Crianza vs Reserva: The state of the Spanish palate today!

by mary on January 24, 2007

I gave an interesting tasting on Saturday contrasting crianza and reserva wines. It ended up being a tasting less about the primary theme and more about Spanish wine palates today. The 16 clients were overwhelmingly Spanish, though there was one British girl.

Spanish wine rules 101: Crianza wines must be aged 24 months before they are released, six of which must be in oak. Reserva wines must be held 36 months, 12 of which must be in oak. These are minimums…often the oak portion is much more significant…some Denominations require more.

I served five wines blind in two sets. The first set was three Riojas: two from a winery making classic Riojas, a 2003 Crianza and a 2001 Reserva. The third wine was a Finca Valpiedra 2001 Reserva.

The results of the first set were very interesting: Two of the wines were more evolved in color and nose, showing notes of older wood and very subtle fruit. These were the ones the class guessed as both reservas…they guessed the more fruit driven wine to be the crianza. In fact it was the wine that had a more youthful color and a fruitier nose and palate that was the Finca Valpiedra Reserva 2001. It also turns out it was the Finca Valpiedra that almost the entire class preferred.
Yet if you had asked most of those people before the tasting, they would have sworn Muga was one of their favourite wines. I find many Spanish people are brought up on these traditional style wines and frequently choose them as their top wines. Yet if you offer them a traditional Rioja blind side by side with a more modern Rioja, very often they will choose the modern one.
When I say modern and traditional Rioja…what do I mean? Traditional Rioja is characterised by longer aging in older barrels, often American oak. They are elegant, structure-driven wines that often have a slight oxidized character. Their fruit tends to be lean and elegant, but not very present, having been greatly altered by long oak aging.
Of course, even the most traditional Riojas are modern by standards of old, with shorter aging times, newer oak, and more French oak. But I still find there is a distinctive different between the two styles.
The modern Riojas have shorter aging times in newer oak, often in French oak or a mixture of French and American. They are fruit driven wines, fruit support by a very present oak structure, especially at the reserve level. Though the fruit dominates, they still retain the elegance and balanced acidity that Rioja wines have always offered.
I would not even characterize Finca Valpiedra as a “modern” Rioja…it is sort of a hybrid. But the fruit was so much more present than in either of the Mugas, that it definitely showed its modern stripes in this tasting.

The second set of wines was from Ribera del Duero: Pago de Capellanes Crianza 2004 and Pago de Capellanes Reserva 2002. There was a distinctive difference between the two wines: the Reserva offered much more complexity and a lot of very fine wood, while the Crianza offered a simpler bright fruit on a more subtle oak background. Both were bigger wines than any of the Rioja, offering more intensity but less elegance.
The verdict was clear in this set…a big majority preferred the Reserva.

Most tasters preferred the reserva styles to the crianza ones in both flights, despite a large difference in price….but the more interesting result follows….

The overall winner of the tasting, by a big majority, was the Ribera Reserva….the only other wine of the five that received votes was the Ribera Crianza. Does this mean that the Spanish palate is moving away from the lean, elegant styles of Rioja to the more fruity, oaky (new)…let’s say it…international styles than Ribera often represents?

This was only a tiny exercise. I must say that these are not typical Spanish wine consumers…they shop at the international market where I held the tasting…this alone separates them from the more traditional Spanish consumer. Could this type of consumer eventually unseat the monopoly Rioja has held for so long over the Spanish winescape? Check back for more observations…

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