Posted by: tomciocco | July 20, 2013

A RIOJA FOR THE PEOPLE (AND THIS PERSON IN PARTICULAR)

First, an admission. You’ll find very few pages in this space that deal with wines from Rioja, and that’s something of a shame, but something for which there’s a very good reason. I really love Tempranillo, which you likely know is Rioja’s principal grape variety, and which typically is fairly liberally blended with Garnacha, Mazuelo (a.k.a. Carignan) and Graciano, all of which I’m very fond. This particular wine is made from mostly Tempranillo (80%), with the balance made up of 10% Mazuelo and 10% Garnacha, and that’s just fine by me. As I said, I really dig Tempranillo. For me, it’s truly one of the world’s great wine grape varieties.

What I really don’t dig AT ALL is what goes on in too many cellars in the Rioja region, and that involves wood. Oak, and lots of it. For whatever reason, the riojanos have a great love affair with LONG aging programs in small oak barrels that were originally brought to the region by vignerons from Bordeaux who were fleeing their native vineyards after they had been ravaged by the dreaded phylloxera louse in the middle to late 1800s. At some point, in addition to the finer, subtler, and more elegantly flavored French oak, the Spaniards also developed a taste for barrels made from the far brasher and stronger-flavored species of American oak that eventually got equal billing with the cooperage from just over the Pyrenees. Small, mostly new oak barrels, means more surface area in direct contact with the juice, and when so many of them are American, this means, at least for my palate, too many wines that never resolve the oak with respect to the fruit, or that require at least a decade or more to do so.

The current aging regimen in Rioja is demarcated by the the following nomenclature, working from shortest to longest: Joven, Barrica, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva. Most Joven wines are barely aged at all, and only in stainless steel tanks (joven means “young” in Spanish) and by the time that you reach the Gran Reserva level, wines can spend upwards of five years in oak. Waaay too much for this guy.

Tonight’s wine hails from the Rioja Alavesa sub-region that rests in the the extreme southern corner of the Basque Country, though it’s labelled simply “Rioja”. As I allude to in the title of the post, this producer, Compania Vinicola de Norte de Espana, which goes by the acronym CUNE for short is, not located on some formerly aristocratic estate with a castillo, but rather is a huge, multi-location company that produces wines known for their great value for the price, and this wine represents CUNE’s entry level bottling. And though this wine is aged exclusively in American oak barrels, I suspect that these barrels are either larger than the typical barriques and/or  are 2nd or 3rd passage (previously used), which is a throwback to a “peasant” style of Rioja now mostly  lost in the contemporary scene. Power to the people.

I matched this quite sophisticated little Basque wine with pintxos made with chorizo, leeks, hard-boiled eggs, celery, and mayo, and then a main course of grilled sirloin steaks on a thick puddle of a sauce made from piquillo peppers, garlic, sherry vinegar, olive oil, and butter, with a side of smothered cabbage and garbanzo beans with red wine.

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CUNE Rioja Crianza 2009

Just transparent, slightly pinkish garnet color. Earnest but still elegant nose of subtle oak, blueberry, concord grape jelly, plum, sandalwood, dark chocolate, violets, and a touch of burnt caramel. The medium-weight body has a very nice acid/tannin balance with flavors of black raspberry, red currant, strawberry preserves, rosemary, burnt orange peel, juniper, black tea, and dusty earth. Pleasantly cutting, dry finish.

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