Traditional Rioja, like its spiritual model Bordeaux, was always a blended wine. The percentages of the varieties did and can still can vary, but the wine has always been dominated by the great Tempranillo, and supported by Garnacha, Mazuelo (a.k.a. Carignan), and the somewhat obscure Graciano.
Graciano is a dark, intense, and plush grape that was traditionally used to lend body and perfume to the Rioja blend, but due to its consistently low yields, and a particular susceptibility to a certain pest mold called downy mildew, Graciano, which was never required in the Rioja mix, fell out of favor, with many producers discontinuing its cultivation altogether. Sometime between then and now (closer to “now” for sure) wines that can be classified as “Rioja” has been expanded and so here we sit with a 100% Graciano with just such a denomination. Advances in vineyard techniques and clonal selection have made this possible, but that said pure Graciano wines are still fairly hard to come by.
So now for the (partial) obscurity part…I give hearty handshake to anyone with the will to make a pure Graciano wine, but the traditional Rioja barrel regimen – involving long stints partly if not completely in American oak, which has a VERY assertive and persistent influence on any wine (too often too much for me) was alas, a bit too much in this case. Thankfully with lots of aeration, the wine became quite enjoyable, but I could only imagine what this wine might have been had it been raised in used and/or larger and /or French or Slavonian oak barrels…Untraditional for sure but so’s a Rioja made from 100% Graciano.
I served this Navarran wine (a small sliver of Rioja extends into Navarra) with a “something old and something new” menu beginning with a nueva cocina vasca cold salad of small white beans, apples, avocado, sheep cheese, and basil in a vinaigrette, and then a Navarran classic: Bacalao Ajoarriero (shredded salt cod cooked with a dense pepper/onion/garlic/tomato sauce with egg stirred in at the last minute) with just some good light, chewy bread.
Bodega Ondarre Rioja Graciano 2007
Very deep and saturated vermillion color. After an initially intensely oaky attack, the wine opens out into a continually evolving nose of plum, cloves, tomato paste, cocoa, charcoal smoke, licorice and olive paste. In the mouth the wine is big, robust, rich and fairly dense but deftly balanced by an equally big and punchy acidity and muscular tannins underlying flavors of black currant, blackberry, loamy soil, pine resin, salami, and sandalwood. Great savory dry finish.