Friday, April 3, 2009

Rias Baixas invades Rioja

European wine region residents tend to be provincial drinkers, and why not? In many cases the local food and wine developed in tandem for centuries, which is one reason seasides with plenty of fish on the menu tend to make good white wines and landlocked areas tend to specialize in reds.

You can learn something from the wines that locals drink when they're not buying the regional wines.

A great example is that all over Australia, the only non-Aussie wine on the list is usually New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, which shows that even a country as justifiably proud of its wide range of great wines recognizes that there's one thing it doesn't do well, and its chillier neighbor does.

Last night, tapas bar-hopping in Logrono, the largest city in Rioja, I tried to pay attention to what the locals were drinking. Obviously, most of the time it's the local red wine, and with reds of this quality, that's a good choice.

In fact, in most places, the locals just order by the quality level, not brand, and the bar pours the particular brand that they carry. Example: you say, “crianza” and you get a wine aged a minimum of one year in barrel and one more year in the bottle -- this is a popular way here to order a glass.

What struck me was the available white wines, as often as not, were not the locally made Viura-based wines, but instead were Albarinos from Rias Baixas.

I'm not sure why that is. Viura seems to be improving in quality and foreign respect as well. When feremented in stainless steel, it tends to be crisp and refreshing, if simple, but potentially a great partner for anchovies, olives and peppers on a toothpick (a very popular tapas here). It's also very affordable. So why are Albarinos so popular now? They're great wines, but so are red Ribera del Dueros and Priorats, and you don't see those here.

My only theory is that the locals feel like nobody can make better red wine, but Albarino is giving them a taste profile they're not getting from the local whites.

In fact, the best Viura I tasted here – the best I've ever had -- was the 2006 Artadi Vinas de Gain Rioja blanca, a wine that was just created with the 2005 vintage. Artadi makes it from 50-year-old vines and ferments it in new oak barrels for one month. It could pass for Chablis with its toastiness, excellent balance, minerally aromas, floral notes and green apple fruit. But you can't find it in Spain – all 500 cases went to the US.

Perhaps that's one more reason for the influx of Rias Baixas Albarino in Rioja: maybe the best Rioja Viuras are going elsewhere, either the US or seaside Spain. Maybe I need to head to a beach resort for a week or so to find out.


goma@sf said...

Otsukare-sama for the trip.
Could you please tell me what is the best paring wine with spanish ham? Any red will go? or some vraitals are better than others?

W. Blake Gray said...

Good Spanish ham is sweeter, more delicate and less salty than most hams we're familiar with in the US. In Spain, you usually get the ham as an appetizer, which means it's often served with the first wine of the day -- usually a white, and it goes quite well with these. But I think the best pairing is a red, preferably a young, fruity, not too big-bodied or alcoholic wine. I just came from Rioja, so my No. 1 choice would be a Rioja Crianza. What you want to avoid are blockbuster wines, because they will overwhelm the jamon (ham). Example: I love the wines of Toro, but I would rather drink them with red meat. In a nutshell, think gentle. Thanks for asking.