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March 2017

Reviews

THE EVOLUTION OF RIOJA

Rioja Vineyards
Photo credit: us.riojawine.com

The past twenty odd years has been an exciting time in the winemaking world. So-called ‘New World’ producers have resoundingly proven that they can compete on the global stage, and a new generation of ‘Old World’ growers have emerged. This latter group is travelling more and embracing modern technologies; refining the styles of their wines as they go.

The result is a blurring of the lines, whereby the clichéd characteristics of certain wines and regions no longer apply. Wines made oceans apart, in dramatically different climates and soil types, are surprisingly similar. While others, made two cellars down in the same village, bear little ressemblance.

This situation has many traditionalists shaking their heads, and looking back longingly to a time when Chablis was Chablis, and nothing else came close. I’ll admit that, when blind tasting, the lazy part of me secretly wishes that all regional wines fit their textbook descriptions. And yet, how boring life would be for winemakers were they all to make the same wines as their neighbours.

Rioja is a prime example of a region that has undergone significant stylistic changes in recent years. The stereotypical definition of ‘classic Rioja’ is a pale garnet coloured red, with soft red fruit, heavy American oak influence (vanilla, dill flavours) and a mellow, tertiary character from prolonged barrel maturation (soft tannins, leather and dried fruit nuances). The traditional whites are heavily oxidized; deep gold in colour with nutty, honeyed flavours.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, ‘modern Rioja’ is often inky dark in colour, with fresh acidity, ripe black fruit aromatics, firm tannins and French oak flavours (spice, cedar). Tempranillo is still king, but Garnacha (Grenache), Mazuelo (Carignan) and Graciano are bigger supporting players here. The whites now run the gamut from crisp, lean and unoaked through to full bodied, rich and lavishly oaked (the barrel maturation periods are shorter however, resulting in fresher, fruitier wines).

The shift in styles may seem fairly radical, and does tend to cause a certain amount of nostalgic muttering amongst traditionalists. Yet when we look at the evolution of Rioja wines over the regions’ long history, it becomes apparent that change is the constant and not a recent trend.

Prior to the 18th century, Rioja wines were not aged in oak. Barrels were used strictly as a means of transport for exported wines, and lined with resins that negatively impacted the flavour profile. It wasn’t until local vineyard owners began visiting cellars in Bordeaux and consulting with French oenologists in the mid 1800s, that barrel ageing came to Rioja. The practice quickly caught on, and increasing numbers of wineries began maturing their wines in French oak.

The move to American oak came about as a cost saving measure in the early 19th century, as it could be imported cheaply from Spain’s overseas colonies and coopered locally. The duration of oak ageing became a gauge of quality, with soft, sweet vanilla scented reds ruling the pack.

The ageing classifications of Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva only came about some forty years ago. Prior to that, consumers had little way of knowing how long a Rioja had slumbered in barrel. Vibrantly fruit, Beaujolais-esque reds co-existed with pale, mellow wines of 20 or more years’ oak maturation.

If anything, this labeling legislation has been a boon in bringing greater transparency and consistency of style to Rioja wines, whereby (for reds):

Crianza: 2 years’ minimum ageing (at least 1 year in barrel)

Reserva: 3 years’ minimum ageing (at least 1 year in barrel)

Gran Reserva: 5 years’ minimum ageing (at least 2 years in barrel)

And while the fashion for denser, riper fruited, fuller-bodied Rioja continues to gain traction, there remain a large number of stalwarts who continue crafting their wines along fairly classical lines (López de Heredia, CVNE, Marqués de Murrieta, Muga, Marqués de Riscal, just to name a few).

These producers may not age wines in barrel for as long as they once did, and many now prefer a mix of American and French oak, but the mellow appeal and sweet fragrance are not lost. The wines have simply gained in freshness and vibrancy.

Here are a list of great classic and modern Riojas to try from a recently attended tasting (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out).

Conde Valdemar, Finca Alto de Cantabria 2015 (white) – 93pts. VW

At just shy of 20$, this suave, beautifully balanced white offers fantastic value. Toasty, vanilla oak aromas are ably matched by attractive candied pear, honey and spiced notes. The palate is tangy and fresh, with a creamy, layered centre and bright fruit lingering on the finish.

Blend: 100% Viura

Where to buy: SAQ (19,85$)

Rioja Vega Tempranillo Blanco 2015 (white) – 89pts. PW

A mutation of the red Tempranillo grape, Tempranillo Blanco has only been approved for use in white Rioja wines since 2007. This lively example is laden with ripe, red apples, yellow pear and floral nuances. Medium bodied, smooth and moderately creamy, this easy drinking white boasts a long, delicately oaked finish.

