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My Top Go-To Rioja Wines Under $20

Finding Rioja wine in your local stores isn’t as hard as most people think. Having lived in Rioja for two years and having completed a Masters of Viticulture and Enology (winemaking) there, this place is my second and favorite home. I am often asked what my “Go-to” Rioja wines are, and I have a few recommendations for a few favorites that you are likely to find in your store.

Let me first explain something about the wine regions of La Rioja, Spain.

Rioja's Three Regions, courtesy of Vibrant Rioja

Rioja’s Three Regions, courtesy of Vibrant Rioja

The Regions of La Rioja

La Rioja has three wine regions where wines of varying styles are made. The Rioja area is subdivided into three different regions – Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja. While la Rioja Alavesa and la Rioja Alta are located closer to the mountain, they are at slightly higher elevations and have a cooler climate. This results in wines with more acidity and slightly more finesse and elegance.

La Rioja Baja is located to the southeast where it is drier and warmer. The annual rainfall in the region ranges from 12 inches in parts of Baja to more than 20 inches in La Rioja Alta and Alavesa.

Although each winemaker adds their own special touch, terroir is not something that can necessarily changed.  If I want a lighter, more distinguished wine, I tend to lean towards wines from Rioja Alta or Rioja Alavesa. These two areas, of higher altitude, are located in the northernmost part of La Rioja near Basque Country (if not in it).  If I want a slightly bigger-bodied wine, I lean towards wines from Rioja Baja, where there is a bit more sun and slightly different soil types dominate.

Aging and Oak

I also then consider how much aging or oak I would like on my wine. Rioja has a great classification standard that helps you understand how much long your wine has been aged; based on your tastes, this classification standard can help determine the right wine for you.

Rioja Labels and Classification, courtesy of Vibrant Rioja

Rioja Labels and Classification, courtesy of DOCa Rioja

I love a Cosecha wine (a wine in its first or second year with little to no oak; it has a green label) for summertime due to how light and refreshing it is.  However, my go-to night wine is generally a Crianza (12 months+ in oak plus one year in bottle; it has a red label). I reserve Reserva (aged minimum of three years, tends to be 18-24 months in oak with the rest of the time in bottle) for those nights when I am having a hearty meal with friends.  These classifications, while made to be easy to understand, can be at times confusing. Some winemakers who chose to age a wine for 8 months, for example, based on the grape variety, terroir, vintage, etc., still have to use a Cosecha, or green. label.

In general, I stick to Crianza and Reserva unless it is a white wine.  For a white wine, I prefer the wine of the year or the Cosecha wine.

Here are a few of the wines that can easily be found in your grocery or liquor stores with a cost likely under $20. If you are lucky, you may even find them for under $15 on sale.

LAN Crianza or Reserva

lan

LAN Crianza

C.V.N.E. Crianza

cune-crianza

CVNE Crianza

Marqués de Cáceres Crianza

Marques de Caceres

Marques de Caceres

Campo Viejo Reserva

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CUNE Crianza and Campo Viejo Reserva

Marqués de Riscal Reserva

Marques de Riscal Reserva

Marques de Riscal Reserva

While I haven’t listed vintage, the wines currently released onto the market are ready to drink. Unlike their US counterparts, there are strict rules as indicated by the labels and by the Regulatory Council in Spain that prevent wine from being released before it has been properly aged. You generally can’t go wrong with the suggestions listed above. If you are interested in specific vintages, click here for the listing of the vintages.

The majority of the wineries listed above have been making wine since the 1900s and have vines close to 100 years old. Most are still held by the families who started the wineries back in the 1800s, and all have had a very high standard in winemaking for some time.

The wines listed above are also wines made with the traditional grapes grown in the region: Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano, Mazuelo and Maturana Tinta.  These wines tend to be elegant and subtle yet powerful in the mouth.  To me, they bring me back to my time in La Rioja where I ate and drank with friends on Calle Laurel, the famous tapas street of Logroño.

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These Rioja wines have an earthy, dark cherry, tobacco mouth taste that conjures up all the sights, smells, and sounds of this amazing town. To me, they are special, and every sip I take brings me back to those times. While they may not do the same for you, I hope that you will visit La Rioja and have a chance to experience what I have loved so much about this region. It’s not just about the food and wine but about the people behind the wine that make it so special.

 

Insider's Guide to Willamette Valley

An Insider’s Guide to the Willamette Valley

Having worked in the Willamette Valley in Oregon since 2012, I am often asked, “Where would you go if visiting the Willamette Valley?” My answer generally will include places that I know that person is likely to enjoy.  However, if it were up to me, I would have some specific, special recommendations. Here are a few of my top recommendations.

Grape Escape Tour

A Grape Escape Tour

Tour companies: Either select a designated driver or take a tour.   While tours aren’t cheap, they generally are cheaper than a DUI ticket, and they are much more enjoyable because everyone can drink. Tours also generally include the tasting fees (depending on the winery, $15-$20 per person), but check with the company when you are booking your tour.

