Senorio de PecinaSometimes, you just need a glass of finest nectar: aged red wine, the drink par excellence. Sometimes you need a wine of utter harmoniousness, depth, sheer complexity; warmth at work against the cold of winter.

Just say it, slowly – let the syllables drip from your lips:


For those frigid nights when your friends have gathered, when the roast is in the oven, when only such a wine will do, perhaps you would be tempted towards a younger vintage, to savor lively cherry fruit and (if produced traditionally) that delicious vanilla and spice flavor. But on those coldest of nights, when one wants to swoon into the happiness of kinship, as Galway Kinnell would say… an aged Rioja can best capture the essence, the brilliance of what a great wine can be.

So, for tonight’s post, just such a thing: the 2001 Señorío de P. Peciña Reserva Rioja Reserva. It has much to offer. For one, it spends 36 months in used American oak barrels, and then is bottle-aged for another eight years. This surpasses Gran Reserva aging requirements, making the Señorío de P. Peciña a very unusual wine, to say the least. It is 95% Tempranillo, with the rest a blend of Graciano and Garnacha. At this point, with 13 years behind it, this is a wine that is ready to be enjoyed.

And what enjoyment! In glass, the classic brick red color, with its age beginning to show a little paleness at the rim. Still bursting with sour cherry, plum, and cranberry fruit on the nose, along with oaky vanilla, hints of toffee, black pepper, and leather… just a fantastic set of aromas. Velvety and round in the mouth, delicious and juicy as well, balanced in all its parts, quenching, beautiful. A lovely hint of candied orange peel whispers in the finish, which is long and silky. At $26, you must.

After  the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, with many friends without power or heat for days on end, I want to take this opportunity to write about one of my comfort wines. This is a wine meant for grilled meats, eliciting memories of warm weather, summer barbecues with friends and family. However, it is also perfect for rainy days, snowy days… any situation where you need a hearty food wine. Also good for celebrating elections, provided you’re down with the outcome.

Priorat. A lush, juicy package done up in red. Very popular now, unabashedly liberal in its flavor profile, with generous dark fruit and supremely supple tannins. What better way to hunker down and brace for the coming winter?

So for this admittedly brief post, I give you the 2009 Scala Dei “Negre” Priorat. Scala Dei means “Ladder of God.” I will say, you’d probably need to exceed this price point for their wines to impress at that level, but this is one tasty red. In the glass, it displays a lovely violet color, and my first impression was of aromas of peppery spice and juicy black cherry and strawberry fruit. Round and luscious in the mouth, with great tannins, very soft, fruit-forward but moderated by earth and mineral notes. Medium finish. Great for pot roast, or lamb burgers. $14.

Today was a cooler day in an otherwise warm month, followed by a pensive evening full of planning. Before summer hits full-tilt, I want to gulp down as much Rioja as time and my budget allow. Yes, that was as far as my planning took me. “Wait,” you say, “why Rioja?”  Well, stop talking to your screen, and I will tell you why Rioja.

Spoiler alert: Rioja is from Spain. For those who have read my previous post and already knew this, thanks for reading. It is generally a blended wine. In fact, the vast majority of Rioja has traditionally been blended wine, featuring juice from three different regions: Rioja Alta, which has the highest elevation and coolest climate of the three; Rioja Baja, with its heavy Mediterranean influence and dry weather making the vines struggle, leading to deep, rich wines; and Rioja Alavesa, where poor soil conditions are ideal for grapevines and wines tend to have higher acidity.

And now let me drop some more knowledge: Rioja is generally thought of as a red wine. Oh yes. It may surprise you that white Rioja is also made – usually with the Viura grape, also known as Macabeo. Viura tends to produce mild white wines with citrus notes and snappy acidity, meant to be consumed young. It is one of the main grapes found in the esteemed Spanish sparkling wine Cava, and is generally blended with Malvasia, which adds softness as well as aromas of peaches and apricots, and Garnacha Blanca, which acts to round out the wine’s texture.

