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TPFnewIn many ways, Rioja was my first serious wine romance. This was 35 – 40 years ago, in Washington, DC, where a tiny Spanish bodega’s wine section sucked me in like oceanic undertow and never really burped me back out.

Rioja, for those unfamiliar, is kinda the Spanish equivalent of Napa: a rather exclusive enclave – surprisingly small, at its traditional core, that became the first region of the wine circus that is Spain to be taken seriously by the wine snot legions of other countries. As Spain is butted right up against France’s southern border, Rioja wines began to  creep into the French hinterlands and then finally into the pricier regions and…people liked them. This was unprecedented. Spain had always been France’s unwashed hick cousin; tractor pulls to Bordeaux’s tea parties, barn dances to Burgundy’s cotillons.

But there was a damned good reason they resonated with the otherwise dismissive French: they pretty much were French. Rioja’s elite decided that their vines were just as good as Bordeaux and Burgundy but that it was the method that was holding them back. Many of the Rioja estates hired either French winemakers or consultants. The wines became leaner, lighter, less effusively fruity, even a tad austere. Bear in mind, this was all well over 150 years ago. Emulating French wine aesthetics became the Rioja style that we now think of as “traditional Rioja”. Those were the wines I fell so hard for: lighter bodied, restrained fruit, firm tannins, prominent acids. The one fly in the soup, for winery owners hell-bent on mimicking the upper-tier Bordeaux, was that Rioja’s climate and soil just naturally produced more intense fruit. Even the reigned-in wines were still notably more fruity and fleshed-out than Bordeaux.

 

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Then, about twenty years ago, Rioja’s star began to fade a bit. The Riojans couldn’t figure it out. The rest of us could. Other Spanish regions began to catch up. Appellations like Toro and Priorat and especially Ribera del Duero started to rack up fat scores and find markets abroad. Then, too, California wines started to become more available in Spain. These wines were larger in scale than Rioja; fatter, richer, more concentrated, more body, more flavors…more. And people both here and in Spain liked More.

Like their Bordeaux counterparts, when faced with a sales slump, many of the Rioja estates dug in their heels. They flatly refused to change their wines in any way. They hoped to make that stance universal but, as always, there were other owners and winemakers who also liked those larger wines, so, gradually, larger scale Rioja began to show up on restaurant wine lists, in Spain and then here. Names began to emerge: Allende, Muga, Eguren, Senorio de San Vicente, Benjamin Romeo, and a dozen others. Powerful wines, robust fruit, body, richness – it was taken as a slap in the face by the Rioja Elders. But wine fans ate it up.

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Rioja Tempranillo on the vine

Tempranillo, the main grape in Spain, is a very different beast from Cabernet and Merlot and Cab Franc used to make Bordeaux. You can take top-shelf Tempranillo fruit and make either a feather-light wine that apes Pinot or a huge power wine that rivals Cab and Syrah. And I loved many of those wines, while never losing the yen for traditional Rioja. I always felt that there was some middle ground; some way to produce wines that wouldn’t insult the tender sensibilities of the Rioja Old Guard and would satisfy the trend toward what’s called “International-style Rioja”. Several wineries had turned that trick, by 2000, some landing on light-medium body and some solidly medium-bodied. And there were many that simply missed both marks.

So, a while back, a box arrives form a PR firm. It contained four bottles; three of BRILLIANT Toro wines and you’ll read about those here, in just a week or so. But the fourth was the real Event.

downloadHacienda Lopez de Haro, aka Bodega Classico, sits squarely in the fat heart of the best of Rioja’s vineyard regions, San Vicente de la Sonsierra. Their neighbors are festooned with so many wine medals and 100-point scores that it’s a miracle they can even shove ’em aside to make wine. Benjamin Romeo, Senorio de San Vicente, Muga, Lopez de Heredia, Ramirez de la Piscina, Abel Mendoza, Cvne, Allende, Ysios, Remelluri…the list runs on for a full page.  These are Rioja’s cutting edge. And one of the least familiar to American wine geeks is Lopez de Haro…and it should NOT be.

The wine enclosed was a drop-dead gorgeous 2013 Reserva (translation: ” aged for at least 3 years with at least 1 year in oak.” In the case of this wine, 20 months in French and American oak.) that straddled that hair-thin line between Trad and International as deftly as Karl Wallenda walked a tiny, taut wire. The subtlety that was the stated goal of the Traditional Rioja style shows up here in a near-perfect balance and just enough tannic structure to make it supple and lithe on the tongue. The blend is classic old-line Rioja: 90% Tempranillo, 5% Garnacha, and 5% Graciano, with the earthy, chewy Graciano shining through in a jaunty blast of berry compote. The fruit is startlingly fresh, for a five-year old wine and the purity of expression is almost a denial of its time in barrel. The oak is there and flatters subtly but never walks in front of any of the juicy (if I may apply that term to a Rioja Reserva) layers of dark raspberries, plums, blackberry liqueur, black currants, black cherries, sweet herbs, and a delicate lacing of bright minerals. The oak shows up as a brambly wood note and a whisper of vanillin – not the bottled extract but the natural vanillin, a phenolic aldehyde that occurs in vanilla beans and…oak pulp. It’s not overtly sweet but more earthy than its bean-bound cousin and just serves to warm up the overall flavors.

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Bodega Classica, home of Lopez de Haro

Unlike its rock-star neighbors, Lopez de Haro has traded a higher profile for a nearly monastic exploration of their vines and wines. I have to admit that it’s been a number of years (about five, I think) since I last did a full tasting of the wines but I remember that Reserva very clearly and this not only upholds that standard but advances it.

Now: The Shocker…

Most of the ritzy neighbors of Haro price their basic Reserva wines at something north of  $40. This one…$12.99 at many merchants. I understand their American importer has a good bit of it on hand; the curse of being an underappreciated winery among some of the Rioja giants. There should be none of this sitting in a warehouse or the winery and if you have any appreciation for Rioja or even just Spanish wine in general, you’ll find a store with some of it under $13 – $15 a bottle and snag a case. With this tannic structure, lovely acidity, and forward fruit, this is a wine that is going to taste even better in five to eight years than it does now…and now…this is a genuine stunner.  95 Points

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Speak yer piece, Pilgrim.

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