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Every other Tuesday I look forward to a wild array of wines—many I’ve rarely encountered before—culled from LA’s finest bazaars by my tasting group peers, to paint an important region or varietal accurately; the tastings are meant to flesh out a theme. The fabled Rioja region of Spain would be the latest to lend its shadings.

We got things started with a familiar friend; a white wine from R. Lopez de Heredia, but it wasn’t the oxidized wine—chiming with notes of Marcona almonds, preserved lemons, button mushrooms and white eraser—that had our heads turning… rather quickly in the tasting rotation there was a bottle of questionable provenance in our midst that caused a stir—a genuine FREAK!

The wine following in the tasting appeared youthful in all aspects, from its medium ruby tones inside the glass to its cherry and plum flavors that sprang forward. I was in no way prepared for the reveal.

When we had finished our blind assessment of all six wines we removed their disguises. My wine world turned upside down in an instant after having confidently penned 2005 as my guess for vintage on the first red, staring in disbelief at a bottle of 1995 Bodegas Otañón Reserva Rioja. Only ten years off! Two of us in the tasting refused to believe the vintage—our notes could not support the age—there was nothing about it that was remotely close to eighteen years of age. We immediately filled our glassware with a second pour, which showed no signs of bricking (often found on aged wines) in color and the fruit and earth woven textile that came across in the perfumed esters were just developing; never mind the tannin structure (medium-plus and finely grained) and pert acidity of the Rioja.

Across the spectrum of Reserva level Riojas that found their way to the table, there was nothing quite like the Otañón, even the 1998 Faustino showed Jimmy Stewart like aging—graceful but apparent—with secondary and tertiary flavors superseding the sour cherry fruit.

The wine of the night was thus mired in controversy. I remained obstinate in my stance, refusing to give into the rebuttals, but in the end I simply pulled back and enjoyed the Spanish red for what it was, regardless of age, admiring the freshness especially… if it actually was from 1995.

Southern French and Spainish rosés I recently tasted differed far more than their nations of origin. The age, wine-making style, and grapes in the two bottles of rosé that I poured for a few people after work contrasted most. Perhaps it was the confluence of all the various factors that made the tasting so compelling. One had been an audition for the store and the other was bottle from my apartment cellar, but both shed light on the wines that proudly exist on the color spectrum between red or white.

A few samples made my way, a confident drop-off by a new representative sharing the soft pink wines in their unusual vessels, as he left me with three bottles of the newly approved wine. Later that night I would pop the bottle of 2010 Vie Vité with a rapt audience. The intensity of the cantaloupe-tinted wine was powerful, yielding aromas of melons and strawberries with fresh squeezed lemon and redolent white blossoms. The genetic make up of the wine consisted of mainly Cinsault (45%), and a balance of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan, which was typical of the Côte de Provence region from which it hailed. On the palate it was clean, youthful and brimming with fruit and organic earth. Its freshness lingered on the palate favorably but its complexity was not its bright spot (medium at best), making it an aperitif for the following bottle of rosé.

One of my favorite producers in Rioja (among those that I have tasted in my brief career), known for its character and complexity, was the ace up my sleeve for the night. A side-by-side comparison would yield some overt differences in style, and make another compelling argument for terroir. The bottle of 2000 R. López de Heredia Rosé would show a lot less fruit and even more nuance from its oxidized upbringing. Nuts, soil, rocks and funk would collide in the nostrils after taking in a deep whiff of the Tempranillo, Garnacho and Viura blend. My friends observed the complexity that had made me a believer in the wine. Foods that accompanied the tasting were made a requisite part of it. Where earlier we were content to just taste the Vie Vité alone, the Viña Tondonia rosé demanded food. The wine lived up to its billing which is another reason why I cherish this producer’s traditional style, because as most wines are starting to overlap to the point of ambiguity it is nice to have something assert its uniqueness openly.

