Ever heard of late-summer limbo? No, it isn't a new dance or a contortionist competition, but rather a period that lies suspended between the scorch of summer and the impending frosts of fall. The cooler temperatures of this period make me yearn for red wine, but the weather remains too warm for the big bruiser reds of winter. What to do? My advice is to reach for one of the great middleweights from Rioja.
The wines of this region in north-central Spain remain seriously undervalued in America, where they are regularly enjoyed by a surprisingly small percentage of consumers. Rioja aficionados know these wines are exceptionally versatile with food, pairing perfectly with a wide range of medium-weight meats such as pork, veal, chicken and duck. Their delicate fruit also helps the wines work well with robust fish preparations that would overwhelm many whites.
With succulent fruit reminiscent of black currants and strawberries, as well as alluring aromas of spice and vanilla, these wines deserve much wider appreciation. Their slack sales are easier to understand when Riojas are compared with the other two middleweight greats--Sangiovese and Pinot Noir.
Sangiovese, the base grape for Chianti, has been aided immeasurably by the great success of Italian restaurants. By contrast, the relative dearth of Spanish restaurants has left Rioja without a commercial beachhead from which consumers can take that all-important first sip.
Pinot Noir benefits both from the great historical legacy of Burgundy and also the rising-star status of California and Oregon, which have acquainted consumers with the grape by using its name as the primary designation on labels.
By contrast, the Grenache (Garnacha in Spanish) and Tempranillo grapes on which Rioja reds are based are very sparsely planted in the New World, and thus very few consumers even know the names of these grapes much less the great potential they hold.
Of course, every case of commercial underachievement carries a silver lining in the form of enhanced value for buyers. Rioja reds break down into three categories--Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva--and excellent buys are available at every level.
Crianza bottlings are released in their third year, having spent a minimum of 12 months in oak casks. Most are priced between $9 and $12, and the great majority offer much more character and class than such sums can buy from other grapes or regions.
Reserva bottlings are released in their fourth year and must have spent at least 12 months in Bordeaux-style "barricas" and another 24 months in bottle. Prices vary more widely in this category, but it frequently offers the best balance of fruit and oak, as well as the best potential for further aging in bottle.
Gran Reservas are made only in the best vintages and are released in their sixth year after a minimum of 24 months in oak and 36 months in bottle. Although some wines emerge from this regimen with more oak and oxidation than suits my taste, the better versions offer great complexity and--when production costs are taken into account--good value despite relatively high prices.
My recent tastings included so many excellent wines that I need to split my recommendations into two articles. Top Crianzas and Gran Reservas are listed below in order of preference (with approximate prices and D.C. wholesalers indicated in parentheses). In two weeks I'll feature the very exciting wines of the Reserva category.
Marques de Caceres 1995 ($13): Ripe and full with outstanding depth and balance. (Forman)
Faustino VII 1996 ($10): Strong fruit allied with commensurately strong oak, with great earthy subtleties. (Forman)
Bodegas Breton "Lorinon" 1996 ($13.50): Excellent fruit and deftly balanced oak with nice earthy notes. (Franklin)
Conde de Valdemar 1996 ($12): Very pure fruit with soft texture and subtle nuances of wood. (Washington Wholesale)
Vina Valoria 1995 ($12): Concentrated and penetrating, with fine balance. (Dionysus)
Campo Viejo 1995 ($9): Warm and woody, but with plenty of fruit to balance the package. (Forman)
La Rioja Alta "904" 1987 ($40): Wonderfully soft and complex, with remarkably fresh fruit. (Forman)
Conde de Valdemar 1992 ($20): Unusually fresh for a Gran Reserva, with nice body and moderate oak influence. (Washington Wholesale)
Faustino I 1992 ($26): Fully mature but still lively, with spice and smoke undertones. (Forman)
Marques de Arienzo 1989 ($26): Delicate fruit and well-measured wood work beautifully together. (Washington Wholesale)
Columnist Michael Franz will answer wine-related questions live today at 3 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.