wine has had five years of aging with at least two years in the barrel. As expected, the three Riojas in the Gran Reserva classification are older vintages than the Reserva.

The 2012 Hidalgo was the youngest Gran Reserva. It started with a lot of fruit, spice, and chocolate, indicative of primary and secondary flavors. By the second day, while retaining cherry and berry in its bouquet, it also picked up more woodiness and tertiary flavors of tobacco from oxidation.

The 2007 Marques de la Concordia was unfortunately past its prime. It quickly lost whatever little life it might have had. The wine turned from lemon juice (not what you want in a red wine) and tobacco on the first day to vinegar and funk on the second day. Prior to its quick decline, we did observe some tertiary flavors in the form of tobacco and leather.

While the 2004 Conde Valdemar was the oldest Gran Reserva in the experiment, the larger format bottle with less oxygen contact allowed the wine to age more gracefully. It was surprisingly youthful for a 16-year-old wine. It greeted us with a concentrated perfume-y bouquet of cherry and plum. By the second day, its liveliness and fruit-forwardness continued with a dominance in dried fruit, such as prune and fig. If there were secondary and tertiary flavors, they were overshadowed by the abundance of fruit and luscious mouthfeel with velvety soft tannins.

And a Barbaresco?

OK, for those of you who know me, I love to sneak in Nebbiolo where I can. And I can! 

Nebbiolo, the grape behind Barbaresco and Barolo, is known for its ability to evolve and transform over time. For fun, we added the 2016 La Ca' Nova Barbaresco to compare with the 2015 Muga Reserva. Both were close in vintage and price range. 

Nebbiolo vs. Tempranillo
When first opened, the Barbaresco smelled like a burnt matchstick, likely from sulfur bi-product. This quickly dissipated and was replaced by a complex flavor profile of plum, berry, pomegranate, tea, vanilla, caramel, and leather - a reflection of primary, secondary, and tertiary flavors. 

By the next day, the flavor profile had evolved to plum, fig, and cherry Jolly Rancho, layered with bell pepper, earth, mushroom, Marmite, and a hint of cocoa. 

The Conclusion

Does Rioja age and evolve well? When well made and in the right vintage, a Rioja definitely ages well and can even go on for 25 years. While the 2007 Marques de la Concordia Gran Reserva was unfortunately past its prime, the 2004 Conde Valdemar was still youthful and delicious. 

Tasting through the Riojas of Gran Reserva and Reserva classifications of varying vintages, it is fair to conclude that Tempranillo makes extremely fruit-forward wine that might overshadow its secondary and tertiary flavors. The primary flavors range from fresh fruit, such as plum and cherry, to dried fruit, such as prunes and raisins. There are hints of secondary and tertiary flavors in older Riojas, like chocolate, leather, and tobacco. 

Food loves Rioja
Does Rioja fit your definition of a great wine? While it may not share the ever-evolving and complex flavors of a Barbaresco or Barolo, Rioja is a delicious wine and is eager to please. It pairs well with many dishes, from a myriad of tapas to vegetable curry, chicken tagine, and even a rack of lamb. It is also a pleasure to drink on its own. Rioja is like the good friend with whom you can go to a big work party, a small family gathering with that awkward drunk uncle, or even just to hang out alone.

What about Kramer?

Matt Kramer revisited his view on Rioja in his article "What Makes a Great Wine?" in the June 15, 2018 issue of the Wine Spectator. He had since relaxed his opinion on the transforming ability of a grape to qualify its greatness. Kramer ultimately conceded that the elegance and smoothness of Rioja were adequate to make it a great wine.

What do you think?