Home > Tasting Notes and Wine Reviews > Indigenous Rioja Varietals with Vibrant Rioja

Indigenous Rioja Varietals with Vibrant Rioja


Last week I attended the Indigenous Varietals Tasting hosted by Vibrant Rioja at Ripple in Washington, DC. It was led by Aaron Gordon (Vibrant Rioja) and David Denton (Sommelier at Charlie Palmer Steakhouse). Also present was Ana Fabiano (US Trade Director of the Rioja DOC) whom I had the pleasure of sitting next to. It was through Pia Mara Finkell (CRT/tanaka), who represents Vibrant Rioja, that I was invited. The afternoon begin with a seminar tasting in the dinning side of the restaurant where each setting featured three glasses of white wine and four glasses of red wine. Aaron Gordon delivered an introduction to each wine as David Denton led us through the actual tasting of the wines. The wines we tasted represented both rare wines such as pure bottlings of Tempranillo Blanco and Graciano to traditional Tempranillo red blends.


Three of the wines I tasted were pure varietals I had never encountered before. I was not alone for this was the first time many people tasted a wine made of Tempranillo Blanco. In this case the 2011 Conde de Valdemar, Tempranillo Blanco. Tempranillo Blanco was only discovered in 1988 by Juan Carlos Sancha when a branch of a Tempranillo vine produced albino fruit. Since then it has been propagated but there are less than 10 producers bottling this type of wine. Maturana Tinta represents less than 100 hectares of vines in Rioja. This represents less than 0.5% of production and as such only five producers bottle this varietal. The 2009 Dinastia Vivanco, Maturana Tinta was my first experience. The fruit for this wine was sourced from younger vines providing a grapey nature. Though I have tasted many wines which include Graciano this was my first pure experience. The 2006 Contino, Graciano represents a movement from the early 1990s to save indigenous varietals such as Graciano and Mazuelo. The Contino vineyard was originally planted to provide Graciano for the Reserva wines. But it proved enjoyable on its own and was expanded.


2011 Conde de Valdemar, Tempranillo Blanco, Rioja – $39
Imported by The Country Vintner. The distinct nose stepped out of the glass. The tropical aromas were piercing and very finely textured. The flavors were round in the mouth with steely acidity underneath. The flavors dried with air becoming tangy with white fruit, lemon, and both grip and lift in the finish.

2008 Palacios Remondo, Placet, Virua – $
The fruit was sourced from vineyards planted in the 1980s. This was fermented and aged in oval French oak. The nose was subtler with richer aromas and some weight. In the mouth the flavors were weightier and rounder. It still showed fruit given the age with gentle citrus notes, some complexity, and herbs.

2012 Bodegas Ostatu, Rosado, Rioja – $16
Imported by De Maison Selections. This wine is a blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, and Virua. This was a salmon/dried-rose color. The nose was complex with perfume, fresh berries, and some fermentation aromas. The mouth followed the nose with good weight, creamy nature, and fresh red fruit. The acidity was integrated. There was a very fine, ripe texture left in the mouth. Good complexity, nice wine.

2009 Dinastia Vivanco, Maturana Tinta, Rioja – $56
Imported by Southern Wines. This was very aromatic expressing fresh aromas. In the mouth the flavors were fresh with an earthy component. There were herbal and greenhouse flavors mixing with red and black fruit before firmer black fruit came out. This grapey wine tastes of young fruit.

2006 Vinedos del Contino, Graciano, Rioja – $175
Imported by Europvin. Alcohol 14%. The nose revealed herbs and butterscotch. In the mouth the tart red fruit mixed with pepper as a drying nature and acidity came out. There were tight, black fruit flavors.  I tried a second bottle at the tasting session and it proved to be much more open and interesting.


The 1995 Otanon, Reserva includes a fair amount of Garnacha from Rioja Baja. Otanon has grown Garnacha for ages and still does today. They ignored the 1990s movement to increase Tempranillo planting at the expense of ripping up existing Garnacha vines.

1995 Ontanon, Reserva, Rioja – $
Imported by Cavatappi Distribuzione. There was a hint of tobacco and leather in the subtle nose. Also, perhaps, some spearmint. In the mouth the red fruit showed some tartness and ripeness followed by a fresh middle. There was a little wood hint and gentle ripeness.

2001 La Rioja Alta, Gran Reserva 904, Rioja – $
There was a tight, subtle nose with floral aromas. In the mouth there was plenty of acidity with a raspberry flavored start then firm black and red fruit. The flavors were young with some salivating acidity. This was balanced all around and should age well.