Blend: 100% Tempranillo Blanco

Where to buy: LCBO (21,95$) SAQ (22,95$)

Dinastia Vivanco “Seleccion de Familia” Crianza 2012 (red) – 88pts. VW

Attractive, spiced strawberry and candied cherry notes are underscored by earthy nuances on the nose. The palate is dense and firm in structure, with brisk acidity. A moderately concentrated core of tart red fruits lifts the mid-palate. The finish is framed by ripe, grainy tannins and subtle cedar, vanilla oak.

Blend: 100% Tempranillo

Where to Buy: SAQ (19,95$)

Bodega Palacios Remondo “La Montesa” 2013 (red) – 90pts. VW

Breaking away from the traditional Tempranillo led style, this tempting red is predominantly Grenache-based. Intense aromas of stewed strawberries, mixed spices and fresh, herbal notes feature on the nose. The palate offers wonderful vibracy, with nice depth of flavour and firm, yet ripe tannins. Hints of vanilla linger on the finish.

Blend: 85% Garnacha, 15% Tempranillo

Where to Buy: LCBO (24,95$), SAQ (19,90$)

Muga Reserva 2012 (red) – 89pts. PW

Intense red cherry, strawberry and dark fruit aromas underscored by licorice and vanilla nuances. A fresh, lively attack leads into a broad, dry, grainy-textured palate of medium weight. Tart red and black fruits linger through to the medium length finish. American oak nuances (vanilla, dill) are tempered with hints of spicy, cedar scented French oak.

Blend: 70% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha, 7% Mazuelo, 3% Graciano

Where to Buy: LCBO (23,95$), SAQ (23,35$)

Bodegas Palacio “Glorioso” Reserva 2012 (red) – 90pts. PW

Elegant, yet somewhat restrained nose featuring prunes, baking spice, cassis and dark cherries. Upon aeration hints of citrus and fresh strawberries emmerge. The palate offers brisk acidity, a powerful, tightly knit structure and firm tannins. The finish is lengthy and nuanced, with lingering cedar oak notes. Needs time in cellar to unwind, or several hours decanting before serving.

Blend: 100% Tempranillo

Where to Buy: SAQ (25,50$)

Marqués de Murrieta “Ygay” Reserva 2011 (red) – 91pts. PW

Pretty, fragrant nose featuring crushed strawberries, dark cherry and spice, underscored by earthy, leather nuances. Quite elegant on the palate, with fresh acidity ably balanced by the bright fruit. Slightly lean on the mid-palate, though finishes well, with fine grained tannins and nicely integrated toasty, vanilla oak.

Blend: 92% Tempranillo, 3% Mazuelo, 3% Garnacha, 2% Graciano

Where to Buy: SAQ (27,25$)

Cune Gran Reserva 2009 (red) – 92pts. PW

The elegant nose features ripe plum, blackberry, red cherry, vanilla and cedar notes, with hints of dried fruit, leather and spice developing upon aeration. Very silky and plush on the palate, with rounded acidity, full body and loads of ripe plum and vanilla flavours. The tannins are moderately firm, yet velvetty in texture framing the finish nicely. Only moderate concentration and intensity prevent an even higher rating for this, nevertheless, attractive Gran Reserva.

Blend: 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, 5% Mazuelo

Where to Buy: LCBO (38,95$), SAQ – 2008 vintage (27,85$)

CVNE “Viña Real” Gran Reserva 2008 (red) – 92pts. PW

Heady aromas of stewed strawberries, licorice and morello cherries are nicely counterbalanced by attractive earthy notes. Fresh and full bodied on the palate, yet already quite mellow with wonderful depth of flavour and a long, harmonious finish. The tannins remain firm, but the oak is already well integrated.

Blend: 95% Tempranillo, 5% Graciano

Where to Buy: SAQ (35,50$), LCBO – 2008 vintage (37,00$)

CVNE “Imperial” Gran Reserva 2009 (red) – 94pts. LW

Intense, highly complex aromas of tar, tobacco, dark fruits and floral notes are underscored by spicy, vanilla nuances. The palate is fresh, full bodied and dense, yet reveals a pleasantly fleshy texture with time in glass. A highly concentrated core of ripe, dark fruits lifts the mid-palate. The finish is somewhat impenetrable at present, with muscular tannins and pronounved toasty, vanilla oak. Needs additional cellaring (4 – 5 years minimum) to harmonize further.