The olives and pizza disappeared as the night waned and the bottles emptied. I stopped to take some photos before they (the bottles) were completely drained of their contents. It was another nice night that left me happy as rosé season was approaching and the weather would level to near perfect conditions.

Desperately clinging to the notion of downing (actually tasting and learning) Five Hundred bottles before the year expires, leaves me in a great predicament. I have tasted a vatful this year, omitting over three hundred bottles on my drinker’s journey, while documenting 350 plus wines allotted room on the countdown, yet, I find myself scrambling to realize the original goal. With the concentration of a college student the night before a term paper comes due, I am resolved to accomplishing my Five Hundred Wine mark, tipsy or not, with the same spirit Paul Newman asserted he could eat 50 eggs. In an effort to bushwhack the count, I recently took down six bottles of wine between Spain and South America, beginning in Argentina and finishing in the “old world.”

Argentina Malbecs are nothing new and they seem to be going the way of Australia’s Shiraz, with offers streaming in every day everyday to buy ‘new’ Malbec littering my e-mail, and a ton of samples poured/handed off by wine reps eager to show me their latest value red from Argentina.  I am not really against the palate exposure but I must admit that there is a bit of overlap in the wines, brooding concentration, inky purple juice with rich dark fruits that taste great and hammer the buds, as they are not so for the light touch in their tact. I have to say that this was the case with the last two Malbecs (2009 Altocedro and 2010 Altos Las Hormigas) I tasted from one of the local distributors, neither bad, but both were one and the same. They both shared properties that made them as enjoyable as they were nebulous—with respect to one another.

By comparison, a rare, different tasting experience emerged when I had a bottle of 2008 Manos Negras Argentinean Pinot Noir. Malbecs? Sure, but Pinot Noir? It wasn’t surprising to me that this bottle shared the concentration of its paesanos by bottle, as much as a thin-skinned grape could. The Pinot was tasty, and I could see it assuming the role of crowd pleaser but a definite departure from its Burgundian roots. A little jammy.

It was refreshing then, to finally taste the Montes Alpha Carmenère (my wine of the month in October), a wine that stopped me in my tracks, uninhibited and quick to flaunt its unique attributes. Chile’s champion grape made a lasting impression in this incarnation. Most notably, the wine possessed a great mouth feel, tannins that were grippy and chalky—a rare duality, while balancing the rest of the requirements to make a great bottle of wine. I tasted the bottle with a rep first, before running out to buy a couple bottles on my own. The gorgeous weight and sublime structure of the Carmenère had me chanting ‘Chile’ incessantly, like a soccer hooligan, by the end of the tasting.

I rounded out my Spanish themed drinking with a couple wines, white and red, from Spain. The 2010 Vivir, vivir (sic) from Ribera del Deuro, tucked in north central (Castile and León) Spain, was serviceable but the Viura from R. Lopez de Heredia stole the show. Aside from the beautiful golden color of the aged Viura (2000), the oxidized nose of the white Rioja was one of the most exciting of its kind that I had encountered. I buried my nostrils deep into my glass, reveling in the rich and layered aromas of mushroom, nuts, minerals and other intangibles. The effusive nose was only surpassed by the intensely tart flavors that exploded in my mouth. It was luscious and rich but it was oxidized leaving me to issue this disclaimer: Please be advised this is not a grassy Verdejo from Rueda or a mineraly Chardonnay from Chablis but a style of wine that is beholden to its classic producers from Rioja—there are those that still keep their own drumbeat in Rioja to this day. The oxidized Viura loses all fruit, leaving behind bracing secondary and tertiary notes and flavors that can be quite surprising. A lot of depth and nuance.

My tasting bore mixed results: the Altocedro was a nicer Malbec than I would give it credit for, but Cahors in Southwest France still holds the crown for great wines of this kind. The Pinot Noir was eye-opening, jam aside, while the Carmenère was mind-blowing, and the Viura stood tall for the old world. All things considered, it was a good showing. And I inched ever theatrically closer to the 500 mark with #138. Will he make it?! Tune in next time.

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