Rioja 2009 - Racking at La Rioja Alta (top) and grape sorting at Dinastia Vivanco (below).
It is always nice to return to Rioja. It had been three year since I lasted visited - the fall of 2006 for the opening of the Frank Gehry-designed Marques de Riscal Hotel in Elciego - and I was fortunate to be able to come back this October as the 2009 harvest was wrapping up.
About 16 wineries later, I was on the flight home and made some notes about why I love the area so much:
1. Rioja's traditional wines - the reservas and gran reservas - continue to improve, and most are still great bargains. For those attracted to food-friendly, Bordeaux-style wines at affordable prices, stock up here.
2. But along with the old, new red wines are blossoming. Even traditional wineries are making fruit-forward, single-varietal wines from such grapes as graciano and garnacha which flourish in the warmer Baja region. Some of them are stunning and, as Spaniards still love the traditional wines, many of these newer-style wines are available in the U.S.
3. Rioja has the food to pair with the wine, and tapas-hopping along Logrono's Calle del Laurel is a great way to spend a weekday evening.
4. No wine region has better architecture. Everywhere you look, wineries are trying to out-do each other with eye-grabbing building styles for their cellars and tasting rooms.
5. The Dinastia Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture is worth a trip alone. It is simply fascinating and huge in its size and range of coverage. Most wine museums consist simply of some old presses and tractors, and there is no way that I can describe this one and do it justice.
6. Rioja has great old wine towns. If you get a chance, walk through three - Elciego with its Gehry Hotel and ancient churches within a hundred yards of each other, Laguardia with its hillside fortress outlook and narrow streets where cars are banned, and Haro, which is where the industry once did, and still does, bustle.
7. The winemakers are fascinating. Get into a conversation with the eponymous Telmo Rodrigues, the equally eponymous Jorge Muga, or La Rioja Alta's Julio Saenz and you'll understand what winemaking is all about.
8. The scenery is fascinating, regardless of the weather. The broad sweep from mountains to mountains across the broad Ebro valley and its tributaries wears equally well the moodniess of rain or the exuberance of sun.
9. The white wines are getting better, as new grape varieties are being allowed. At least you're no longer tempted to order a crianza with poultry.
10. The entry point to the region is Bilbao. Bilbao will never be San Francisco (Napa's entry point) or Adelaide (SE Australia), but it combines a cosmopolitan air (the Guggenheim region) with a lot of rough port-town edges that always make it alluring.
I'll be back.
Until next time....