Blend: 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, 5% Mazuelo

Where to Buy: SAQ (52,25$)

Life

BEWARE THE LITTLE WHITE VAN

Spices at the market
I bring you a final excerpt from my 2010 blog “The Rhône Canuck”, written during the 10-years’ I lived as an expat Canadian in France. This episode is all about culture shock, white vans and the pleasures of market day.

When I was a kid growing up in the ‘burbs of Montréal, the grownups were always warning us to beware of men driving around in white vans.  They were loathe to explain why, but something in their serious expressions made us, for once, heed their advice.

Since then, the white van has always been synonymous with kidnappers and paedophiles in my mind.  It was therefore somewhat disconcerting, upon arriving in France, to see the sheer quantity of them on the roads.  It seems to be an unwritten law here that all plumbers, electricians, construction workers, farmers, etc. can only drive this type of vehicule. They are literally everywhere, and have funny little brand names like “Jumpy” and “Kangoo”…which should lessen their intimidation factor, but somehow doesn’t. Perhaps it is their lack of side windows that re-inforces old fears of what could be concealed within.

White vans are the French equivalent to the pick up truck…though mono-colour, and with none of the rugged cowboy-esque charm. Today is market day in my little town of Villeneuve-les-Avignon, so the parking lots around the main square are crammed with (menacing) rows of these identical machines.  When the van doors slide back, they are found to hold nothing more terrifying than crate upon crate of fresh vegetables, cheeses, meats, spices and other such riches.

Market day is a glorious day in little Provençal towns.  Frustratingly they are often held in the middle of the week (Thursday for me) and only from 6am to lunchtime.  But if you do manage to pull a sicky, or drag yourself out of bed in the wee hours the experience is worth it.  The colours of all those courgettes, aubergines, tomatoes, olives, etc. is mind boggling.

There is always a little outdoor café next door with all the old men holding court, drinking thimbleful after thimbleful of sharp, white Côtes du Rhône or Picpoul-de-Pinet.  Everyone shouts across to one another and the vendors flirt shamelessly; especially if you have a ‘petit accent’. 

You generally end up buying far more than you really need and cursing yourself a week or so later when you find slimy lettuce hiding behind the camembert in the far reaches of the fridge, but what the hell…it beats the scary hyper marchés (giant wallmart-esque supermarkets).

The truly tricky part is finding the strength to exercise self-restraint.  After the marketing is done, the café is a terrible lure.  Why not just stop for a half hour and a nice, refreshing Picpoul?  The glasses are so small, maybe just another one for the road?  Oh, they have oysters & shrimp too?  And suddenly its 4pm and you find yourself wandering home…ready for the sieste.

Producers Reviews

PRODUCER PROFILE – LUDIVINE GRIVEAU, DOMAINE DES HOSPICES DE BEAUNE

Ludivine Griveau Jacky Blisson

The snow was coming down fast and furious but I trudged onwards, tightening the hood of my parka around my frozen cheeks. Had it been another day, I might have slunk back to the comforting warmth of my office. But today was different. I was headed for a tasting and lunch with Ludivine Griveau, the new managing director of the Domaine des Hospices de Beaune.

Luckily for me, the weather kept the majority of my less intrepid colleaugues away, allowing me a far cosier encounter than I had anticipated. Over a scrumptious magret de canard and a line up of beautifully precise Burgundies, we settled in for a nice, long chat.

The Hospices de Beaune (often referred to as the Hôtel Dieu) was founded in 1443 as a charitable hospital and refuge following the Hundred Years’ war. The good works of the almshouse attracted many generous benefactors who, over more than five centuries, have bequeathed substantial land holdings. Today, the estate consists of 60 hectares of mainly premier and grand cru vineyards dotted through out the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits.

The Hospices de Beaune was founded in 1443 as a charitable hospital and refuge.

In 1859 the tradition of a yearly wine auction was established, to sell the wines of the Hospices and raise money for the hospital. Since the construction of a new, modern hospital in the early 1970s, the Hôtel Dieu has become a museum, but the winemaking activities and charitable deeds of the Hospices de Beaune continue.