For the red wine, which wine people (like me) usually rave about, the blend tends to be Tempranillo and Garnacha (known in France as Grenache). Tempranillo offers fruity aromas such as berries and plums to the mix, with secondary notes such as tobacco and dried herbs. It can also possess good acidity, a crucial element when evaluating a wine’s balance. Garnacha generally contributes structure in the form of alcohol, as well as a nice spicy character. I won’t get too specific, as this has been covered elsewhere, but the three “tiers” of Rioja – Crianza, aged at least two years; Reserva, aged for at least three years, one in oak; and Gran Reserva, aged for at least two years in oak and three years in bottle – encompass a great variety of styles, resulting from various decisions made by the winemaker. Decisions about French oak vs. American oak. Decisions about percentages of grapes in the blend. Rioja brings enough to the table to appeal to the most discerning of drinkers, at every level of quality.

For a drinker as discerning as myself, there is this: the 2007 “Banda Azul” from the Paternina winery. The vines maintain a precarious existence at an elevation of 1500 feet in Rioja Alta. Shorter growing seasons in this region lead to lighter wines, and lend a nice sappy quality to the fruit aromas in the glass. In this case, the blend is 75% Tempranillo and 25% Garnacha, and the wine is aged in American oak barrels for 14 months after fermentation. A lovely ruby in the glass, this wine immediately wafts fragrant aromas of dark cherries when opened, as well as redcurrants, loam, cedar, and allspice. Extremely soft on the palate, like velvet, but with enough acidity to make it a food-friendly addition to the table. Medium finish, tending towards baking spices. This wine absolutely kills with braised lamb shoulder. $13.

What can do a great wine justice? What words, what anecdotes? How can I summon the verbiage to explain the greatness of a perfect bottle? Or, as the greatest poet who ever lived, Stanley Kunitz, once put it: “Some things I do not profess/to understand, perhaps/not wanting to…” In the end, when wine is so good it becomes something I scarcely understand, what remains? What can I, a humble listener, say about the finest things in life?

I only know that if I did not try, I would regret it. And so here goes, a description of a bottle that defies easy definition: the 2001 Viña Ardanza “Reserva Especial.” First, something about the maker… La Rioja Alta was formed in 1890 by five quality-minded growers eager to exploit the vacuum left by the phylloxera epidemic, with French vineyards being ravaged by the deadly louse. Taking advantage of the newly built railway to Bilbao, the new bodega flourished, then incorporated Bodegas Ardanza into its holdings in 1904. Although Rioja has seen its ups and downs, La Rioja Alta has always been a source of top-notch Rioja wine. Even considering this, the 2001 bottling of their Viña Ardanza is something special indeed. I’ll let them say it in their own words, straight from the bottle:

En toda nuestra historia, solamente tres añadas de Viña Ardanza han merecido la calificación Especial: 1964, 1973 y 2001. La lluvia, el sol, el frío y el calor se alternaron de la mejor manera posible para hacer de Viña Ardanza 2001 un vino único.

But what makes this wine so remarkable? Besides long aging in new American oak casks, and the top-quality fruit (80% Tempranillo grapes, 20% Garnacha, both varietals which I often overlook for no good reason), this wine is an example of the benefits behind tradition. Because no French oak is used, the wines have a more pronounced vanilla note, which deepens into complex spice aromas after five or more years in bottle. Because these wines are unfiltered, they have a far more robust flavor and greater structure. But beyond that, the terroir itself, the perfect location that is Rioja Alta, is what allows Tempranillo to reach its fullest expression in Viña Ardanza, to the point where this bottle is one of only three vintages in over a century to receive the title “Reserva Especial.”

