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Basque Country

If you're in the DC area and you've been reading the Post or have been watching the news, you've seen signs of a major visit from the Basque Country--an economic and cultural outreach, including music and food...and, of course, wine. In that regard, about 20 winos gathered at the Renaissance Hotel to taste six of those wines.

In this case, "Wines of the Basque Part of Rioja" might perhaps have been an appropriate title. And while those may be the most famous of wines from Basque Country, they are certainly not the only ones. For example, during the warm days of summer, Txakolina (from the northern part of Basque Country) is our go-to aperitif for sipping on the deck or around the pool (and for pairing with lighter foods). It's so bracing and refreshing...the only downside is that it slides down so easily you can lose track of how much you're consuming! But the low alcohol helps offset that.

Those who aren't familiar with Basque Country may have vague recollections of political difficulty and even terrorist activity. And they did occur. The Basque culture is a very old and proud one and in many ways, unique (for example, the language is unrelated to any other in Europe). During the Franco era--in a misguided attempt to make them "more Spanish"--the Basque culture and language were suppressed (to the extent that children were actually beaten if they were caught speaking Basque--the only language some of them knew--in school). The Basques resisted...sometimes violently. But that's in the past. With the fall of Franco's dictatorship, the suppression of Basque culture stopped--and I can tell you from having been there last fall, there's a comfortable mix of Basque and Spanish culture and traditions and no sign of tension. Quite the contrary, there's considerable celebration of the great food and wine (among other things) that this area has given the world.

That's background. The focus for this tasting was Rioja--the Basque part of Rioja (named for Rio Oja, a river in the area). Rioja consists of three regions--Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and (the northernmost part) Rioja Alavesa. The provincial line cuts through Rioja, with only Alavesa falling on the Basque side. The tasting was moderated by Paul Wagner of Napa Valley College (and a variety of wine-related communications endeavors). He did a great job of setting the context. He was joined by Basque officials, winemakers and Spanish Embassy representatives. He did something that I thought was particularly smart--rather than shipping in wines that we might enjoy, but not be able to find, he sourced the wines from DC-area wine shops (MacArthur's, Calvert-Woodley and Schneider's).

Wine has been made in Rioja for many centuries--going back at least to at least the Roman times. In the late nineteenth century, it gained attention as many of the wine merchants from Bordeaux came south to Rioja when phylloxera wiped out the vineyards in their region. Among other things, they brought with them new oak barriques...and vanilla oak flavors quickly became part of the signature taste of Rioja.

The dominant grape of Rioja is tempranillo, but there is also garnacha, graciano and mazuela (primarily for blending with tempranillo) and viura, malvasia and garnacha blanca for producing the region's whites. At this tasting, all of the wines were tempranillo or tempranillo-driven blends.

The wines chosen represented a variety of price points. At the entry level (sub-$20) was the 2011 Viña Real Crianza from CVNE. Those who know the region may recognize that not all CVNE wines come from (Basque) Rioja Alavesa. In fact, the historic company operates three wineries in the region--CVNE in Haro, Viña Real in Laguardia and Contino in in Laserna. Viña Real and Contino are in Basque country. Viña Real's Crianza spent 12 months in cask (neutral) and 6 months in bottle before going to market. I won't go into Spain's relatively complex wine laws--it would take at least a paragraph of its own (and Rioja is slightly--and only slightly--different from the rest of Spain). But as the crianza classification suggests, this Viña Real is a relatively young wine, showing just a touch of oak and medium body. It certainly doesn't have the depth or complexity of a great wine...but for ~$15, it's a lovely, versatile Tuesday-night wine.

For the price point in the $20s, Paul chose the 2009 Reservas from Marqués de Riscal and Remelluri. Both good wines...more depth, more evidence of oak-aging (~18 months, some new, some neutral oak). The Marqués de Riscal was perhaps a bit smoother...the Remelluri had darker notes and more structure. My instinct was to prefer the Remelluri--but that could have been influenced by how wonderfully we were treated when we visited Remelluri last fall. It would have been interesting to see Viña Ardanza from La Rioja Alta, also priced in the (high) $20s in with these two. It's a consistently good wine (not Basque, but good). All three offer both enjoyment and value.

In the higher range ($50-$70), Paul picked the 2007 Baigorri de Garage Rioja, the 2006 Remirez de Ganuza Rserva and the 2010 DSL Videos y Bodegas DSG Phinca Lali. Three really different wines--bringing home the point that tempranillo comes in a wide variety of styles (making it sometimes tough to pick out in blind tastings). The Baigorri was fresh, with tart cherry and green olive notes, and solid acidity. And the Phinca Lali was unusual...powerful herbal and floral aromas...clearly young and not yet in harmony. It may well get there. For me, the wine of the tasting was the Remirez. It was really deep...dark, but elegant. A wine you could linger over.

Basque country. A fascinating place to visit...with wines that are really enjoyable to drink.

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