As a fan of aged Riojas in the old style, I am intrigued by its immediate neighbors, mainly Navarra and Ribera del Duero. In my most recent post I reported on the current crop of Navarra wines which have been improving steadily since the last New York Times Tasting panel. I am especially intrigued by the graciano blends, a grape usually reserved for rounding out tempranillo. Although not as age-worthy as its Rioja counterpart, a great value and increase in overall expert winemaking is evident with sample from such great vintages such as 2000, 2001, and 2004.
Which brings up the more powerful Riberas, wines that have great finesse, structure and aging potential, wines of dark fruit and wily tannins â€“ wines that often rival the best of Rioja. At issue, however, is the readiness of these wines. I am finding that the 1996 vintage is just starting to show a happy face, while subsequent vintages are more closed off. Just taste the 1996 Arzuaga and compare it to later cosechas to see my point. This is true for reserva and gran reserva. In a recent sampling of 2004 crianzas, they appear to be more accessible on the nose, but the palate is still developing. Patience is the key word for Ribera del Duero. A trip to the cellar is your best bet with Arzuaga, Pesquera, and the other top ten producers.
If you need a bottle of Ribera to drink now, opt for the joven (young wine). These wines see very little oak and are quite black juicy fruit right now. Riberal, Monte Negro, and Figueres are fine values that will bring suprising delight. These wines were very forgiving, food ready and priced right. A comparison of Rosso di Montalcino vs. Brunello comes to mind, not for the flavor profile, but for the Rossoâ€™s accessibility. The same can be said for these jovens. For now, Rioja is still the favorite, young or old, but itâ€™s nice to see the other Spanish winemakers step up their game.