My Lack of Love for Rioja

December 20, 2007

Rioja is perhaps the most famous wine region in Spain producing mostly reds, though some whites as well. The predominant red grape used in Rioja is tempranillio, which is also Spain’s most important varietal. I love tempranillo, but to me the style in which they make it in Rioja is inferior to that of Ribera del Duero, Spain’s #2 region which is actually really close to Rioja. Though I have to mention that my absolute favorite region in Spain has to be Priorat in Catalonia, north eastern Spain. Wine from Priorat can be quite full bodied, velvety, fruit forward, perhaps even more so than Bordeaux.

Back to Rioja: I have a weird relationship with this region. I like the concept of it, but I do not like the execution. First about the area. On paper everything is right about Rioja. It is a hilly area going up against a sizable mountain range which provides an extremely beautiful backdrop. Small wine villages with castles on hilltops are scattered all over, vines are planted as far as you can see, which is contrasted by cutting edge, super modern structures, such as a Sheraton Hotel designed by Frank Gehry. The area is stunning. That is until you start to engage, talk to people, eat the local food, etc. Wine regions throughout Europe tend to have really friendly, knowledgeable people and usually good food accompanies good wine. This was not my experience in Rioja. The food was mediocre (probably the worst I have had in Spain) and people are not super knowledgeable about the wines. It is a bit weird to me, but perhaps the problem is that mass tourism killed the local touch and Rioja now feels more like the Napa Valley of Europe. Not sure. If I go back, I think I will concentrate on very small cellars, rather than the big guys and hopefully I will have a different experience.

At any rate, the wines are not necessarily bad, but I guess I could say Rioja is not my style. There are four different categories of Riojas: Rioja (no special notation), Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. The plain Rioja spends less than a year in oak, the Crianza spends at least one year in oak and is aged at least 2 years, the Reserva is aged in oak at least one year but is at least 3 years before it hits the market, and in order to label wine Gran Reserva, wine makers have to age it for at least 2 years in oak and 3 years in the bottle. There is also the traditional style, which tends to be lighter as they use large oak barrels which are not necessarily new. The modern Rioja is more full bodied and fruit forward and is aged in French barriques, though some wineries also tend to like American and to a smaller extend Hungarian oak barrels.

Today’s example is a modern Rioja, the Bai Gorri Reserva 2002. As many Riojas I have tasted, this one is fairly high in acid, more strawberry-ish than black fruit and quite earthy. The finish is long and bitter, absolutely not gentle. This Bai Gorri is drinkable by itself, but I would vastly prefer it with some Iberian ham and cheese to help with the acidity. I think that would probably be the best pairing for it.

By the way, on the topic of Bai Gorri, this house also has an amazingly modern headquaters (I cannot find a more descriptive name for their complex). It is glass on all 4 sides top to bottom with huge letters Bai Gorri written all over them. It seems to me wineries in Rioja compete with each other on who can make a more extravagant architectural statement. This one is a great example of it, but if you are in the area you have to also visit Ysios, probably my favorite of all. Also, Ysios has quite nice reds at relatively affordable prices.

Name: Bai Gorri Reserva 2002

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Body: Medium to Full

Price: 16 euros

Got it at: Wine store in Laguardia, Rioja, Spain

Bai Gorri Reserva 2002