What Am I Tasting?

Can this silky, racy red that has energy and length lead you in the right direction?

November 06, 2014

Our blind tasting game—without the tasting! Can you identify a wine just by reading its tasting note? We post real Wine Spectator reviews. You use clues such as color, aromas, flavors and structure to figure out the grape, age and origin. Good luck!

Tasting Note: Silky and racy, this traditional-style red delivers dried cherry, tobacco, orange peel, vanilla and spice flavors that mingle over light, firm tannins, fueled by crisp acidity. Not a big wine, but has energy and length.

And the answer is...


Variety

Today's wine is a toughie because many of our descriptors here can apply to several of our options.

Syrah is our least likely option, as it tends to be characterized by dark black fruits and is often marked by a peppery note almost anywhere it is made. It also tends to be on the bigger, more robust side of wine grapes. We can rule out Syrah.

Cherry and tobacco could certainly apply to Dolcetto, however, the cherries would more likely be black cherries. More important, however, Dolcetto is a low-acid varietal, and would be unlikely to be crisp.

Zinfandel is a promising choice. It can be made in a wide range of styles—vanilla and spice are often associated with this grape, and a little tobacco is not unheard of. However, one of Zin's most attractive features tends to be the panoply of effusive fruit flavors it usually brings to the party. One would expect a little more fruit from the varietal than the lone dried cherry we find here, and as with Syrah, Zinfandels tend to be on the big side.

Cabernet Sauvignon is another very tempting option. Most of this note could apply to Cabernet; but then we hit that dried cherry again. Cab tends to have darker fruit characteristics like black currant, blackberry and plum. Additionally, while we do have some firm tannins here, they are also described as light—we'd usually expect a little more heft from typically burly Cab.

Tempranillo can take on darker fruit flavors, but cherry and tobacco are typical of the most traditional versions. Additionally, this grape has long been known for its affinity with oak. The two marry very well, and it is traditionally aged for several years in oak barrels. (American oak being the most traditional type for this grape.) Vanilla most clearly marks the presence of oak here, as do the spice notes which can come from the barrels. Tempranillo can have moderate to high tannins, so our light but firm tannins are within the ballpark. The one kink is that Tempranillo is not known for being a super high-acid grape; however, it can get a boost from chalky soils and cool temperatures and/or high altitude sites. The best plots for this grape tend to have some combination of these factors, so it is not uncommon to find more acidic versions from top producers.

This wine is a Tempranillo.

Country or Region of Origin

Tempranillo is grown in California but quantities are rather small, and the racy, less fruit-forward style of this wine should lead us to look at the Old World.

There are small amounts grown in southern France and Italy, but this grape is most at home on the Iberian Peninsula, so let's clear everything else aside and look at Portugal and Spain.

Tempranillo is a grape with many names. In Portugal it goes by Tinta Roriz in the north and Aragonêz farther south. Quite a bit of Tinta Roriz is grown in the north as one of the five principal grapes used for Port, where it adds elegance and freshness to the Port blends. The region has also been increasingly making wonderful still wines from the same grapes, however, varietal expressions are rare in this region, and even in the blends, Tinta Roriz doesn't tend to be the dominant grape. In other regions of Portugal it is used both as a blending grape and as a varietal wine, but in Portugal's hot climate the wines tend to be either more intensely tannic than the version we have here, or are broader, fruitier and less acidic.

Tempranillo is Spain's star grape. It is grown in many different regions and has as many names—Tinto Fino, Tinta del Pais, Cencibel, Tinta de Toro, just to name a few. Here it is also used as a blending grape, though it tends to be the dominant grape in the blend in many of the areas on which it's grown and varietal expressions abound. Additionally, while Spain also has many warm climates that produce similar examples to those described in Portugal, it is also grown in several higher-elevation regions with temperatures cool enough to achieve the racy acidity we find in today's wine.

This wine is from Spain.

Appellation

Looking at our choices for appellation, we can knock the non-Spanish options off the list: Alba is in the Piedmont region of Italy, the Barossa Valley is in Australia, Paso Robles is in California. Douro and Ribera del Duero are along the same river, however, Douro is the name in Portugal. This leaves us with two Spanish appellations, Ribera del Duero and Rioja in Spain.

