I really like Rioja. But to admit as much can prove problematic.
What I’m about to say may sound elitist and hipster, but Rioja is unfortunate in that it’s so popular. It’s on a par with Chablis, Chianti, ‘Bordeaux’ and others in that it’s made in a readily identifiable, appealing style with a name that is easily remembered but exotic-sounding enough to be said out loud with conviction.
So those who “don’t know much about wine but know what they like” order it repeatedly, as it gives them a sense of control over what is inarguably a complex area. This in itself is absolutely no problem, but when Rioja et al are mindlessly chosen simply because it’s a name that can be remembered easily or, worse, because it makes you sound like you’re knowledgeable about wine, then the situation becomes very worrisome.
Many people, it seems, choose these clichéd regions without really knowing why they’re drinking them. But before I am hung, drawn and quartered for being a wine snob, let me take some examples from other areas of our daily gastronomic lives where we have no fear of expressing our opinions.
Ask anyone where the best burger is to be found and instantly a debate is sparked with everyone offering steadfast opinions. Ask why one place is better over another and there won’t be much by way of hesitation there either. I don’t know any burger experts, or those trained in burger production or involved in the burger trade, but what I do know is that everyone I know can put at least one word on why their outlet of choice surpasses the rest in this area. Maybe their favourite place makes them bigger than others, maybe it’s juicier, or the toppings, or perhaps even the chips or the service that edges it for them.
Whatever it is – be it burgers, steaks, chicken wings, films, music – the reality is that though most people won’t be experts in the area they can at least vocalise their subjective opinions on the matter. They’ve tried a few versions of the same thing and from this experience they can compare and contrast.
But when it comes to wine people go numb. Why is that? The perception that it’s a rarefied and impenetrable area? Amble into your local Tesco, Supervalu or even petrol forecourt and you’ll dozens if not hundreds of accessible and cheap offerings.
Is it the fear of wine snobs looming over your shoulder, sniggering at your lack of knowledge? There has been a seismic shift in wine writing and education over the last decade where everyone involved in the trade are bending over backwards to educate and include as much as possible, so this is a wholly unfounded and apparently self-inflicted inferiority complex.
Is it inertia? Maybe indifference? Either way, wine producers spotted this miles off and the more unscrupulous ones now produce tanker loads of cheap, shite wine that only barely scrape into the legal definition of the regions their from. Worse is that they damage the perception of that area, undoing decades if not centuries of hard, honest work.
So what most of the world gets is, well, really shite Rioja – over-oaked, flabby, jammy crap that bares no resemblance to what half-decent Rioja can be like. Don’t get me started on Campo Viejo, and the piss-poor offerings in restaurants struggling to balance margins and the budgets of their clientele is even worse, bad enough to make a grown man cry.
So. What to do? Well, if you like Rioja – or Chablis, Chianti, Fleurie – start there and find out what differentiates one brand from another. You’ll likely already know why you prefer Lindt over Cadbury’s, so why not apply that methodology to wine? Buy one Rioja this week, and another one the next. Compare and contrast. Ask your local, independent off-licence for tips. Start exploring and educating yourself to the differences within your comfort zone and work out from there. You’ll never regret it.
Anyway. I love Muga’s Riojas. Over the weekend I had the Muja Rioja Reserva 2007 – intelligent use of oak means that they avoid the confected vanillin characteristics of lesser wines from the region. Still, it’s rich, full and silky with leathery blackberry notes. A little lighter on the palate too, which again stands it apart from the usual clunky offerings that we’re subjected to. A bit of heat and spice on the back palate, while given time in the glass it becomes more leathery, savoury and saline, crying out for some Jamón ibérico. Delicious.
Muga Rioja Reserva 2007
€21.99 from The Corkscrew, O’Brien’s, Superquinn, WineOnline, The Vineyard Wine Co., and many others
70% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha, 7% Mazuelo and 3% Graciano