After the seminar we all grabbed a glass then moved over to the bar side of Ripple. Arrayed along the entire length of the very long bar were dozens upon dozens of bottles of Rioja. Interspersed were various platters of food. There was space by the front portion of the bar which is where I stayed for the remainder of the event. By pure chance there was a bottle with an old lead capsule right in front of me. I took a close look to read the faded label and saw 1969 Marques de Riscal, Reserva. Aaron Gordon selected the wines for the event and clearly he decided to have some fun. Most of the selections were locally sourced but there were also wines from New York City. Most of the bottles were priced between $10 and $20 but there were enough wines in the Reserva, Gran Reserva, and Library selections of which I was standing in front of.  It was a casual pour-yourself tasting so I picked up the old green bottle and poured a taste of the 1969.


It was hard not to enjoy the 1969 Marques de Riscal, Reserva for its age alone. There was still plenty of structure and acidity to last for the ages and while not the most complex wine, it maintained just enough ripe, black fruit to be a decent drink. The 1987 La Rioja Alta, Vina Arana was one of my favorites of the lineup. The maturity, balance, and texture suggest it is entering a period of fantastic drinking. The 2000 La Rioja Alta, Gran Reserva 904 was much more evolved than the 2001 and to me was a great old-school wine. I thought the 1998 Bodegas Riojanas, Vina Albina added an appealing mixture of forest aromas to its earthy nature. In a more modern fruit-forward manner was the 2001 Marques de Riscal, Gran Reserva which should have broad appeal. More expensive and more serious was the 2007 Artadi, Pago Viejos.

Aaron Gordon and Ana Fabbiano

Aaron Gordon and Ana Fabiano

I saw many other friends and acquaintances such as Frank Morgan (Drink What You Like), Annette and Christian Schiller (Schillier Wine), Don Winkler and Mike Potashnik (International Wine Review), Howard Friedman (South River Imports), and Warren Richard (Virginia Wine Time). Towards the end I gathered at a cocktail table with Frank and Warren to have a bit to drink. I found the 2008 Ad Libitum, Maturana Tinta and 2009 Dinastia Vivanco, Maturana Tinta hit the spot.


1969 Marques de Riscal, Reserva, Rioja – $N/A
Imported by Peninsula Wines. Alcohol 12.5%. There were roast flavors along with some fruit and leather in this solid wine. It smells of its age. The acidity and structure was still holding up and even the fruit took on some weight with air. There were rather focused ripe, black fruit flavors, and a drying nature. Holding on well and still of interest.

1981 Bodegas Beronia, Gran Reserva, Rioja – $N/A
Imported by The San Francisco Wine Exchange. Alcohol 13%. This bottle had a funky nose of stewed fruit. The mouth follows the nose with ripe, red fruit, acidity, and tartness. Not as good as the 1969 Riscal.


2000 La Rioja Alta, Gran Reserva 904, Rioja – $44
Imported by The Country Vintner. This was immediately expressive with earthy, old-school aromas. The flavors were expansive in the mouth with some drying tannins. Much more open than the 2001. A nice wine.

2001 Marques de Riscal, Gran Reserva, Rioja – $49
Imported by Southern Wines. The nose was ripe with spices, wood box, and good fruit. The fruit continued in the mouth with wood box, mature notes, and good depth. In a sense the fruitiness and ability to age reminded me of a maturing Southern Rhone wine. This will age.

2001 Marques de Caceres, Gran Reserva, Rioja – $28
Imported by Bacchus Importers. There was lower-lying weight and concentration to this wine. It took on black fruit with air. Ripe tannins left texture in the mouth but the ultimately drying tannic structure shows this requires age.

1987 La Rioja Alta, Vina Arana, Rioja – $99
Imported by Michael Skurnik. The nose was interesting with fruit, wood box, and spices. In the mouth there were ripe raspberry flavors with both controlled ripeness and weight in the back sides of the mouth. There were ethereal mature notes and a stimulating texture from the pebbly structure. A nice wine.

1998 Bodegas Riojanas, Vina Albina, Rioja – $62
Imported by The Country Vintern. The nose was earthy and bore forest aromas. There was a core of red fruit in the mouth along with earthy flavors. It slowly built ripe raspberry notes along with youthful, grippy red fruit. Nice.

2005 Muga, Prado Enea, Gran Reserva, Rioja – $47
Imported by The Country Vintner. The expressive nose was floral. In the mouth there were focused ripe black fruit, black minerals, and a youthful nature. There was good, ripe and grippy tannins which coated the lips and tongue.


2008 Ad Libitum, Maturana Tinta, Rioja – $38
Imported by Frontier Wine Imports. The nose revealed floral and herbal aromas, perhaps Indian. The moth follows the nose with far more spices. A rather interesting wine.


2009 Dinastia Vivanco, Maturana Tinta, Rioja – $56
Imported by Southern Wines. The nose mixes the herbal spiced with more ripe fruit. The herbal spices due develop in the mouth but this remains a more forward, fruity wine with pepper notes and fresh finish.

