Rioja Quality Ladder: Bodegas Montecillo

11 11 2015

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

Crianza vs. Reserva.  And one of the hardest sets of labels to photograph well.

Crianza vs. Reserva. And one of the hardest sets of labels to photograph well.

If I had to pick one European red wine region that was my Old Faithful, that always delivered quality and intrigue, regularly delighted and rarely disappointed, it would be Rioja.  Something about the wines coming out of Spain’s original star region just speak to me, offering up traditional character and depth and a unique voice at often-amazing prices.  Rioja is perched at altitude in north-central Spain, closer to Bordeaux (a 4 hour drive north) than Barcelona (5.5 hours east), and has long been the king of the Spanish wine world:  it was the first D.O. (Denominacion de Origen, or classified geographical quality region) in the country to be granted super-elite D.O. Calificada status in 1991, the highest quality category in Spanish wine law.  Only one other region, Priorat, has been awarded the designation since.  There are always challengers for Rioja’s crown in a country with soils, grapes, styles and traditions as rich and varied as Spain, but at its best, there is nothing quite like it.

One thing that sets Rioja apart from other world wine regions is its dedication to maturation pre-release; even now there are top producers who, economics and cashflow be damned, hang onto their new bottlings at the winery until they feel they’re ready to drink, however long that takes.  The classification regime in the region provides for some of the most extensive mandatory aging requirements for wines at various quality levels:  entry-level Crianza wines require 2 years of pre-aging before release, with at least one of these years in oak barrels; mid-tier Reserva wines require 3 years with at least one of these in barrel; and top-tier Gran Reservas require an astounding 5 years of pre-aging with a full 2 years of these in barrel.  Oak and age are hallmarks of Riojan wines, especially those made in the mellow, oxidative traditional style, which see considerable barrel time and exposure to air and end up pale and tawny, papery, delicate and immensely complex.  More modern Riojas are being released earlier and are bringing primary fruit colour and depth of colour back into the equation, although arguably at the expense of some of the soul and identity found in the more old-school examples.

Cork Ratings:  2.5/10 & 5/10 (Guess which one is for the Reserva?  Size does matter.)

Cork Ratings: 2.5/10 & 5/10 (Guess which one is for the Reserva? Size does matter.)

I have often said that there is no better way to learn about wine than opening multiple bottles side by side, and this time I got to experience multiple stages of Rioja’s maturation hierarchy at once, with both a Crianza and a Reserva from the same value-inclined producer.  Bodegas Montecillo is the 3rd oldest active winery in Rioja, founded in 1874 (as far as I can tell, the oldest is Marques de Murrieta, founded 22 years prior in 1852, before Canada was a thing) and currently part of the Osborne Group of wineries.  While Montecillo’s wines are produced in larger quantities and widely available, their production methods remain hands-on, featuring long macerations pre- and post-fermentation, gentle pump-overs to carefully extract flavour and colour, and barrel and bottle aging in cavernous underground cellars over 30 feet beneath the surface.  Even so, the Crianza can be found around town at around the $15 mark, and the Reserva clocks in just shy of $20.  The wines are 5 and 6 years old respectively.  That’s not a combination you see often.  Here are my brief thoughts on each, starting with the baby of the family, which (much like my own youngest son) did not concede an inch to its older brother.

Somehow the back's even harder to photograph than the front.  Black on dark red = yikes.

Somehow the back’s even harder to photograph than the front. Black on dark red = yikes.

2010 Montecillo Crianza

All of Montecillo’s red Riojas are 100% Tempranillo, Spain’s national grape which was named for the Spanish word for “early” (temprano) because of its early-ripening tendencies.  You would know this Crianza is Tempranillo because, unusually for an Old World wine, it says so on the label, something it inexplicably doesn’t do for the Reserva below even though it’s made of the same thing.  Odd.  This Crianza saw the requisite 12 months in American oak barrels and then a “longer period” in bottle (a further year is legally required, but since it’s 2015 and this is a 2010 vintage wine, I’m guessing it was longer than that) before release.  It was a deep sanguine ruby colour and smelled like a classic Rioja, with interwoven aromas of beef blood, rust, dust, parchment and tobacco muting the raspberry and sour cherry fruit underneath.  A mixture of leather, roses, dark fruit, tomato, sunbaked earth and Chinese five spice on the palate, it leaned more towards the traditional than the modern Rioja style with the exception of a slightly weightier mouthfeel and fleshier fruit.  The finish was slightly bitter-tinged, like over-steeped tea, and while the acid had mellowed out with age, there was just enough to keep things moving.  Just solid all-around, and true to where it’s from, which is basically everything you can ask of a $15 offering.

87+ points

$15 to $20 CDN

Not to be outdone by muted gold on midnight blue...

Not to be outdone by muted gold on midnight blue…

2009 Montecillo Reserva

A year older thanks to extended Reserva aging requirements, this wine spent 18 months in a mixture of American and French oak barrels and “at least 12 months” in bottle (although, being able to operate a calendar, I’m going to say it was more than that).  Even so, and even 6 years from its vintage date, it was still surprisingly darker and purpler than the younger and less oak-influenced Crianza, possibly a testament to the riper, denser, higher quality fruit used and possibly a hint of a more modern fruit-forward style.  The nose supported the latter theory, as it ramped up the currant and blue fruit and bakers’ chocolate and ramped down the earthiness and tertiary notes found in the Crianza; somehow there were fewer age-driven aromas in the older wine than the younger one.  It was thus unsurprising when the Reserva was fuller and softer on the palate, almost bursting with black cherry, blackberry, mocha, ink and violets, with newer, grippier tannins that exerted themselves far earlier than the prior bottle, controlling the lush flavours and guiding them into the finish (and coating the gums afterwards for good measure).

FullSizeRender_4

This is a tasty and well-made wine, and many people would be extremely happy to find this at a sub-$20 price point, but I was a little surprised in the shift in style from Crianza to Reserva and found that the Crianza tasted more “Rioja” to me, reflected more of the soul of the region, than the Reserva did.  This is totally a matter of personal preference, and both wines are sure to please in the $15-$19 range, but for me the Crianza takes this head-to-head by a whisker.  Keep on keeping on, Rioja.

87 points

$15 to $20 CDN

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