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Rioja Reads for 2012
By Gerald D. Boyd
Apr 17, 2012
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While it sometimes seems as though every word on wine today is to be found only online, the good news is paper and type wine books are still in print.  Not as many as in previous years, perhaps, but for those of us who still treasure the heft and assurance of a book-book and profess an interest in Spanish wine, here are overviews of two recently published wine books that you might want to clear space for in your library.

Astute wine drinkers know that Spanish wines are burning up the market and prospects are that the category will get even hotter, especially for red wines from Priorat, Bierzo, Toro and Ribera del Duero.  All of this interest in these lesser-known (for now) regions has been a shot in the arm for Rioja, Spain’s historic and traditional wine region.  Two new books explore the wine region of Rioja along different paths but arrive at the same conclusion that what’s old is new again.

The Wine Region of Rioja, by Ana Fabiano (Sterling Epicure, hardcover, $35) focuses on the rich heritage of Rioja, a place that Fabiano finds beautiful and magical.  Following a short, impassioned support of her claim, Fabiano, who has been visiting Rioja since 1987, launches into brief explanations of the seven valleys of the Ebro River; “the mountain ranges on either side of it [the Ebro River] form the yin and yang of La Rioja.”  The remainder of the opening chapter spells out the importance of language, food and the merging of history and custom, including the importance of the famous pilgrimage of The Camino de Santiago [the way of Saint James], which passes through Logroño, Rioja’s major city, on the way west to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. 

Fabiano dedicates the next three chapters to an account of how monasteries and mystics in the Catholic church helped keep the importance of Rioja viticulture and wine alive, a theme that was vital to other European wine-producing countries such as France.  She also provides a detailed examination of the region of Rioja itself, including its terroir and the three important sub-regions of Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja, along with the people who work to keep these wine places prominent in the international wine market, like Maria Vargas of Marques de Murrieta and Alvaro Palacios, a Riojan who has made Bodegas Palacios Remondo a wine to watch.  Included are the obligatory and necessary sections on the grapes of Rioja, grouped in a familial way by Fabiano as “Tempranillo and Her Sisters” (the gender reference appears to be a tribute to Maria Martinez Sierra of Montecillo, an ardent advocate of Tempranillo) and a catch-all chapter on Rioja wine styles and regulations that are essential to a complete understanding of Rioja wines. 

The heart of Fabiano’s book, however, is the two chapters on who she believes are the grand bodegas of Rioja, old and newer.  For “The Grand Old Bodegas of Rioja,” Fabiano sets the arbitrary time bar for “wineries that are more than fifty years old.”  Familiar names leap off the pages, like Muga, Riscal, Lopez de Herredia and Federico Paternina.  I admit, though, that even with my interest in Spanish wine, it was news to me that Bodegas Palacios Remondo was founded in 1948 and superstar winemaker Alvaro Palacios joined the winery more than a decade ago.  To qualify as one of “The Newer Bodegas of Rioja,” Fabiano has set “founded after 1960” as the cut-off date.  Even the most casual reader might look at the entry for Bodegas y Vinedos Labastida, founded in 1964, and ask what’s new (or “newer”) about that?

Still, Fabiano’s book on Rioja is designed for the casual reader and certainly for those readers who prefer more photos than text and a lot of sidebars and boxes with winemaker profiles and odd wine-geeky bits like “Carbonic Maceration in the Rioja Alavesa.”   There are more than 100 color photographs and maps (although the photos in my review copy were black and white) and just the right amount of information, despite some vague references, about Rioja to get you out the door searching the local wine shops for Rioja wines.

The Finest Wines of Rioja and Northwest Spain, by Jesus Barquin, Luis Gutierrez and Victor de la Serna, takes a broader view in terms of geography, covering Rioja, as well as Navarra, Bierzo, Rias Baixas and the Basque Country.  The attractive soft cover book, one of a series in the excellent Fine Wine Editions from the University of California Press, is divided into three sections:  Introduction; The Finest Producers and Their Wines; and, Appreciating the Wines.  

The first section includes five introductory chapters that lay the foundation for what is to come, covering grape varieties, geography, geology, history, culture and more.  In the chapters on viticulture and winemaking, the authors do a nice job of explaining how growers in northern Spain coped first with the incursion of phylloxera and later foreign vines from France, eventually moving from quantity to quality in the vineyards.  A similar battle of old and new is described in the chapter on winemaking, including a refutation of what the authors say “was no treason against Riojan authenticity,” referring to wines made “outside the strictures of the Crianza/Reserva/Gran Reserva model,” a pointed reference to the new turks working within the traditional DO laws while striving to move Rioja winemaking ahead.

But all of this introductory material is just background for the middle section on The Finest Producers and Their Wines, the core of the book that spans more than 200 pages, with 67 profiles devoted to Rioja alone.  A few nicely detailed topographic maps help the reader get oriented.  The one or two-page profiles are informative and nicely illustrated with excellent rich color portrait photographs of the owner or winemaker by Jon Wyand, a professional photographer who has specialized in wine for more than 30 years.  The portrait photographs are what set this book apart, giving the reader a personal feel for the people behind the region and the wines, urging the reader to find out more.  Unfortunately, the reader has no idea which of the three authors wrote what section or profile.

The final section is a wrap up, with an evaluation (a vintage rating covering 2010 to 1982 is on the inside front cover) of Rioja vintages from 1925 to 2010.  The authors decided to begin this section with 1925 because it was the year the Consejo Regulador was set up.  The following fascinating insight is enough to make me begin a search of my local wine shops:

“Well-kept bottles of Castillo de Ygay and Marquis de Riscal are drinking beautifully 85 years later.  Of course, those wines were made in a very different way, for example, the Ygay was aged for more than 30 years in wood [one has to wonder what was used to top up the barrels] and it was bottled on in 1964, before being launched on to the market in 1973.  That’s why it’s still relatively easy to find.”

For Rioja wine fans there is a lot of valuable information in these two books.  While a certain amount of the basic information is the same, the authors of both books have their own picks for the top producers in Rioja.  Fabiano provides profiles on 39 grand old and newer bodegas, the three authors of “The Finest Wines of Rioja” profile 67 bodegas, divided them into the main growing districts such as Haro and Laguardia.  There is some overlap, mainly of well-known bodegas such as the Marquis de Caceres and Monticello “The Finest Wines of Rioja” offers profiles of a number of lesser-known bodegas, many small family-owned bodegas. 

I did find it curious that Federico Paternina and El Coto were considered worthy of mention by Fabiano but not the authors of “The Finest Wines of Rioja,” and that the three authors included the Marquis de Riscal and Contino but Fabiano left these well-known names out.   Of course, no two writers agree on the definition of quality or what the criteria are for inclusion in a collection of noteworthy Rioja bodegas.  So, the simplest solution:  Buy both books.