by Fred McMillin
for November 20, 1997
A River Runs Through It
Oja (oh-hah)—A small river in northern Spain, that is, the Rio Oja.
Rioja—A contraction of Rio Oja that refers to Spain's most prestigious red-wine district, of which the Oja Valley is a small part.
Rioja Milestones 76 A.D.—Though the Phoenicians sailed up the Ebro river to Rioja before them, the Romans colonized and organized the winemaking there. Excavations have uncovered their coins dated 76 A.D.
1092—The first known written reference to "Rioxa." c.1200—The monk Gonzalo de Berceo left the earliest Castilian writing praising a "glass of good [Rioja] wine."
1850—Vintners' methods remained primitive, e.g., commonly a skinned sheep was tossed in the vat to clarify the wine.
1890—It's an ill insect that blows no good. Phylloxera has destroyed Bordeaux vineyards so the French winemakers move to the Rioja district. They make major improvements in methods, including use of the barrel for aging.
1965—The American wine boom provides an important new demand for Rioja.
The Cune Compania (coo-nay)
Louis Perre was one of the French vintners who went south a century ago. In 1879, with some partners, he founded CUNE (Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana). How did it work out? Today the company exports over 250,000 cases a year. Their flagship is CUNE Imperial Gran Reserva Rioja. Spanish authority Carlos Delgado writes of the 1981 vintage, "This wine belongs to another enological dimension, a privileged place reserved for only the best wines in the world...intense and flavorful, with an elegant finish." My panel just tasted the 1989, and feel it belongs in that other "enological dimension," too.
Postscript: The term "Reserve" has no legal meaning in the USA, but it sure does in Spain. A RESERVA must be aged a minimum of three years, including at least one in oak. A GRAN RESERVA must be aged a minimum of five years, including at least two in oak. So, if a merchant offers you a 1995 Gran Reserva, call the cops. It's not legit!
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