Rioja sparkling wine

Rioja sparkling – give it another chance!

By Ágnes Németh

At ProWein on the first day I visited Rioja community stand, and since I am a bubble fun, I certainly started with the sparkling wines. I tasted some 12 samples, about one third I did not like at all. There were 2-3 I found okay with some merits. The rest were just simply boring. So why? Why do they do this with us? Why did they need their very own appellation for sparkling? Why aren’t they satisfied enough with the bright sales data of the red wines?

2017 – a new era for sparkling

Once I heard a wonderful speech by Pedro Ballesteros Torres MW in China. His job was to explain the potential of the Chinese Ningxia wine region to the sceptic audience of European wine experts. He brilliantly pointed out that what we observe to be eternal is in fact far from being eternal. He is from the Canarias, the islands were once so famous that Canary Warf of London was named after the Canarias – so many ships arrived from the islands full of wine. Rioja is probably the most well known wine region of Spain, yet, it did not exist until Marqués de Riscal and other pioneers put it on the map (well, certainly there was viticulture and there were monks making wine in the Middle Ages, but the fame came later). So, with just only about 100 years of history, we cannot speak about rules written in concrete. Times and trends are changing, thus obviously wine regions must reflect them. “Rioja can sell anything” – I heard from a friend of mine, therefore it is even more respectful that Rioja still feels the need of change and takes actions. In 2017 several significant changes have been introduced, the new appellation for Rioja sparkling is one of the most important ones. Vino Espumoso de Calidad de Rioja DOCa refers to quality white and rosé sparkling wines produced under the Rioja DOCa. Specific minimum times are given for this new category of quality sparkling wines: “A minimum of 15 months is required for the category of Crianza, 24 months for Reserva and 36 months for Gran Añada. All the grape varieties authorised by Rioja Regulations may be used to make Espumoso de Rioja and, in the case of sparkling rosé wines, they must use at least 25% red grapes.”
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Cava out – Rioja in

So I was not convinced on the first day, but I went back the second day and the third day, too. On the 3rd day I met Nora from Rioja, whom I asked about the reasons. “We wanted to use our own grape varieties. Cava is associated with Catalunya, and we preferred to use Tempranillo Blanco instead of the typical Penedes varieties.” It makes sense for sure, and it was really interesting to see the opposite point of view. I live in Penedés, and here all the complaints were about the use of the term cava in places out of Penedés. And, look, folks of the “outside” are not necessarily happy either. But let me go back to the second day of ProWein. I still remember Muga rosé cava, I tasted about 10 years ago when Digital Wine Marketing Conference took place in Rioja. I was fascinated by the elegance of that Champagne-like rosé. I was looking for something like this, but I could not find. So I took my Hungarian wine expert friend with me to taste the sparklings. He used to be the chief winemaker of the most important Hungarian sparkling winery (Törley), he is an experienced DipWSET expert, and he tasted wines from all over the world. With some of the Rioja sparkling wines he also had objections – but, as he said, these strange, sometimes unpleasant notes come from the character of the grape varieties. And then we arrived to our two favourites. We did not agree in everything, but almost. Let me introduce them – and I can add: these two made me understood that Rioja producers are on the right path. They may need more vintages to learn about their grapes vinified into sparkling wines, but the new era has begun. Follow me, and if your first experience is not convincing, give them another chance!

Espumoso Rioja Fincas de Azabache Brut 2019
100% Tempranillo Blanco. The label is a bit too flamboyant or too floral, but in fact the wine is also all about charm and seducing. “Champagne-like”, yeasty notes on the nose due to the 18 months ageing in bottle with the lees. The riddling took place manually, disgorging with freezing. The nose also features floral and fruity notes, some nutty hints as well. Quite intense – but I must admit, I was enchanted. My friend agreed, though he did not find the palate elegant enough. He might be right, but yet, this wine is full of flavours, and it may look even better with dishes (fish or sea food, I would suggest).
Funny enough: on the third day, when I saw a young lady tasting this sparkling why, I asked her opinion, and it turned out that she was Nora Pascual Export Manager from Fincas de Azabache estate, she was checking on the wine.
It costs 20 euros.
More about the winery

Santalba Brut Nature 2019
This is the one my seasoned friend preferred. I must admit, the wine is layered and sophisticated, elegant nose with white flowers, fine notes from the ageing on the lees (30 months). Persistent bubbles, harmony and balance on the palate. A great sparkling wine, indeed. It is made of 100% Viura – the same grape known as Macabeu in Catalunya. The wine is surprisingly fresh and refreshing, especially knowing how long it matured in the bottle. It can also accompany food, probably a whole meal, since it is powerful enough to pair it with meat dishes. The winery suggests to pair it with sea food and also plates seasoned with black truffle – great idea! It costs 22 euros.
More about the winery