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