Why You Should Be Drinking More Rioja

L to R: Matías Calleja Ugarte, Me, Nicolas Bertino

Hi, Friends: I’m here today to spread the good word about Rioja, because I recently had dinner with Matías Calleja Ugarte, winemaker at Beronia Winery in Rioja, Spain, and Nicolas Bertino, CEO of Gonzalez-Byass USA, and was wowed by the quality of these wines! First, a few Rioja basics:

  1.  Where is it? Rioja is a major wine region in northern Spain. It is a DOCa, which means it meets strict grape-growing, harvesting and wine-making criteria. It’s divided into three sub-regions – Alta, Alavesa and Baja. (Map reprinted with permission from Society of Wine Educators.)fullsizeoutput_9e7
  2. Big Red: The big grape in Rioja is Tempranillo. Other red grapes include Garnacha (same as Grenache, as it is known in France and other countries), Mazuelo and Graziano.
  3. Tempranillo has eight names! This grape goes by not one but eight different names, depending where you are! In Rioja, it’s Tempranillo. But if you head south to LaMancha or Valdepenas? It’s Cencibel. Other noms de uva (I just made that up!): Tinta de Toro in Toro; Tinta del País in Ribera del Duero and Cigales; also Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero (come on!), Ull de Llebre in Catalonia, Aragonêz in Portugal and Tinta Roriz in the Douro of Portugal. And yes, this made me want to blow my brains out while studying for the CSW test.
  4. The main white grape is Viura – known as Macabeo elsewhere in Spain, because, of course, it has another name. (Seriously, Spain  … WTF with all these grape names!?).
  5. Age is Everything Spanish wines are held to strict aging regimens if the winery wants to put certain labels that equate to quality. To be called “Crianza,” a red wine must be aged in barrel for at least six months, and total aging must be a total of two years. Reserva: 12 months in barrel, three years total aging. Gran Reserve: 18 months in barrel and five years total aging.

What’s Cool About Beronia
Okay, let’s get to these delicious wines from Beronia, shall we? When I tasted these wines with Matías and Nicolas, you know me – I like to guess things. So I guessed prices and I was wrong every single time. Why? Because I would never have guessed two of these beauties are under $20 a bottle and the top dog is only $30!

But first, two cool things about the winery and how its wines are made.The winery was founded 45 years ago in Rioja Alta, on 25 hectares of vineyards. Its founders are from San Sebastian, Spain and were a member of one of the city’s 700 gastronomic societies. San Sebastian is rather famous for these casual but organized groups of friends who regularly gather to eat and drink. While Gonzalez-Byass now owns part of the winery, some of the original founders are still on-board.

Matías has worked 36 vintages at Beronia and he kind of put the place on the map with a very unique barrel experiment. Until the 1970s, Beronia used all American oak for its barrels. But Matías had an idea to create barrels using American oak staves (the sides of the barrel) and French oak caps, because each type of oak brings something completely different to the party.

IMG_5072I thought this whole concept was fascinating and then Matías pulls out three bottles of 2015 Reserve Rioja – not yet fully aged, but in progress. Each had done time in different oak barrels: one in just American, one in just French, and one in a combination. What?! This is so cool! I get to personally experience the differences!

I could totally smell and taste the characteristics of each. The wine in American oak was all vanilla, coconut, cocoa and caramel on the nose. The French was all spice, black pepper, tobacco. The best of the three was definitely the wine that had spent time in the combo barrel, using American and French oak. It was so perfectly balanced with all the nuances of both types of wood. It had the fruit,, the spice, nice tannins, even a hint of violets. Matías does this to attain the best balance and stability. Fascinating!

Okay, let’s talk about what we drank at dinner.

IMG_5071Rueda Verdejo 2017 This is the first wine we tasted, from Beronia’s second property in Rueda, just a little southwest of Rioja. Verdejo is a white wine grape that is perfect for summer! This wine was lemony, with beautiful zesty acids that makes your mouth water. Matías explained how the grapes for this wine come from two different parcels of land and are harvested at different times: one on the early side, for low-maturity (less ripe) grapes that are higher in acidity; the other later, when grapes are at higher maturity, for fruitiness. How cool is that?  It was one of the most complex, most refreshing, zingy white wines I’ve had in a long time. $14

IMG_5073Beronia Rioja Riserva 2013 This wine comes from a very sunny vineyard with southern exposure and 40-60 year old vines. It was aged in new, mixed-oak barrels for 10-12 months, and then moved to barrels that were on their second or third use, where it ages up to another 22 months.

This wine opened with a bit of a funky nose – do not let this distract you! It’s kind of a classic characteristic of Rioja wines and after just 10 minutes in the glass, the wine opened up beautifully, displaying black fruit, spices, violets and leather. The tannins are there but they are not smacking you in the face with too much force. It was rich and luscious in my mouth and I immediately started imagining it with red meat, barbecue and sausages hot off the grill (this was right about when some delicious skirt steak arrived at our table). And the price? $16!

IMG_5074Beronia Rioja Gran Riserva 2009 Oh my Lord & Taylor – come to mama. This wine was so gorgeous. I detected an earthiness on the nose, almost like mushrooms, and then leather / cigar-box notes, graphic or pencil lead – all those crazy descriptors came straight to life in this wine. It comes from 70-year old vines with very low yields, so the fruit is super-concentrated in flavor.  It was like surfing a silky wave of black and blue fruit. This wine is aged in new French oak for up to 15 months and then racked (moved through hoses) to second-use barrels. Total time in oak: 25-26 months, and the wine is bottle-aged for five years. Wow! $30. That is a fantastic value! This wine would easily age well for 15-20 years.

It is always such a great learning experience to spend time tasting and talking with winemakers. Matías has not only mad wine-making skills, but the perfect sensibility for a winemaker – he loves nothing more than making exceptional wines and then bringing people to the table to enjoy them, socializing and enjoying each others company over great wine and great food. Next time you’re shopping, check your store shelves for Beronia wines or ask your friendly wine salesperson about them. Salud!





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