And let’s not forget to discuss why it’s so special: a nice ruby red in the glass, fading to brown at the rim, this wine just bursts with aromas. Leather, vanilla, baking spices, and a bright cherry which rings through like a bell. Some nice fig notes in there, as well. These aromas continued to deepen and grow more complex for over 30 minutes; I could have decanted this wine for an hour and still had time to let it sit. Brilliant. Then the mouthfeel: soft, supple, yet firm with a nice silky texture, and enough acidity to carry the day. Impeccably balanced, with the fruit riding the backbone of tannin just so. Long finish, tending towards dried fruit and spice, and just goes on and on. Pair with roast lamb. Yes, you could enjoy this wine with pancetta and Brussels sprouts pizza (which I did), or a nice herb-encrusted pork loin with roasted vegetables, but trust me… lamb. I managed to grab a few bottles for $28, but it normally sells for $35. Pray you find some.

Garnacha (otherwise known as Grenache or Grenache Noir in France, or Cannonau in Sardinia) is one of the more underrated red grapes. Sure, it figures heavily into Southern Rhone wines such as Côtes du Rhône, but not many people seem to automatically consider it a power player as a single grape varietal. Ask the average American male about red wine, and chances are, he’ll name Pinot Noir, Merlot, or maybe Cabernet Sauvignon. He might even say something like “Oh yeah! Sideways!” which doesn’t capture the spectrum of wine at all. Good movie, though, despite the plunge in Merlot sales.

But returning to the task at hand, Grenache/Garnacha is delicious. It is a ripe, juicy, playful grape that pummels you with fruit aromas, but has wonderful acidity to back up all that dark berry swagger. Let’s put it this way: while I wouldn’t want Grenache watching my back in a fight, I would want it providing the smack talk. It’s that kind of wine. And Spain is for me the spiritual home of this grape; I love the way it adapts to such a hot and dry climate. The concentration provided by the long ripening period is one of the main reasons Spanish reds often remain such a good value.

The 2008 Borsao “Tres Picos” Garnacha is a tremendous value; for the price, I can’t think of many other red wines that deliver so well, and so consistently. “Tres Picos” translates to “Three Peaks,”  presumably referring to the winery’s location in the Moncayo region, which is full of rolling hills ideal for growing grapes. This is an old vines Garnacha; all of the vines producing these grapes are at least 50 years old. Half a century has given them the capability to imbue the resulting wines with great depth of flavor.

And what flavors! An inky purple in the glass, this wine swirls into a nose abounding with dark dusty cherries, raspberry jam, and various herbal and spice notes, including allspice, lavender, and rosemary. There is also a definite hint of black pepper here, which I find really attractive in reds. Rhone valley, anyone? But quite different in style. Full-bodied, supple, and feeling really round in the mouth, the fruit is kept just in check by balanced acidity, finishing smooth and strong at medium length with more red berry and earthy notes. “Tres Picos” is very modern in style, but not clunky; the flavors are well-integrated for the quality level of the wine. Buy a case of this, and pair it with your favorite roast. $15.

Everybody loves a good Champagne. I would crack open a bottle of Bollinger, Pol Roger, or Mumms on almost any occasion, if I could spend the money required to have Champagne on hand at all times. Lacking said funds, I still manage to have great sparkling wine whenever the need – or the urge – arises. Here is the reason: Cava, the Spanish Champagne, made in the méthode champenoise, with secondary fermentation occurring in the bottle, followed by further bottle aging for complexity. Not only is it delicious in its own right, but for some reason Cava tends to exhibit similar flavor characteristics and texture despite its totally different origins, in terms of both terroir and grape varietals. It is blended from Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo, all indigenous to the Penedès region.

The mesoclimate in Penedès is far more clement than Champagne, as well. While both wines share an essence that I find hard to identify at this point in my career as a wine drinker, I find that Cava does tend to lack the complexity and depth of great Champagne, across all price points, but is a delicious replacement, however, and one I always turn to when appropriate. It tends to be a solid accompaniment to seafood of all kinds, particularly shellfish and fried fish, and is a perfect celebration wine or aperitif for people living on the cheap – although its growing popularity may well undermine its value.

