Friday, November 7, 2014

Ana Fabiano & The Wonders of Rioja

My love affair with Rioja wine goes back many years. One of the first Rioja wines that peaked my interest in Spanish wines was the Marqués de Riscal, and my first higher-end Spanish Rioja, the Bodegas Fernando Remirez de Ganuza Reserva, was stunning and made me seek out more higher-end Spanish wines. In 2007, on my second trip to Spain, I visited the Rioja region, stopping at several wineries and enjoying many excellent wines. It was a wonderful place, with such beauty and history, great people and tasty wines.

I had the recent pleasure to meet Ana Fabiano (pictured above), the U.S. Trade Director for Rioja-USA and the Brand Ambassador for DOCa Rioja, at a media lunch at Smith & Wollensky. We chatted together and Ana shared several Rioja wines with us, including one from her personal collection. Ana was very personable and knowledgeable, a passionate advocate for the region.

Ana provided us some informative background on the Rioja region and its wines. There are about 65,000 hectares in Rioja, with about 1.2 million barrels of wine aging in their cellars. Within Rioja, there are about 600 registered wineries, 95 co-operatives, and 16,500 growers working on 110,000 plots of land. Most wineries purchase their grapes and there are only a small number of estate wineries. And you probably didn't know that Rioja produces 3% of the world's mushrooms.

About 160-170 Rioja wineries currently distribute to the U.S. though the top 20 wineries account for 70% of those exports. Since 2010, the U.S.has seen significant growth in Rioja imports, in volume and value, in the amount of about 40%. During the last year, imports of Rioja Reserva has risen by 60% and Crianza is up by 27%. As for Gran Reserva, which only makes up 2% of production in Rioja, it constitutes about 4% of the exports to the U.S. The U.K. and Germany remain though larger Rioja export markets than the U.S.

Within Rioja, they are essentially maxed out in vineyard land, though they are also engaging in more experimentation. Though few of their vineyards are certified organic, many use ancient practices of sustainable agriculture, using no pesticides or herbicides. In the past, producers used to produce their wines using a blend of grapes from the different region of Rioja but now they generally use grapes from a single region. That makes a difference as each region has its own unique flavor profile. For example, Rioja Alavesa creates wines that are elegant, with aromas and flavors of violets, cherry, plum, and raspberry. On the other hand, Rioja Baja, has riper fruit, which is sometimes said to be "bit of a sun tan," and is a bit rounder, not as elegant as the Alta wines. Violets is considered classic Rioja.

More people in the U.S. still need to be exposed to Rioja. One of the hurdles is trying to capture more people who are California and Italian wine drinkers, who seem a but resistant to drinking Rioja. Ana also criticized Rioja producers, claiming that many of them are not doing enough to promote their own wines in the market. They have relied far too much on PR campaigns to spread the word about Rioja. Ana would like to see more of those producers come to the U.S., to personally spread the word about their wines, a more personal touch. I agree with her that it would help, especially on the East Coast which tends to drink more European wines than the West Coast. In addition, Ana would like to see more Rioja selections available by the glass on restaurant wine lists.

At one point, near the end of our discussion of Rioja, Ana stated something intriguing: "The wines breathe democracy."

Our first Rioja wine not only impressed me, but it also was the first time I had been exposed to this grape, Tempranillo Blanco. This grape was first detected in 1988, and was found to be a mutation of the Tempranillo grape. In 2007, the Blanco was officially recognized as a sanctioned grape in DOC Rioja wines. There are only about three wineries currently using this grape, and when it is young, it is said to taste a little like Albarino, though elements of Tempranillo can be detected too. As it is still a new grape, the wine makers are still trying to understand the type of wines it can produce.

The 2010 Inspiracion Valdemar Tempranillo Blanco ($30), made from 100% Tempranillo Blanco, was aged on the lees in first year French oak, and has an alcohol content of 13%. With a dark gold color, this wine had aromas and flavors of tropical fruits, accompanied by hints of honey, herbs and a touch of citrus. It possessed a very intriguing taste, good acidity and a long,pleasing finish. It is a wine to slowly sip and savor, though it pairs well with food too. A stunner of a wine and highly recommended.

The 2012 El Coto Blamco Rioja ($12) is made from 100% Viura, a grape that is vanishing in the Rioja region. There are only about 4.5 hecatres of Viura remaining in Rioja. This wine sees only stainless steel, and no oak, and has a fresh, crisp and clean taste, with citrus and lemon flavors as well as some floral accents, Easy drinking and food friendly, this is a good value wine.

The warm, buttery rolls were an excellent start to our lunch.

The Tomato Carpaccio with Burrata went well with the first couple white wines.

The 2001 Bodegas Muriel Gran Reserva ($24.99) is made from 100% Tempranillo from the Alavesa region. It was aged in French and American oak for 30 months, and then spent another three years in the bottle before release. This was a superb vintage, and this wine was a beautiful example of Rioja. Intense, deep flavors with plenty of complexity and silky tannins. Black cherry, vanilla, leather, a spicy backbone, and so much more.There is so much going on in this wine, and it is something to sit and sip slowly, to savor each taste. Highly recommended.

The 2007 Valencisco Reserva ($17.99) is made from 100% Tempranillo, and spent 16 months in French oak. Cherry notes, bright spice, smooth tannins, and a touch of earthiness on the finish. Easy drinking and food friendly. Though for the extra $8, I would rather enjoy the Muriel.

The Filet Mignon au Poivre was delicious, incredibly tender with lots of spicy pepper, an excellent pairing with the Rioja.

As a special treat, Ana brought a rare bottle from her own personal cellar, the 1985 C.V.N.E. Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva. This is a top notch Rioja producer and I was very excited to get to taste this older wine. It is a blend of Tempranillo,Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo, though that blend has changed in recent years, using more Tempranillo. Though nearly 30 years old, this wine still seems so young and vibrant, with plenty of elegance, complexity and depth of flavor. It was silky smooth in the mouth, a wine to impress any wine lover. What an amazing way to end our lunch.

Ana Fabiano has also written a comprehensive guide to Rioja, the The Wine Region of Rioja (Sterling Epicure, 2012, $35), a hardcover book of 242 pages. The book is broken down into eight chapters, and covers plenty, from the geography of the region to its history, from information about its grapes to the rules of the region. There is even a section on pairing Rioja and food, with six different recipes, such as Pears Poached in Rioja. Ana also discusses a number of the bodegas in the region, mentioning some of the wines she recommends.

The opening words of the first chapter set the tone, "Rioja is beautiful." And that goes beyond the physical, touching on other less tangible aesthetic matters as well. The book itself is beautiful, with a bounty of appealing photography of the region. In some respects, it is a coffee table book, something which can be a centerpiece of conversation. The book is written for the average person, and you don't need lots of wine experience or knowledge to enjoy it. You'll learn plenty from the book, even if you consider yourself knowledgeable about wine.

The side bars within the book are very interesting, providing everything from info on a tapas crawl in Logronos to a vintage chart that goes back to 1960. A number of the sidebars tell the stories of the people of Rioja, the wine makers who have made their mark in the region. Maybe my favorite sidebar of the book is "Voice of the Vintners" (pages 114-115), which provides quotes from about 30 different wineries on Tempranillo. Their is such poetry in those quotes, and they provide a fascinating insight into Rioja. If you read those two pages alone, I think you would actually have a nice grasp of Rioja.

This is an excellent wine book, which looks closely at a specific wine region, providing a comprehensive education about everything from history to its bodegas. It is a worthy reference for any Spanish wine lover.

No comments: