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by Andrew Chalk

Spain is important to wine drinkers as one of the best wine-producing countries in the world and, right now, as the producer of some of its best values. Indeed, the top tier wines from Spain’s most famous region, Rioja, sell for around a third of the price of the top-tier wines from France’s famous region of Bordeaux. The value is even more stark relative to Napa, California.

This value concoction is partly due to currency exchange rates (the dollar versus the euro) so it won’t last forever. That makes it is a good idea to take advantage of as soon as possible.

These thoughts were prompted when a noted Rioja producer sent me three examples of their wines, each representing a different quality tier.

Ramón Bilbao is a 97 year-old Rioja winery that has established itself as a solid producer in the region. They own 450 estate acres of vineyards around their home in Haro in the area of Rioja known as Rioja Alta. In addition, they work with independent growers under long-term relationships on their 2,250 acres. They have won countless medals and been voted “Best Spanish Bodega” by the IWSC in 2014. Like other Rioja producers the tempranillo grape is the most important grape in their red wines and, as is typical in Rioja, red wines dominate their product line.

The above characteristics could have been applied to wines of most countries in the world. About the only Iberian specialty in the above description would be tempranillo being the principal grape. Ninety-five percent of the world’s tempranillo grows in Spain, although the grape does adapt to other areas, including Texas.

The next step is very ‘Riojan’. They classify their wines using the traditional Rioja system of higher quality being associated with longer cellar treatment. Thus, the wine on the left in the image above has the word ‘crianza’ prominently displayed on the front label. This means that it received oak ageing, and specifically, under Rioja regulations, at least one year of oak ageing, prior to release. The middle bottle is labelled ‘reserva’ meaning, under Rioja regulations, that it received at least three years of ageing prior to release. At least one year of this must be in oak and six months in bottle. Lastly, the bottle on the right gets Rioja’s highest official designation gran reserva, meaning a minimum of five years ageing prior to release. At least two years in oak and two in bottle. The ageing and the oak each affect the nose and the taste of the wine.

In the case of the crianza ($19), the relatively short ageing period of one year means that the wine still has the vibrant red tempranillo fruit.The fact that the ageing was (per the winery) in American oak means that coconut, green tea, dill, and vanilla are likely in the nose and the mouth. Crianzas are the age statement of choice in the cafés of Logroño, the commercial heart of Rioja Alta.

The reserva ($27) spent 20 months in American oak and twenty months in bottle. Therefore, both the effect of time and the effect of longer oak exposure will affect the nose and the palate. The oak should be more predominant than in the case of the crianza, producing a more complex and sophisticated wine worthy of a fine meal (likely of wild boar or lamb if eaten in northern Spain).

The gran reserva ($39) is intended to be a formidable specimen, to be compared with fine red wines from Bordeaux, Tuscany, or Napa. Despite the five year minimum, Ramón Bilbao aged it for 30 months in American oak barrels and 36 months in bottle. Six months over the minimum . As you might speculate, with this amount of age it comes to the table with the tannins in the grapes considerably softened, the fruit and the wood far more fully resolved, and the ‘edges’ of a young wine plained away to leave a supple, harmonious oneness.

Note that the price doubled between the crianza and the gran reserva, but there is no doubt in my mind which one to buy. Gran reserva Riojas are one of the bargains of the wine world. Top Tuscan, Bordeaux, and Napa wines would all cost $100+. At under $40 the Ramón Bilbao is a steal. It can be enjoyed now, or kept for a long time. Gran reservas age 20 years or more so this 11 year old has time to run.


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