Welcome to Spain. One of the more intimidating countries for me to study, if I’m quite honest. But today I am breaking down a few of the major red wine producing regions via tastings. So, let’s start off with a little theory:
Describe the regions of Bierzo, Ribeiro del Duero, Rioja, and Priorat in terms of topography and climatic conditions. Describe the main red wine grape(s) of each region and create a generic dry tasting note for the red wines typical to each region.
Below, I’ve got bullet points that answer those few questions along with my tasting notes from each region. I’ve also slipped in a few Pop Quiz/Trivia questions throughout this post—see if you can answer those as well.
Buena suerte y salud!
For a general overview, see Wine Region Overview: Spain based on WSET Level 3 material.
- early to mid-ripening; thin skinned; prone to wind damage, rot, mildew, botrytis;
- can lose characteristic medium (+)/high acid quickly while gaining sugar, thus resulting in high alcohol wines if picked too late;
- Key grape in Bierzo DO of Castilla y Leon, which is climatically similar to some inland Galician wine regions (like Valdeorras)
- Mencia is the main black variety; must contribute a minimum of 70% of any red blend
- The flat plain in the middle of Bierzo and the lower slopes of the mountains have fertile silty loam soils and tend to produce high yields for inexpensive wines made for early consumption, sometimes utilizing carbonic or semi-carbonic maceration.
- The best vineyards located on the hillside slopes have good drainage and poor, shallow, slate soils, limiting vigor; cooling influence due to altitude provides good diurnal range; wines tend to be more concentrated; they often mature in oak BUT care must be taken as Mencia’s flavor profile is quite delicate
- Mencia is the main black variety; must contribute a minimum of 70% of any red blend
- Valley of Gold”
- most easterly Galician DO, thus has continental climate
- vineyards are planted at altitude with diverse range of soils
- (predominantly slate—used to be a mining region in ancient times; main grape is Godello, most important black variety is Mencia
Wine: Bodegas Avancia Cuvee de O Mencia 2017 (Valdeorras, Galicia, Spain)
(100% varietal Mencia)
Appearance: pale ruby
Aroma: medium intensity—red cherry, pomegranate, under-ripe cranberry, just ripe red plum, herbal note (tomato leaf, maybe menthol?) boysenberry, yeasty/bready quality, charred wood
Palate: dry, high acid, medium (+) tannin (course, green), medium body, medium alcohol, medium intensity flavors—just ripe red plum, just ripe red and black cherry, pomegranate, under-ripe cranberry, under-ripe boysenberry, bready/yeasty/sulfury quality, charred wood, herbal note: black tea.
Finish is medium length.
Conclusion of Quality: This wine is of good quality. While not necessarily ‘simple,’ the intensity of aromas and flavors are fairly subtle at a medium level and promoting fruits predominantly in the red fruit category: cherry, plum pomegranate, cranberry—all of which are either under-ripe or just-ripe in nature. The addition of the herbal note, which comes across as black tea on the palate, is a nice earthy addition to the flavor profile. This dry wine does have a solid dose of high acidity that does well to keep those flavors alive from start to finish, though the finish does stop at a medium length. The tannins are course, and somewhat immature or ‘green’ in their nature, coating the tongue and perimeter of the palate and do not dissipate—instead they seem to crowd the palate and, to me, this component cuts off the finish at the medium length. However, what the tannins do well is add a bit of body to the wine; without those tannins, the wine would be thin and un-engaging.
I do sense some complexity in the winemaking: there’s a yeasty or bready quality to it that reminds me of lees aging; there’s a hint of charred wood that speaks to some time in oak.
Thus, with a good overall balance of flavors and textures and a dose of complexity, I can assess that this is wine is of good quality. It is the low level of intensity and the medium length finish that tells me I cannot rate the wine any higher than good.
