A Rioja Eases Toward Winter

Montebuena Red Wine, Cuvee KPF, 2014
Labastida, Rioja, Spain, $11.99

There is little argument that some of Spain’s best red wines come from the Rioja region in the north central part of the country.

It also can be said that the best wines in Rioja are made from Tempranillo grapes, a case easily made because 75 percent of the vineyards are planted in the fruit, and the region produces world-renowned Tempranillo Gran Reserva wines.

And one of the best, inexpensive red wines I’ve had lately from Rioja is Montebuena, a deep, ruby red young wine made from 100 percent Tempranillo. It’s excellent for drinking during the fall and well into the winter.

The Phoenicians and Celtiberians are credited with kicking off the wine business in Rioja, followed by the Romans and Medieval monks. In the village where Montebuena is made, Labastida, there are large, ancient formations hollowed out in the rocks that were used for crushing the grapes after harvest. It was a bit messy, but it worked for 400 years, until the 18th century when a better method was discovered. That came after a monk, Manuel Quintano, took a working vacation in the vineyards in Bordeaux, learned winemaking and about aging the wines. He brought the techniques back to Rioja, the Labastida website says.

Quintano is given credit for starting the long-lasting tradition of using the French method of aging Rioja wines in oak barrels. American oak is the preferred wood.

Only in the last few years have Rioja winemakers broken from the oak tradition, preferring to put more emphasis on terroir by relying on the vineyards and the fruit to influence the wine, rather than the added flavors imparted by wooden barrels.

Wines from Rioja also were blended from grapes grown in the three sub-regions of Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa, which have differing soils and climates and produce distinctive fruit.

Until recently, most of the vineyards were owned by large families or co-operatives, and many of the wineries, called bodegas in Spain, would buy fermented juice from the large operators, age the wine in oak barrels and casks, then bottle it under the bodega’s label. Most bodegas were wine cellars and warehouses, according to Jancis Robinson in The Oxford Companion to Wine.

For the last four or five years, bodegas have been acquiring vineyards and making estate wines with locally grown grapes, rather than using fruit and blended, fermented juice from all of Rioja.

Montebuena is produced by the largest co-operative in the Basque Country, Union de Cosecheros de Labastida, which formed in the 1960s and now makes about 1.9 million gallons of wine a year. The co-op’s wines use grapes picked from the members’ vineyards in the Rioja Alavesa sub-region, an area with relatively high elevation, poor soils and a shorter growing season. Those conditions contribute to light wines that are full of fresh fruit flavors.

The production of Montebuena is overseen by Manuel Ruiz Hernandez, who has been making wine for almost 50 years and is one of the region’s most respected enologists. He uses old-vine Tempranillo grapes, hand-picked in October from a 365-acre vineyard in Montebuena, which is one of the best quality areas of Labastida. The wine is aged for a year and bottled with the Rioja designation, indicating by law that it is a young wine.

Montebuena red has a spicy vanilla aroma, fruity flavors and a smooth finish, Hernandez says in the tasting notes.

The wine goes very well with paella, roasted duck, burgers and grilled bell pepper, eggplant and zucchini, the tasting notes say.

My wife, Sandy, and I had Montebuena with a rich beefalo meatloaf and eggplant grilled with basil, balsamic vinegar and garlicky olive oil. The wine was a perfect match. Montebuena also is smooth enough just to have by itself or with appetizers.

Montebuena red varies in price from $9.99 to $12.99 depending on when it’s on sale. I find it regularly at the lower price, but it’s a terrific buy even at the full price.

Pick up a bottle, you won’t be disappointed.

Suggestions of wines in the $10 range are always appreciated. Warren Johnston can be reached at raiseyourglassofwine@gmail.com.

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