The Segura Viudas Brut Reserva is a pale gold in the glass, and on the nose exhibits great stony citrus fruit, with hints of smoke and toasty vanilla, leading to more lemon and apple fruit in the mouth, and a mouthfeel that is at once rich and extremely clean, with crisp acidity leading to a finish laden with minerals. Fantastic with grilled shrimp in a lime-based marinade, or fresh oysters, or just by itself. Buy a case, because you can find this wine for $7 a bottle if you look hard enough.

I will begin this post by stating that this was my first time tasting the Mencía grape in any bottling, and was also my first exposure to the wines of the Ribeira Sacra region. Before trying the wine, I had never really heard of the region, which has remained relatively obscure for most people. Upon first tasting this wine, I immediately realized its soul connection to Cabernet Franc, the darling red grape of Sancerre. However, the warm climate and drainage from extraordinarily steep terraces shows in the rich concentration and unique grip shown in the palate.

The wine is a beautiful ruby color in the glass, leading to aromas of red berries, licorice, fresh-picked herbs and roasted spices. In the mouth, I found more red fruits balanced to crisp acidity dominating what ends up being a light-bodied wine, but with silky tannins, and great chalky minerality. Great long finish for the price: $13.

I love Spanish wines. I love them for the simple reason that they are perfect accompaniments to Spanish food: tapas, roast lamb, or paella. Especially lamb. Just thinking about sipping a glass of the 2005 Marqués de Cáceres Crianza with a huge hunk of roast lamb makes my mouth water.

Here’s why: stainless steel fermentation has preserved the wine’s naturally lively fruit aromas – it is made from hand-picked Tempranillo, Garnacha and Graciano grapes, while aging in French and American oak lends it a nice touch of vanilla to balance the fruit. Showing bright ruby in the glass, the wine has decent clarity. The nose is dominated by blackberries and dark cherries, with a hint of spice. A lush mouthfeel, with silky tannins balanced to more red berry fruit and cinnamon, leads to a succulent finish. I found that this bottle benefits from an hour of decanting. Good value; good dinner wine. $11.

Tempranillo is the primary grape in Spanish Rioja. This grape variety is practically synonymous with Spanish wine, and I’ve been on a Spanish kick recently. However, not all Tempranillo is necessarily made in Rioja. Enter Bodegas Real’s Tempranillo, made in the Valdepeñas, a wine region situated in the province of Ciudad Real, with 42 Bodegas, or vineyards. Here wine is a traditional family industry, and has been for decades; red wine is the primary export. The 2007 Bodegas Real Tempranillo shows a nose of dark berry fruit and slight spiciness, with more berries and oak notes on the palate, balanced to fine tannins. A good companion to hard cheeses like Manchego or Parmesan. $6.

Why does the word “Rioja” always send me scrambling for a glass? Perhaps it’s the supple, earthy, delicate nature of the wine, which generally sees more oak aging than any other. Maybe it’s the bright berry fruit in young crianza Rioja, redolent with cherry, spice, and vanilla flavors; or perhaps it’s the earthy lushness of reserva Rioja, with intense notes of leather and dried leaves resulting from the mininum three years spent aging – generally in American oak barrels, but sometimes French oak. Especially fine, and probably the real reason Rioja is so compelling, are the gran reserva wines, made in only truly fantastic years, showing a silkiness and elegance normally only seen in great Burgundies. These wines, world-reknowned, see a legal minimum of five years of aging in oak barrels, although the average is eight and a half years. Aging wine is the most important part of making Rioja, and it is this science I respect about it most.

But moving on to the offering at hand: the 2006 Ramon Bilbao Crianza is a dark violet-red in the glass. The nose reveals concentrated aromas of plum and berries, with hints of leather. Juicy and lush on the palate, the wine is rich with jammy black cherry flavor, along with chocolate and tobacco notes. Also provided a nice earthy finish showing well-integrated tannins. $12.