Suitability for Aging: I do not think that this wine is intended for aging. The nature of the fruits are such that they would not develop further with time. What’s more, the level of intensity of those fruits portrayed on the palate are delicate, subtle, and I fear that those aromas and flavors would only fade with time creating an unbalanced wine. Further, the green chalky/stalky nature of the tannins will become overwhelming once those fruits dissipate, again lending to an unbalanced wine. I think this wine is enjoyable now, intended for immediate consumption, not suitable for extended bottle aging.
About Ribera del Duero
- Ribera del Duero has continental climate
- summers slightly hotter, winters colder and vineyards even higher in altitudes than neighboring Toro
- Frosts are a major problem, occurring in both spring and in autumn, thus shortening the growing season even further and potentially causing loss of yield—mitigation includes heaters, water spraying and occasionally helicopters
- Rainfall is relatively low; irrigation allowed at certain times of the year but NOT during the ripening period.
- Topography includes range of altitudes and aspects—use of different sites with slight changes in climate or aspect is useful in gaining balance, complexity and ensuring consistent yields.
- Most producers grow predominantly/only Tempranillo
- Half the vineyards are planted to bush vines; newer vineyards are often planted on trellises—quicker to establish.
- DO for red, white and rosé
- Majority of production is red wine, 75% of which must be Tempranillo (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Garnacha and Albillo also permitted)
- BUT most red wines are made entirely from Tempranillo
- Produces Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva wines, with Crianza being the most common (Do you remember the aging requirements for each level?)
- “early little one;”—early ripening, is best from warm climates where there is cooling influence (altitude, wind)
- grown widely across several areas of Spain;
- can be used to make inexpensive, fruity red wines;
- is the leading component in most prestigious and expensive wines of Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Toro;
- prefers chalky soils;
- produces medium to high yields (depending on site)
- quality-focused producers tend to limit yields to produce more concentrated, structured wines;
- ages well
- made into both single varietal wines and blends.
Wine: Bodegas Aster by La Rioja Alta Crianza 2014
(100% varietal Tempranillo)
Appearance: pale garnet
Aroma: medium (+) intensity of aromas—rose petal, plump black plum, plump black cherry, blackberry, cinnamon, vanilla, and clove spices, tomato leaf, forest floor, toasted wood
Palate: dry, medium (+) acid, medium (+) course tannins (mature, melt off the tongue, stick around the perimeter), high alcohol, medium (+) body, medium (+) intensity of flavors— rose petal, plump black plum, plump black cherry, blackberry, cinnamon, vanilla, and clove spices, tomato leaf, dried tobacco, toasted wood, hint leather
Finish is medium (+)
Conclusion: This is a very good wine with a wonderful array of flavors from fully ripe primary fruits (black plum, black cherry, blackberry) to the spice notes (cinnamon, vanilla, clove), hints of earthiness (tomato leaf, forest floor), and even some subtle signs of age (leather, dried tobacco).
While there are obvious signs of oak aging (I suspect a combination of French and American with a certain percentage of new oak in there), these flavors do not overwhelm the primary fruits, instead work to uplift them. So, too, does the medium (+) level of acidity help to keep those flavors alive from start to finish.
While there is a good dose of tannins here, they do not dry-out nor overwhelm the palate. Though the tannins are somewhat course in nature, they drift off of the palate by the end of the tasting, only leaving a touch around the perimeter of the palate, thus the majority of the palate is left clean and ready for the next sip.
I suspect that there is a higher level of alcohol here, but again this helps to uplift those ripe fruit flavors, add body to the wine, and, indeed, a pleasant little heat.
While the aromas and palate certainly portray a good level of intensity, the finish falls shy at a medium (+), and for this reason I did not rate the wine as outstanding, but this is a very good wine.
Suitability for aging: I do believe that this wine has the potential to age further in bottle. The nature of the fruits are such that they can develop further into their cooked/baked/jammy and eventually dried forms, adding depth and intrigue to the flavors. Further, there is high enough tannin, acid, and alcohol to structurally lend the wine to longevity.
