Just a day ago, I received a shipment of what I thought would turn out to be a bottle for my upcoming Fall Value Spirits Round-Up. It felt like a large-format bottle but, when I opened it, there sat a bottle of wine. Spanish wine. Rioja. A Reserva, 2008 vintage.
Engrossed as I am in the Spirits Round-Up, if this had been any other style of wine, from any other place, it might have sat unopened for a few weeks. But a Rioja Reserva, six years in…that’s nearly every wine button I have, pushed firmly and simultaneously. The fact, too, that it came from a winery I know well and have always really liked resulted in my grabbing a corkscrew within about an hour of unwrapping it, a quick but lively aeration, and attentive sippage.
It was NOT a wasted effort.
Bodegas Franco-Espanolas was founded in 1890 by a French wine broker, Frederick Anglade Saurat, and a small consortium of Spanish winery and vineyard owners. France’s vineyards had, of course, been wiped out by phylloxera carried in imported American vines, (and then, ironically, saved by aphid-resistant rootstock imported from…the United States) driving many brokers and winemakers to Spain and its a remarkable agricultural bounty as a bridge piece until their own vines could be restored. Almost immediately, Franco-Espanolas (named for the partnership) became one of Rioja’s most exciting new wineries. Their reds were considered cutting edge for the time and Saurat’s influence on the style of Rioja wines in general persisted well into the middle of the 20th century.
But what F-E is mainly notable for among Americans is for one of its ardent patrons. Ernest Hemingway, a devout lover of Spain and especially its vino, hung out at two main wineries, during his time in country: Paternina, where his championing of their Banda Azul rocketed it into broad international acclaim and massive sales, and…Franco-Espanolas. He visited there shortly after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 and was a huge fan of their everyday red, Diamante.
Fast forward to 2014, and here I sit with their Bodegas Franco-Españolas Rioja Bordón Reserva 2008. One sip in, I’m hooked. Back when I first started getting interested in Spain – which would become one of my two or three favorite wine regions in the world – my first love was Rioja. Nudged (okay, shoved) along by my Spanish Wine Muse, Steve Winston of Seattle’s Spanish Table, I first went into a Definite Swoon for a bottle of Señorío de San Vicente 1990 and was hooked for life…or so I thought.
In the early 2000s, Rioja underwent a change that saw wines made in a more concentrated, international style. It largely came about because of the rise of other Spanish regions which threatened to displace Rioja as Spain’s prestige appellation and, frankly, because many of the Riojan owners felt that getting big scores from Robert Parker and Wine Spectator would happen more often if they made more American-friendly wines. The net result was about what you’d expect: some of them worked nicely while many were just a mess. My own enthusiasm for the region dwindled to a point at which I would sometimes tell sales reps not to even bring in samples if the description of the wine contained the word “big”. It was, stylistically speaking, a real low patch for Rioja…and, as it turned out, wasted effort. Ribera del Duero, Priorat, and Toro have all surpassed Rioja in international popularity and prestige. As the pendulum seems to be swinging back, a bit, from big power reds, Rioja is reclaiming some of its sizzle and much of that is due to those wineries, like F-E, that have stayed with the traditional style.
Rioja wines, historically, have been medium-bodied, at most, and broadly complex, trading power for interest and grace. Franco-Espanolas’ Bordón was named for the winery’s early kinship with Bordeaux and all the stylistic weight that name carries. Saurat’s intitial concept – the vineyard and winemaking techniques of Bordeaux married to the boisterous fruit of Rioja – resulted in the roots of traditional Rioja as a lighter-bodied red that emphasized terroir and restraint over fruit. This 2008 Reserva – by law, aged in barrel for two full years and held in bottle for another two before release – is a blend of 80% Tempranillo, 15% Grenache Tinto, and 5% Mazuelo. It spends that two years in medium-toast American (Ohio) white oak, with racking from barrel to barrel every six months.
Six years along, this wine engenders a couple of reliable observations: It probably is still here – despite a string of 90 Point scores from reputable sources like Wine Advocate, International Wine Cellar, Guia Repsol, and Decanter – because it was a bit tight in its early years. It is also, compared to many Rioja wineries and despite Hemingway’s patronage and its unquestionable standing as one of Rioja’s premier wineries, still fairly obscure for American wine fans. Whatever the reason, the fact that it is still available is an absolute windfall for anyone who has ever contracted the Rioja bug, or any broad-minded Bordeaux-philes.
This is a medium-bodied, palate-coating, rounded, vibrant red that masks its firm tannins with a bounty of red cherries, raspberries, dried cranberries, figs, dates, and plums. The grace notes are a powerful suggestion of light-cured tobacco leaf, toffee, marzipan, sage, and anise. It finishes a bit tart, which would be a drawback in some styles of wine but makes perfect sense in the context of this one. The unique Rioja conjunction of the lowland alluvial stones and calcium, in harmony with the hilly limestone vineyard beds, creates a complicated mineral character somewhat akin to the alluvial-volcanic soils Washington’s Rattlesnake Hills. The underpinning of tangy, earthy limestone in this wine screams Rioja, in a way that’s sometimes masked in the larger, more international-styled reds of the region.
So…is this a profound, earth-shaking Rioja that every collector must have? Depends on the collector. For someone like me – who collects to drink the things – I would (and do) consider it a minor tragedy when one like this, solidly rooted in the graceful traditional style, slips by. For Bordeaux fans looking for an affordable alternative to casual consumption of your pricey Cru wines, traditional Rioja is a perfect answer. For casual wine drinkers, maybe not. But what distinguishes this from so many of the Reserva wines is that this one, crammed with all that lovely fruit, engrossing terroir notes, and lovely barrel character…will run ya about $14. Yep…FOURTEEN DOLLARS.
I was STUNNED when I saw the prices of this wine online. This is one of the two or three best values I have ever seen in Rioja…hell, in Spanish wines in general but especially in the spendy world of certified Rioja Reserva, where $60+ price tags are more common.
I don’t know what the regional availability of this bottle is and I see by my new catalog that it appears their Seattle distributor no longer lists them in their current roster. It is available online, as a quick link to winesearcher.com will show. This may not really be the best Rioja you ever taste but it will probably make your Top Ten, unless you drink a lot of Rioja. And as a bargain, well, the year is half over and this is in my list of three best values I’ve found yet in 2014. 92 Points
“The best lands, the best wines, the Grand Illusion…“
– Frederick Anglade, 1890