  • For groups of 4+: Grape Escape – Ask for Ralph, and he will take great care of you. This is probably one of the best deals out there. Furthermore, if your group isn’t big enough and you don’t mind going with others, it will likely be even cheaper. The tour guides are very knowledgeable.  While you will be riding in a large 10-passenger van, they pay the tasting fees and include small snacks such as meat and cheese plates for you to enjoy at one of the winery stops. Let Ralph know where you would like to go and let him know what places I recommended. He’ll do his best to set everything up in advance for you. I consider this a no-nonsense tour with great staff and service. They will also pick you up from your hotel in downtown Portland.
  • For couples 2-4 people: Oregon Select Wine Tours – Ask for Jeff. Jeff has been giving tours for a very long time, though you wouldn’t guess it since he’s a young entrepreneur. With Jeff’s beautiful SUVs with leather interiors, you will be riding around in style. Jeff works with a lot of the hotels in wine country, so if you are staying outside of Portland and at the Allison Inn and Spa or the Black Walnut Inn, I would recommend contacting him. If you are looking for a nice anniversary or couple’s weekend with class, Jeff is the way to go.  He also said he would honor a six hour tour at the price of a five hour tour, so make sure to mention that I sent you.
  • For younger groups of 6-12: Wildwood Adventures – Ask for Maria. Maria and her husband started this company this past year and have seen tremendous success with the younger, more active demographic. It probably helps that they both came from Nike before they decided to drop everything and follow their dreams. They have a winning combination of wineries to which they like to take their folks, but if you specifically want certain places, let them know.

Wineries

Here are some of the wineries that I traditionally recommend visiting whenever people ask me. Picking my favorites is always so hard, since so much depends on the person who is asking. Following are places where I would spend my day with my dearest friends. I generally like to stick to four wineries maximum as more than four becomes too much and I’d rather enjoy each winery than rush to the next and to the next. Wineries these days are opening earlier and earlier; some open now at 10:00 a.m. Make sure to check their hours, and, if possible, book a reservation. Avoid Mondays because most wineries are closed then.  Some wineries also have limited hours during the fall season.  Generally, I prefer to visit when there is less of a crowd, so I recommend visiting on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays, if at all possible. Your doing so is generally not expected, but it is appreciated, and you will also get the best service if you do this.

  • Bubbles: Always start with bubbles. Argyle Winery in Dundee is always my first stop, I love their Pop tasting menu, which features all sparkling wines.  You are sure to enjoy them.
  • History: Try a few Rieslings and Pinots from one of the most historic vineyards in the valley: Hyland Estate. Brady, Michael, or Hannah will take incredible care of you. Let them know I sent you, and they will honor a two-for-one tasting.
Red Hills Market Pizza and Beer

Lunch at Red Hills Market

  • Lunch: Stop for lunch at one of these two incredible spots:
    1. Red Hills Market for some stone-fired pizza and a beer on tap, and, at the same time, rub elbows with winemakers and vineyard managers from nearby wineries.
    2. Enjoy a Pinot Burger at Dundee Bistro with some truffle fries!
  • One-on-one with a view: Enjoy an incredible view and top-rated wines, with a private one-on-one tasting, at either the Dusky Goose (closed Tuesday and Wednesday) or Soter. Both have world renowned winemakers and have some of the most beautiful views in the valley.  Make sure to call ahead to set this up; you won’t be able to get in by showing up.
  • Traditional and on the way back into Portland:  Visit one of the most established wineries in the valley: Ponzi, Adelsheim, Archery Summit or Bergstrom. Be aware that these are well-visited places, and a phone call to them the day before will go a long way. Also, tasting fees may be higher depending on the location.  Sometimes the fees are waived with a purchase, but each place is different, and this shouldn’t be expected.

While there are so many more that I could visit, reducing this list to only a select few wineries can be hard. These are my personal recommendations and generally where I personally would take my friends visiting from out of town. Every year there are new wineries opening up and this list may change over time but it serves as a good base to plan your trip. Visiting during the summer can be a busy time to visit but the weather couldn’t be better. Spring and Winter may be wet but you have less tourism traffic and have a chance to do more one-on-one tastings. I personally prefer to go in the middle of the week and in the Spring or Winter time as this gives me a great opportunity to learn as much as I can from the staff and have a more dedicated tasting.

Shipping Wine Home:

At the end of the day, if you haven’t already purchased a case of your favorite wine but instead picked up a few from each location, The Newberg Mailroom is where you’ll want to stop and drop your wine off to have shipped to your final destination. Sometimes you can ask your tour operator when scheduling your tour that you may want to do this at the end of your tour and perhaps to do this quick stop for you. I would recommend filling a case of 12 bottles because it won’t matter whether you send 6 bottles or 12—the shipping cost will generally be the same.

If you are flying with Alaska Airlines, there is a special program called Oregon Wines Fly Free. You can see the details at: http://www.oregonwine.org/oregon-wines-fly-free/. If you are planning your trip, take this into account, because sometimes shipping wine can otherwise be expensive; thus if you can just take it with you, I would recommend it.  If you do decide to ship your wines yourself, just make sure you get the right packing material, either from a winery or from the Mail Room in Newberg.