- Located northeast of Castilla Y Leon and is bordered on its east by Navarra DO; runs along the River Ebro
- valley of the River Ebro, towards the east is fairly open and thus receives some Mediterranean influence
- River Ebro has multiple tributaries, providing vineyard sites with varying aspects and altitudes.
- Sierra de Canabria to the north protects Rioja from Atlantic weather; to the south, the Sierra de la Demanda shelters the vineyards from the warmer weather of Central Spain
- Rioja is divided into three zones: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Oriental (Do you remember the defining features of each region?)
- Tempranillo is the most planted grape variety
- ability to produce larger yields means that many Garnacha vines have been replaced with Tempranillo in Rioja Orientale; HOWEVER quality-minded Rioja Orientale producers have begun to replant Garnacha (Do you remember why?)
Rioja Red Winemaking
- Variety of red wine styles made possible by blending different varieties, selection of different vineyards, use of differing winemaking techniques—particularly for extraction and maturation.
- Aging restrictions have also had a major impact on style. (Do you remember why? What are the advantages and disadvantages to Spain’s aging requirements?)
- Common winemaking trend is to highlight characteristics and quality of the grape, achieved by selection of harvest dates, more gentle extraction, use of older/larger oak vessels or concrete or amphorae, and shorter maturation periods.
- Producers can choose whether to follow aging regulations and release wines with aging label or not. (RIOJA has specific aging requirements. Do you remember how these differ from general Spanish Wine Law aging regulations?)
- French oak is now more common than American oak, though some still use 100% American while others blend the two.
- Blending parcels of grapes from various parts of the DOCa is a key feature of the wines of Rioja and remains necessary (Can you explain why that is?)
Wine: La Antigua Clasico Crianza 2012
Appearance: pale garnet
Aroma: pronounced intensity—red cherry, red raspberry, blackberry, red and black plum, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, tomato leaf, forest floor/mushroom, hint of caramel
Palate: dry, medium (+) acid, medium tannins (soft, present, but dissipate quite quickly), medium body, medium alcohol, pronounced flavor intensity—red cherry, black cherry, blackberry, red and black plum, hint raisin and prune and dried black cherry, caramel, dried leaves/forest floor, cinnamon, clove nutmeg
Finish is medium (+) in length
Conclusion: This is a very good wine that is already showing its age, sharing primary aromas of red and black cherry, red and black plum, and fresh raspberry and blackberry, with more tertiary takes on those fruits—raisins, prunes, dried black cherry, along with other notes of age such as dried leaves and caramel. This depth and complexity is clearly brought on not just by the quality of fruits utilized but by the attentive aging process. While there are certainly notes of barrel aging, as indicated by the spice tones, these neither overwhelm the aromas or flavors but instead work to uplift those primary characteristics. So, too, does the medium (+) acid keep those fresher components vivacious throughout the tasting. The tannins are a definite presence, gently coating the tongue and then slowly dissipating—adding texture and lift without, again, overwhelming the fruit components nor does it dry out the palate in an unpleasing way.
The finish fell shy of long at medium (+) and, thus, I did not rate the wine as outstanding, however this is a very good wine.
Suitability for Aging: I do not think that this wine can age further in bottle past the three to five year mark. The fruits are already quite developed, showing cooked and dried forms. Right now the acid and tannin work to uplift these components, but I fear in time they will become overwhelming as the fruits begin to fade. So, while the wine is drinking well now and may continue for a few short years to come, I cannot recommend aging this wine further.