The wine trade elite gather from around the globe in Beaune every 3rd Sunday of November to attend the auction, and bid on barrels of storied appellations like Clos de la Roche and Corton Charlemagne. In the days leading up to the main event, the Hospices cellars are opened for public, barrel tastings to allow clients to select the cuvées they wish to purchase. No other Burgundian estate is so closely or widely scutinized, making the Domaine des Hospices de Beaune something of a standard bearer for the quality of the region.

No other Burgundian estate is so closely or widely scutinized, making the Domaine des Hospices de Beaune something of a standard bearer for the quality of the region.

The office of managing director of the Hospices involves overseeing the vineyards and winemaking for the estate. Given the international attention, this is a daunting task for even the most experienced vigneron. In 2014, long time director Roland Masse announced his retirement, and the search for a worthy successor was launched. The process took nine months, with over fifty candidates vetted, before a victor was named: Ludivine Griveau.

Not since co-founder Guigone de Salins ran the Hôtel Dieu in the 1400s (after the death of her husband, Nicolas Rolin) has there been a woman at the helm of the Hospices de Beaune. And certainly not in the role of head winemaker! Historically, women weren’t even allowed in the wineries during the fermentation period for fear that their “monthly visitor” would turn the wine sour. Thankfully those days are gone, and the number of celebrated female winemakers in Burgundy is growing steadily. However, old habits die hard and I definitely felt a lingering sense of machoism during my years in Beaune.

Not since Guigone de Salins ran the Hôtel Dieu in the 1400s has there been a woman at the helm of the Hospices de Beaune.

I therefore applauded the choice of the Hospices board of directors, and went into my meeting with Ludivine predisposed to champion her appointment. It quickly became clear however, that she doesn’t need the backing of female solidarity to legitimize her role. Engaging, articulate and incredibly passionate, Ludivine brings with her a solid foundation of education and experience. She spent 4 years working as a viticulturist for the famed Domaine Jacques Prieur, before heading up the winemaking team at Maison Corton-André for 10 years.

Over this period, she worked in almost every appellation where the Hospices owns vines. The varied terroir of each parcel hold no secrets for her, giving her an incredible advantage in running the Hospices estate. Today, she manages a team of 23 staff, who each tend to just over 2 hectares of vines. She also travels the world to promote the domaine’s wines and the charitable aim of the estate.

When asked what her objective for the estate is, 5 to 10 years down the road, she didn’t hesitate. ‘Perfection!’. Such a bold claim demanded further explanation, so she quickly expanded on her theme. The wines of the Hospices, once purchased in barrel mid-November, are transferred to selected wineries and négociant houses for the rest of their barrel maturation and bottling. The final wines will of course vary depending on the cellar master’s methods. The Domaine des Hospices’ role is to provide optimally ripe, healthy grapes that are vinified in such a way as to elicit wines of surpassing elegance and finesse. This is her aim.

The Domaine des Hospices’ role is to provide optimally ripe, healthy grapes … of surpassing elegance and finesse. This is her aim.

As any self-respecting French vigneron will tell you: ‘Les meilleurs vins sont fait dans les vignes’ (the best wines are made in the vineyards), meaning that it is the quality of the ripened grape that defines how good the wine will be.  All 60 hectares of the Hospices estate are farmed sustainably; a method generally called lutte raisonnée. Ludivine has injected a seemingly subtle, but important difference with her team; a practice she calls ‘lutte réfléchie’. Instead of simply tempering the use of non organic inputs, she insists that they really stop and think about each potential treatment and what possible alternatives could be employed.

It is this exacting attention to detail that sets her apart. She gives a wry chuckle and admits that she drives her team crazy sometimes with her exhaustive decision making process. This attitude does not falter in the winery. ‘Pinot Noir is an incredibly delicate grape, that requires careful attention and a soft touch in the cellar’ she asserts. She started her first harvest season by explaining the concept of gentle punch downs to her staff; the idea being to limit extraction to just the right tannic balance.

hospices wines

Over the course of our meal, we shared a steely, mineral-edged St. Romain blanc (cuvée Menault) 2014 and a silky, elegant Monthélie rouge 1er cru “les Duressesses” (cuvée Lebelin) 2011 both masterfully aged by J. Drouhin. The pièce de résistance followed, by way of a ripe, powerful, richly textured Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru (cuvée Madeleine Collignon) 2009. These wines ably represented the standard of quality for which the Domaine des Hospices de Beaune is renowned.

It will be a little while yet before the Hospices wines crafted by Ludivine are released. I await my first tasting with anticipation! Perhaps the fact that she began during the highly acclaimed Burgundy vintage of 2015 is an omen of good things to come…