Both Ribera del Duero and Rioja have geographical factors that can help their wines achieve the level of acidity we see in this wine. Ribera del Duero is located on the vast meseta, an expansive plateau that takes up a considerable chunk of central Spain. Temperatures here fall sharply at night, which helps the grapes retain high acidity.

Rioja has three major subregions: Baja, Alta and Alavesa. Rioja Baja is located at much lower altitudes than the other two and has warmer temperatures that tend to be better for growing Garnacha. However, Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa are both located higher up, and the best grapes are grown on cool slopes. Here Tempranillo is able to retain acidity and can achieve a very elegant expression.

So we have two regions, each capable of producing excellent wines with high acidity. Nonetheless, there are some major differences between the two.

The flipside to Ribera del Duero's cool nights are very hot days during the short growing season. This allows the fruit to become ripe and concentrated, in addition to retaining the freshness preserved by the cool night temperatures. Additionally, the winemaking style in the Ribera del Duero tends to favor a more modern approach. Here we find more new oak in use and, as a result, the wines tend to be deeply colored and extracted.

Rioja, as a whole, is an older winemaking region. There is evidence that wine was made in this region as far back as Roman times. The region's modern wine industry profited from epidemics of vineyard diseases that struck French vineyards in the 1800s. When first powdery mildew, and later phylloxera, hit France, merchants and winemakers began to look at Rioja, just over the Pyrenees Mountains, as a place in which to invest and purchase wine. The wine industry grew and developed extensively. (Phylloxera did eventually hit Spain, but by that time, resistant rootstocks were available and the region was able to recover comparatively more quickly than France.)

Many of the wineries created during this time period are still producing wines today, and many continue to make wines in the traditional fashion. One of the hallmarks of traditional Rioja includes prolonged aging, often in older barrels. The style produces a comparatively lighter wine to those from Ribera del Duero, or even modern-style Riojas, and they often have flavor notes that include cherry and tobacco.

This wine is from Rioja.

Age

There are several dried notes here: tobacco, and the fruit has taken a backseat to predominantly secondary and tertiary aromas, leaving just dried cherry and a little bit of orange peel in the fruit camp. We can go ahead and eliminate the two younger age brackets.

Age can bring complexity and elegance, allowing structure and flavor components to better integrate into a more cohesive wine. In Spain in particular, there is a long history of aging wines prior to making them available on the market.

In Spain the terms Reserva and Gran Reserva are codified and have very specific requirements. For reds, Crianzas must be aged in barrel for at least one year, with an additional year in bottle. Reservas require three years total aging, with at least one in barrel. Gran Reservas require at least two years in oak, and at least another three years in bottle before release.

This wine has vanilla notes, which leads us to believe that this wine spent time in barrel. It's also made in a traditional-style. This is a Tempranillo with crisp acidity, that still retains energy and length even though the fruit is dried, which indicates very skilled winemaking, making it very likely that we are dealing with a top producer.

Many top, traditional-style producers age their wines for considerably more time than required and often use older barrels that will soften the texture and potentially add a touch of flavor, without overpowering the character of the wine. Moreover, we see that the tannins are light but firm, making it very possible that they've had several years to smooth out and become less aggressive.

After factoring in the wood notes, likely aging requirements, the dried fruit but persistent acidity, the quality and style of the wine, it begins to become clear that this wine probably has some considerable years on it—more than 10 years.

This wine is from the 2002 vintage.

Wine

This is the R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Rioja Viña Tondonia Reserva 2002. It received 92 points in the Sept. 30 issue of Wine Spectator. The winery was founded in 1877 and is located in Haro in Rioja Alta. Viña Tondonia is the winery's most famous plot, located on the right bank of the Ebro River, which serves as the border between Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. The soils are alluvial clay with limestone, which can preserve acidity in the grapes.

This wine is a blend of 75 percent Tempranillio, 15 percent Garnacha and the remainder Graciano and Mazuelo. The winery ages their wines for much longer than the law requires. While this wine is labeled as Reserva, it was aged for six years in barrel, which would technically qualify it to be classified as Gran Reserva. (The current release Tondonia Gran Reserva was aged for 10 years in barrel.) López de Heredia is still family-run and remains one of the most stalwart representatives of the traditional style of Rioja.

—Nicole Ruiz Hudson, assistant tasting coordinator