Posted by: tomciocco | May 21, 2014

AAAHH, JUVENTUD! – THE PLEASURES OF UN-AGED RIOJA

This post is going to amount to something of a soapbox screed, but so be it…There are few grapes in this world that I enjoy more than Tempranillo, and the almost uncontested pinnacle of the cultivation and vinification of this truly great grape is Rioja. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of really fine wines from Toro and Ribero del Duero and other regions too, but the depth and elegance and longevity of Rioja is more often than not unmatched by any other Spanish appellation that features this grape.

That said, for me, there are far too many potentially great wines from Rioja that are marred by one factor, and that is oak. For whatever reason, the riojanos are inordinately attracted to protractedly aging their wines (sometimes north of 3 years) more often than not in decidedly not -so-subtle new American oak barrels, at least in part if not in their entirety. Now in the case of lots of Reserva and Gran Reserva-level Rioja wines which utilize the very finest American oak barrels or a mix of American and French wood, and which are intended to be held for a decade or even two in the cellar to allow these wines to resolve the results of this stiff oaking regimen and re-balance themselves, can and do make for one of the most wonderfully peculiar drinking experiences in all of winedom. But, with still quite oaky Crianza level wines that emanate from less than optimal vintages, or Reserva or Gran Reserva-level wines that stylistically champion longevity over fruit flavors or exposition of terroir, the often overly long aging programs make for wines that lose their fruit before they resolve their heavy oaking, leaving wines that are too often thin, pale and rife with woody, pickle barrel flavors and aromas with little else to show for themselves.

No danger of that here though. This evening’s wine is a true joven (“young”) bottling in that it sees absolutely no time in oak, and indeed any aging whatsoever – it’s vinified lightly filtered and bottled. But that said, keeping Rioja completely away from oak is no panacea either. Sadly, all too often, joven Riojas are overly simple, dumbed-down “fruit bombs” made for completely uncritical guzzling.

Well, I’m glad to report that in this case, we’re dealing with a wine that really does joven right. The vineyards that produce the fruit that goes into making this wine are situated on chalky clay soil underlain with gravel (the ideal platform for Tempranillo) and all of the vines are at least 35 years of age, a fact which right out of the gate, lends the juice an uncommon depth. What’s more, this is a Rioja that made entirely from Tempranillo, which as noble as it is flying solo, cannot gain the benefit that other Riojas do (joven or otherwise) from blending in small quantities of Mazuelo, Garnacha or Graciano. Who says youth is wasted on the young?

The food that I chose to commingle with this exemplary young Spaniard consisted of a first course of potato, mushroom, zucchini and scallion fritters followed by a main course of pan-fried mini-sirloin steaks with a red pepper, pimenton onion, garlic, and tomato sauce.

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Mencos Rioja Joven 2012

Inky crimson purple color. Clean and modern nose of plum, grape jam, blueberry compote, minerals, cloves, menthol, dried grass, medicinal herbs and walnut paste. In the mouth the wine is big, supple and quite lush but still well balanced with a firm and peppery tannic structure that underpins flavors of juicy black currant, black raspberry and black cherry fruit supported by savory notes of wet clay pot and sumac. Tidy and warm finish.

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