Wine: Bodegas Muriel Gran Reserva 2010
(100% varietal Tempranillo)
Appearance: pale ruby
Aroma: medium (+) intensity—black cherry, blackberry, chocolate, vanilla, cedar wood, tomato leaf, tarragon, black plum, clove, cinnamon, hint caramel,
Palate: dry, high alcohol, medium (+) acidity, medium (+) tannin (grippy), medium (+) body, medium (+) intensity flavors—black and red cherry, blackberry, boysenberry, chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon, cedar wood, hint caramel, hint forest floor/wet leaves
Finish is long
Conclusion: This is an outstanding wine with a plethora of flavors that combine beautifully from start to finish. The nature of the fruits are such that they are ‘just’ over-ripened—full, voluptuous, but not dried or overcooked. With the combination of those baking spices, chocolate, and cedar, the wine has a decadence to it, elevated even more so by the high level of alcohol that creates a fullness to the wine both to the medium (+) body as well as to the mouthfeel, which has a bit of roundness to it. The tannins do, indeed, grip the palate, but do not overwhelm it, instead adding texture and intrigue, adding to the overall body and balance to the wine.
The finish is long and lingering, speaking of both primary and secondary aromas and flavors, while those tertiary notes hang in the back-breath, adding depth of flavor and inviting another sip.
Suitability for Aging: I do believe that this wine is suitable for bottle aging. The acid, alcohol, and tannins are all high enough to lend toward longevity. Further, while the fruits are ‘just over-ripe’ in nature, they can continue to evolve into their cooked/jammy/dried forms, further developing the overall experience of the wine.
- Became a DOQ in 2009
- Priorat has only received international recognition within the last few decades: lack of easy access, challenging topography, extremes in weather conditions have always made viticulture difficult;
- Warm continental climate protected from cold winds by Serra de Monstant in the north and from Mediterranean by the Serra de Llaberia in the south;
- Summers are hot but with high diurnal range providing cool nights;
- Winters are cold, spring frosts a problem; rainfall moderate (500-600 m), falling mainly in heavy storms in winter and spring;
- Summers are dry; irrigation is permitted in the driest years and for establishing new vineyards;
- River Siurana runs through the region carving the terrain and providing a broad range of altitudes and aspects; topography is extremely rugged thus of the 17,600 ha, only 2,000 ha are planted to vines.
- Vineyards are planted on slopes; narrow terraces are a common feature; mechanization is not possible, all operations done by hand
- Soils are varied; most common: licorella (Do you remember what makes this soil so special?)
- Majority of plantings are Garnacha and Carinena which are both well suited to hot days and dry conditions.
Wine: La Cartuja Priorat 2017
(70% Garnacha, 30% Mazuelo (Cariñena).)
Appearance: pale ruby
Aroma: medium (+) intensity—red raspberry, red cherry, strawberry, vanilla, tomato leaf, white pepper, rose petal, charred wood
Palate: dry, high alcohol, high tannin (course, grippy), medium (+) acidity, medium (+) body, medium (+) intensity of flavors—red raspberry, red cherry, strawberry, vanilla, tomato leaf, white pepper, rose petal, charred wood, candy
Conclusion: This is a good wine that has a good array of primary fruit flavors, predominantly in the red fruited category, all of which are over-ripe/cooked in nature. This perception of over-ripe or cooked fruit is brought on, in part, due to the high level of alcohol that, to me, is a bit too high, in that it overwhelms the fresher components of this wine, including the floral and herbal notes. The tannins, too, are on the high side, coating the mouth, but without elevating either the body or the texture in any meaningful way. So, while there is a good level of intensity to this wine, and there’s no doubt there is some complexity in the winemaking (as noted by the secondary aromas showcasing oak usage—vanilla, charred wood), I cannot call this wine balanced.
This imbalance extends to the finish, which is simply medium, cut off by the heat of the wine and the pronounced tannin structure.
Therefore, while the wine shows intensity and complexity, meaning that it is certainly of higher quality than acceptable, the lack of balance and poor finish means I cannot rate the wine any higher than good.
Suitability for aging: I do not think this wine is suitable for aging. Simply put, the un-balanced components to this wine will certainly not come together with time, but become more separate and, thus, further imbalanced.
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