2005 CUNE, Vina Real, Rioja – $40
Imported by Bacchus Importers. The flavors were a bit more dense with ripe black fruit and grippy texture. The fruit was very much evident but still showed good balance. There were berry flavors in the aftertaste.

2004 OGGA, Reserva, Rioja – $60
Imported by T. Edwards. The flavors showed more bright red fruit mixing with black fruit. The tartness and acidity builds into the middle. Solid.

2004 Muga, Prado Enea, Gran Reserva, Rioja – $60
Imported by The Country Vintner. The nose revealed orange peel aromas. In the mouth there was good red fruit, raspberry, along with a firm structure and a finish of citric, drying structure. Young.


2007 Artadi, Paco Viejos, Rioja – $115
Imported by Folio Fine Wine. This was clearly a serious wine with more modern grip, density, and modern structure. Perfumed violets came out in the finish.

After the tasting Frank, Warren, and I went out for some wine. There was a small dinner in which Frank and I were to attend so there were a few hours to pass. Frank suggested a bottle of Champagne would recharge ourselves for the evening. The Nicolas Feuillatte certainly made the time fly by and I soon found myself walking into Bourbon Steak at The Four Seasons hotel in Georgetown.

The Author and Frank Morgan

The Author and Frank Morgan

There were nine people at the dinner including Ana Fabiano, Pia Mara Finkell, David White (Terroirist), Rebecca Canan (Terroirist), Tai-Ran Niew (tiarannew), and Lou Marmon (grapelines).  Upon my first invitation to the event I emailed Pia about my interest in the history of Rioja and she in turn forwarded my email to Ana Fabiano who published The Wine Region of Rioja last year.  A part of my evening was spent discussing Iñigo Manso de Zuñiga Ugartechea and his great grand uncle who planted a vineyard in the late 1860s then went on to become the second director of the Oenologic Research Station in Haro.  This vineyard survived phylloxera and it now provides the fruit for Iñigo’s Conde de Hervias wines.  Due to my interest Ana provided his only locally available wine the 2008 Mencos, Crianza.  For tasting notes on Iñigo’s other wines please see my 2013 Bacchus Importers Portfolio Tasting: De Maison Selections.

Image from El Progresso agricola y pecuario. 30-4-1900, no. 192, National Library of Spain.

Image from El Progresso agricola y pecuario. 30-4-1900, no. 192, National Library of Spain.

Rebecca kindly brought bottles of 2000 Dom Perignon which made for a festive start. There was much talk about the extensive number of family owned vineyards and parcels in Rioja and how the valleys produce fruit of different character. Much of the wine produced is a blend from these various vineyards and produced in a manner to provide a consistent house style. There appears to be excitement in single-vineyard wines from Rioja as in Burgundy, so in that spirit Lou brought a bottle of Nuits-Saint-Georges.  Though a casual and festive day there was such a range of wines available that with focus I had quite an experience.


2011 Valdemar, Tempranillo Blanco, Rioja
This was the fruitier of the two Tempranillo Blanco with focused berries and a finely scented nose of cotton candy. There was focus and weight to the flavors followed by salivating acidity in the finish.

2009 Ad Libitum, Tempranillo Blanco, Rioja
Ad Libitum is the micro-winery of associated Professor Juan Carlos. The nose was more pungent and aromatic, easily standing out of the glass. The nose was almost sweaty before the vibrant flavors and acidity on the tongue. Perhaps a touch of the lees.

2003 Lopez de Heredia, Gravonia, Blanco, Rioja
This was much different with an expansive middle of nutty and oily flavors. It was serious and persistent.

2012 Bodegas Ostatu, Rosado, Rioja
This revealed good fruit on the nose. In the mouth it was vibrant, grippy with ripe, gravelly fruit that dances on the tongue. Cooler than what was tasted at the seminar and satisfying at that.

2008 Conde de Hervias, Mencos, Crianza, Rioja
There was a low-lying nose. In the mouth the fruit was determined to play it close. With air it begin to expandin the mouth with red and black fruit. Tasty.

1995 Otanon, Reserva, Rioja
This remained fruit driven on the nose. In the mouth it was ripe and grippy with up-front acidity and a fine gravelly texture. The flavors were of blue and black fruit.

2000 La Rioja Alta, Gran Reserva 904, Rioja
The nose was a little earthy. In the mouth there were tart red flavors, acidity, and a little spicy hint. It still had concentration and had old-school flavors in the finish.

2009 Artadi, Vinas de Gain, Rioja
There were youth fruit and fermentation aromas on the nose. In the mouth there were ripe spices and fruit in this young, forward wine. It took on potpourri and a little cinnamon. Young but attractive.

2005 Domaine Thibault Liger-Belair, Nuits-Saint-Georges
There were black fruit flavors which opened up nicely in the black. Young and firm it shows good future potential.


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