Apparently the most common search term on the Direct Wines website is “Rioja”. But among wine writers, popularity doesn’t necessarily breed content. You don’t see a lot about Rioja. The VW Golf of red wine. Reliable. Steady-as-she-goes. “Take-a-bottle-round-to-the-new-neighbours-for-Sunday-lunch-can’t-go-wrong-with-a-nice-Rioja”-Rioja. For a lot of writers a wine review of Rioja is like a TV review of Songs of Praise.
But maybe it can be popular AND reliable. AND interesting. Or at least something worth writing home about. Well in this postcard from the tasting room on Skegness Pier we wish you were here drinking the Riojas of Finca Allende. Here’s my chum Sophie trying to make them Instagram ready. And Sophie’s bang on trend and a legit influencer, so they must be exciting.
From right (your right, that’s Sophie’s left) are Rioja Blanco, and Tinto, then two single vineyard Tintos but you can’t see their name and then a really good one and an old vintage of white that we pulled out do the cupboard at the last minute. It’s possibly best if I show you them the right way round.
Allende Blanco 2015 (your left now) is grown-up, grapefuit-citrus and oak. Serve this instead of white Burgundy to general applause and the plaudits of friends. Allende Tinto 2012 is supple with roast-lamb-friendly fruit and what Victorians called “supernacular”. Gaminde 2015 gets more serious - concentrated and focussed with glossy, darker fruit. Calvario 2009 is sultry, sexy, exotic and naughty. Aurus 2007 is properly serious, inky, savoury and lasts an age. There isn’t much of the Martires (and now even less of this 2012) but any you have wants to be left for 5-8 years to become something extraordinary.
In the background you can see Natalie LeBeouf. She’s the one telling us about the wines, as that is her job. And telling us these are NOT “modern Riojas”. Just because they don’t say “crianza”, “reserva” and “gran reserva” on them doesn’t make them the cutting edge of Spanish winemaking. These are how Rioja was made in the 1950’s through to the 1970’s. A golden era. An era to be remembered. A time for Rioja and indeed all of us to look back in with fondness and pride. Or at least some of it.
The big thing here - and bear with me - is the barrels. When the USA got seriously into Rioja at the tail end of the 70’s they started to use a lot of sweet, vanilla-scented, American oak. Whereas these wines are all matured in French barrels. Which makes them a little more serious, haughty and superior. I am in no way suggesting that oak barrels have some ability to impart national characteristics in wine*.
*although they do.
Why does this matter? Well, there’s an odd theory about oak and the enduring, widespread appeal of Rioja. The dominant aroma of American oak is vanilla. Which is also the world’s most popular added aroma and flavouring. Psychologists have a theory why. It’s also the dominant aroma in breast milk. Suggesting that all those men demanding “a nice smooth Rioja” in their Directors’ boxes at football stadiums are expressing what we could think of as “Freudian” wine preferences.
The oak here is altogether more restrained. Less vanilla, more spice. More about integrated structure, not flavour. Dried herbs, church pews, the aromas of Mother Earth. Not mother.
[This is an “hideously partial review” because I sell the wines of Finca Allende. So you may take the Mandy Rice-Davis approach that I would say this wouldn’t I? Which I suppose I would. But then I would say it if I believed it too. Anyway, even I’m a bit confused now. And you know the score. I’m off out to get my hair done like Christine Keeler.]