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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.

On Thursday I attended a special wine course, a supplement to the already rigorous, yet fun, class schedule that I take… we were short one major country before the final exam. Already covered in serious detail were France and Italy, leaving one, if not many more, countries to be visited via the seven-fifty. It was time to spin “Latin-Esque” by Esquivel and his Orchestra (a Mexican band leader!) and travel to the perennially sexy country of Spain to download its history and learn all about its winemaking.

An interesting fact about Spain is that they have more grapes (grown for the purposes of making wine) growing in their lands than any other nation in the world. There are 2.9 million acres of vines flourishing over the Iberian Peninsula yet they only account for a third of the world’s production of wine.

The low production is out of the utmost respect for the vine, allowing atypical (with regards to the rest of the globe) wide spacing for the vine to do its thing. Also, when the rest of Europe replanted due to the infestation of Phylloxera—a root louse that decimated the vineyards of Europe forcing major replanting missions as hardly any places were spared from the devastation—much of Spain did not. As a result Spain’s vines are older, producing much less but more concentrated fruit.

Spain grows over six hundred grapes but a few varieties dominate the terrain, those being: Airen (the most widely planted of all grapes in Spain), Albriño, Garnacha, Palomino, Tempranillo, Macabello, Monastrell (aka Mourvèdre), Xarel-lo and a couple others in the first tier.

On Thursday evening’s class I tasted through the region beginning with the bubbles of Cava in Penedes and pachinkoed down into Andalucía to taste through a couple styles of Sherry.  In all I tasted these wines:

NV Rimparts Brut Reserva Cava

09 Uriondo Bizkaiko Txakolina

09 Tvronia Rias Biaxas

07 Algueria Ribiera Sacra, Mencìa

05 Viña Cubillo, R. Lopez de Heredia, Rioja

06 Viña Santurnia, Rioja

06 Tinto Pesquera, Ribiera del Duero

08 Ipsum, Reuda, Verdeho

08 Zaumau Priorat

08 Jaun Gil Jumilla

NV La Cigarrera Manzilla Sherry

NV Character Royal Sandeman, Amontillado

The Cava was great, my second time having Cava, a sparkler made in the traditional method from the chalky, sandy soils that mimic those of Champagne.

Good acidity, compliments of the continental climate in Penedés, allowing the grapes to retain acid and structure. However, the finish was slightly bitter, reminiscent of a walnut—a trait I do not see replicated in France.

Moving to Rioja, I revisited some praiseworthy examples of Tempranillo—a grape, as I am sure you are already familiar from reading my blog, I am a fan of—from some traditional minded producers. The R. Lopez de Heredia was good with notes of soy sauce and fruit and the oak was used responsibly. The Viña Santurnia was a transformative effort for one of the people in the class—she delivered the most riveting and wild tasting notes of the year, comparing paintings of obscure Japanese artists to staccato passages in the works of late 19th century composers and mixing it all in, like a master blender, to reveal her affection for the wine.

Tinto Pesquera, the most famous of the wines poured that evening, made by Alejandro Fernandez hit the high notes of everyone in the class, from those that judge conservatively to the easy-to-please. With notes of coffee, cassis, blackberry and the ocean—it was complex—and showed a deep hue of garnet and pierced the palate with heavy gripping tannins and painted the taste buds with cocoa, spices and plum. The wine offered a lot and was an exemplary Tempranillo.

The sherries concluded our tasting journey, missing the mark with my palate—a lot of nuttiness on the tongue for both examples, the Amontialldo was better for me but still not a favorite. Not to be discouraged I look forward to drinking more Sherry—all styles—when the time is right.

How about the Jaun Gil, the heavy Monastrell that has become a favorite of everyone in the wine world (James Suckling recently gave it a favorable score on a blind tasting), with notes of tar and fruit and trying to be coy/subtle about the fact it was a hulking beast at 15 % abv. Like you can hide that much heat. To put it mildly, my favorite part of the highly touted wine was the label.

Trading in the AOC and DOCG in favor of some fantastic DO’s from Spanish producers was rewarding. Spain in a day was kind of exhilarating. I learned a lot about a region that harbors some of my favorite wines while exposing other lesser-known areas—the purpose of the class really. I was able to deduct twelve more wines after my brief sojourn to Spain, from the not so intimidating figure-of-500, with only 342 more before me. As the year flies by I cannot wait to see how many more wines of Priorat I consume, or of Cava I will uncork. I still need to make good on exploring more sparkling wines… too much to drink not enough time to type!

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