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Book Review – The Finest Wines of Rioja and Northwest Spain

By September 15, 2012No Comments

Though published under the auspices of ‘The World of Fine Wine’ magazine, not all of the releases in the “Finest Wines of” series have been of equal appeal to me. The volume on California had a European approach and it omitted a number of noteworthy players which detracted somewhat from the value of the book.

Not so “The Finest Wines of Rioja and Northwest Spain”, written by three respected Spanish wine writing authorities, Jesus Barquin, Luis Gutierrez and Victor de la Serna. As with all of the books in the series, the selection of profiled producers is their personal one which not everybody will necessarily agree with. Here, however, from a New Zealand point of view where the availability of many of the wines is limited, the producers included is broad and covers large and small, new and old, conventional and innovative, and is thus comprehensive.

The book covers a geographically bound collection of regions that lie on the outer north and north-western areas of Spain, and though not necessarily influenced by the oceans, the regions can be considered to be not too far away from the coast! It would have been very tempting to include the Ribera de Duero region due to the connection of Tempranillo, but in reality the Castilla y Leon area is quite separate, and its inclusion would have made the book too large. Maybe a book on Rioja and Ribera del Duero together could be a title, but this would leave the remaining north-west Spain region rather thin as a topic of coverage!

The introduction of this edition is particularly interesting, with short chapters covering the history and culture of the region, with the significance of Rioja a focus. The geology and geography are also covered, and there is an important discussion on grape varieties and how the indigenous have been rediscovered, without de-emphasising the importance of the classical French ‘improving varieties’. Viticulture is also discussed, and it is the authors’ stance of respecting tradition and acceptance of change and modernity that is so balanced, refreshing in this book, and an indication of the passion for the area by the trio.

As can be predicted, most of the profiles, approximately half of the book in fact, is dedicated to Rioja producers, from the Alta, Alavesa and Baja regions. All of the highly recognised and regarded names are covered, from the ultra-traditional Bodegas Lopez de Heredia and Tondonia to the ultra-modern such as Bodegas Roda and Vina Izadi. Going through the profiles, one can easily get a sense for the dynastic connections of long-established families and the scions which have ventured to new horizons, both within Rioja and beyond. It’s fascinating stuff, and the authors give credence to all fashions and styles, as long as it’s quality that is expressed, and without any judgement otherwise.

The Navarra region has suffered from being too international before its time, and you can sense the authors anguish for the producers there, yet their writing is hopeful, positive and optimistic for the future. However the passion is even stronger with the wines of Bierzo and the Mencia grape, as it is for Rias Baixas and the Albarino variety, and the surrounding areas. I feel that if there were more noteworthy producers in these regions, there could be disproportionately greater content. I’ve taken an active interest in Mencia and Albarino lately, and while reading these sections, I was enthused to buy wines for research!

Despite there being three authors, there is a unity of expression and the profiles and descriptions of the highlighted ‘Finest Wines’ is presented with consistency of style. The writing is relaxed and very readable with the slightly amusing use of colloquialisms that are a little foreign to an antipodean reader. One certainly senses the personal passion in the writing, and the authors’ wine recommendations are for guiding the reader to further their exploration or re-acquaintance of the regions and the wines. What else could you ask for in such a book?

The Finest Wines of Rioja and Northwest Spain, By Jesus Barquin, Luis Tierrez and Victor de la Serna
University of California Press, Berkeley, 2011, ISBN 978-0-520-26921-7
RRP US$39.95

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