I have long been a fan of Rioja wines. It is such an exciting region, and today it produces a wealth of great wines that will woo the traditionalist as much as the modernist. In New York this past February I had the great pleasure of spending some time with one of Rioja's most brilliant and beloved female winemakers, Maria Martinez Sierra, from renowned winery Bodegas Montecillo. Maria's wines epitomize Rioja, with their seamless integration of elegance and power at very affordable prices.
Steeped in history, the Montecillo Bodegas dates back to 1874. Maria has been the winemaker at Montecillo for over 30 years, where she draws as much on tradition as well as innovation while crafting her wines. She is an advocate of the traditional long aging for her Rioja wines, yet she is innovative in that she only uses French oak. (Rioja has a tradition of aging its wines in American oak.) And all her wines are 100% varietal. Montecillo Rioja wines are 100% Tempranillo, although the DOC regulations allow for small percentages of other grapes in the blend.
As we talked we tasted through her wines that are available on the U.S. market. Maria lovingly explained the philosophy and personality of each wine, her babies, that she had tended so carefully from the selection of the finest grapes through the fermentation and maturation stages.
What struck me about Maria’s wines was how they firmly conveyed a sense of place, unmistakeably Rioja, yet at the same beamed with vibrant bright fruit. Here are my notes on the wines that I tasted, as well as some food pairing recommendations that we discussed.
• 2005 Montecillo Crianza, DOC Rioja $12 - Aged for 12 months in French oak, it already showed lovely notes of development. bright ruby in color. Intense ripe cherry and wild strawberry aromas and flavors, interwoven with vanilla and spice. Pair with grilled lamb chops, sweet sausage, grilled salmon or tomato based pasta sauces.
• 2003 Montecillo Reserva, DOC Rioja $15 to $18 - Aged for 18 months in French oak, plus additional bottle aging before release, this wine showed lots of development, tobacco, roasted meats and earthy notes added complexity to a background of mature red fruit. This wine would work well with a tortilla or omelet, grilled tuna steak, roast beef, cassoulet or coq au vin.
• 2001 Montecillo Gran Reserva, DOC Rioja - about $20 - Aged slowly and quietly for 24 months in French oak, with additional bottle aging before release this wine begged respect. Mature developed aromas of spice, roasted game, coffee and earth prevailed giving the wine great depth and complexity and were in harmony and integrated with refreshing mature baked red fruit. Perfect with game dishes, air-dried or cured meats, venison, any rich stew dish and aged hard cheeses.
• 1981 - Montecillo Especial, DOC Rioja $145 - Expensive but a unique and great wine. This wine is not made every year, only when Maria deems that the grapes are of such exceptional high quality. This wine was aged four years in French oak, and then a further 23 years in the bottle at the winery before being released on the market. Elegant, complex, multi-layered with mature, developed notes, yet still retaining a backbone of bright red fruit and freshness across the palate. Huge length. Definitely a wine for a very special occasion. Great with crown rack of lamb, roasted rib of beef, wild boar and aged blue cheese.
All these wines, except the Montecillo Especial, are widely available throughout the United States. To me they represent very good value, given their very high quality, intensity of flavors and overall balance. Enjoy!
(Images: All images courtesy of Bodegas Montecillo in Rioja)