General Overview of the Valley:

For a map of the Willamette Valley and links to a number of other places to visit: http://willamettewines.com/

You can also pre-order a brochure to help you finalize your plans by filling out the form at this link:  http://willamettewines.com/brochure/

To learn more about Oregon wine, make sure to check the Oregon Wine website which is full of events and promotions in the state.

 

Enjoy!  If you enjoyed my recommendations, feel free to share them with others, and let me know if you enjoyed your tour. Cheers!

 

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In search of the perfect summer beer: Sour beer

When I first moved to Oregon, I was more of a lover of big, bold wines; I would also occasionally drink a light beer to quench my thirst on a hot summer day. It wasn’t until I went to a few beer festivals, met a few Oregon winemakers who also loved beer, and sipped a few other beers that I realized that there is such a huge world of beer out there to explore. I also learned from my years of working the wine harvests in Oregon that “in order to make a great wine, you need to have a great beer.” Ryan Harms of Union Wine Co. had once told me this when we worked side by side in the wine industry. I heard it again, over and over from other winemakers in the area, and I realized that at the end of the day, winemakers want nothing more than an ice-cold beer to quench their thirst after sipping and spitting out wine samples all day.

Initially, I was turned onto another big, bold, very Oregonian beer style, Indian Pale Ales (IPAs). IPAs are a whole other story, one which I will touch upon later in another blog post. I later went back to the more European style of beers, such as white wheat beers like Hefeweizen, then later to paler ones like lagers and pilsners.  Finally, today, I’ve landed on sour beers.

IMG_7369A little about sour beers. Sour beers can be made from pretty much any beer; however, most follow either traditional or standardized guidelines. Sour beers are intentionally made acidic, tart, or sour in taste. For those Oregon Pinot Noir drinkers who love acid, this may be the beer style for you.

In order to obtain a sour beer, beer brewers need to use wild yeast and bacteria strains such as Lactobacillus, Brettanomyces, and Pediococcus, none of which are generally allowed unless in a controlled environment.

I personally love a little “Brett” in my wine, cider, and obviously, beer. These beers generally satisfy my craving for sour patch kids candies, a hot-summer-day sipper, and a little more depth than just another lager. Not that there is anything wrong with lagers–I love those, too–but lately, I’ve been craving some good sour beers.

Sour beers rarely make an appearance in winter, so if you are adventurous, get them while you can in these upcoming summer months before they’re gone.

Below, I have summarized some information on the most common styles in order of taste preference. (Thank you, Wikipedia, for providing me with some backstory information.)

IMG_7076Berliner Weisse is a beer that is popular in the summertime and meant to be enjoyed outside on a patio in the middle of a hot summer in Berlin. It is generally low alcohol, around 3% abv. and made sour using Lactobacillus bacteria. It is commonly sweetened with a green or red flavored syrup to balance out the tartness. Interestingly enough, it was when I lived in Berlin that this was my first taste of sour beers, and I had no idea that it was a sour beer. I really enjoyed it!

Gose (pronounced “go-suh”) is a top-fermenting beer that originated in Goslar, Germany. I had my first taste of sour Gose from 10 Barrel Brewing Co. in Portland and loved it. I have been in search of Gose since then. Goses have a lemon-/grapefruit-like tartness with a touch of herbal to them. This type of beer is generally characterized by the use of coriander and salt. It is then made sour by inoculating the wort with lactic acid bacteria before primary alcoholic fermentation.

Lambic beer is spontaneously fermented beer made in the Pajottenland region of Belgium and Brussels. I first tried a Kriek lambic beer when a friend told me that I had to try this sour cherry sweet beer. It is generally sweet as it is allowed to perform a secondary fermentation with fruit such as cherries (Kriek] or raspberries (Framboise). These are the most common lambics you are likely to taste.  Honestly, I have only tried the European versions, but you can find a cherry lambic beer at Trader Joe’s. Interestingly enough, the wort is left to cool overnight in the koelschip [italicize] where it is exposed to the open air during the winter and spring, and then placed into barrels to ferment and mature. Most lambics are blends of several seasons’ batches, such as Gueuze, or are secondarily fermented with fruits, such as Kriek and Framboise.

American wild ale is generally brewed using yeast and bacteria strains in addition to standard brewer’s yeast. American wild ales don’t follow specific guidelines, unlike their European counterparts.

Flanders red ale descended from the English porters of the 17th century. It is first fermented using brewer’s yeast,  then allowed to mature in oak barrels. It can later be blended with younger beer to adjust for consistency in taste, similar to the process used for a Solera Sherry.

To learn more about Solera Sherry, click here.

Oud bruin beer originates from the Flemish region of Belgium. Oud bruins differ from the Flanders red ale in that they are darker in color and not aged in wood. Consequently, this style tends to use cultured yeasts to impart its sour notes.

IMG_8305So if you are looking for that great summer beer, look no further then sour beers. Some of my favorites are from Avery BrewingDeschutes Brewery, Ecliptic BrewingDry Dock, 10 Barrel, and River North. If you are in a store, just ask one of the store associates to help you find some great sour beers and they’ll direct you to the right beers. Enjoy summer in a glass! Cheers!