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

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LAN Crianza

C.V.N.E. Crianza

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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.

calle-laurel

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.

 

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!

 

A Weekend to Remember in Prosser, Washington

While Prosser may not be as well-known as, say, Walla Walla, it is home to a number of recognizable and award-winning wineries. It is, in fact, the birthplace of Washington Wine, thanks to the efforts of Walter Clore but more about that later. Let’s talk about the wineries of Prosser and how to spend a proper weekend in Prosser and not treat it as just another stop along the way to other regions.

GETTING THERE

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As an introduction to those new to the area, Prosser is located about three hours from Portland, Oregon, across this beautiful stretch of the Columbia Gorge that is well worth the drive.  You can also fly into Pasco, Washington from Portland Airport in 45 minutes on Alaska Airlines, Delta and United.

HISTORY

Prosser is the birthplace of Washington wine, as declared by the Washington State Legislature, Mr. Clore was the father of Washington wine.   It was under Walter Clore’s direction that a number of experimental plantings would soon become the foundation of the now famous Washington wines.  Prosser has since remained at the forefront of wine growing and agricultural research in Washington State. Click here for more info on Prosser and the birthplace of Washington Wine from a previous article.

Prosser is home to Mercer Estates, Columbia Crest, and Hogue Cellars, as well as some smaller yet renowned wineries such as Chinook Winery, Gamache Vitners, Alexandria Nicole Cellars, Bunnell Cellars, and Domanico Cellars.

 

FRIENDS TO TAKE ALONG

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A walk through the Domanico Cellars Vineyard with the crew.

 

Left to Right:  Sarah of Wow Communications,William of Wild 4 Washington Wine,  April of Sacred Drop, Mattie of By the Tun, Ken of Decanter Banter ,and Jason from Domanico Cellars.

Like any trip one takes, a great trip has only so much to do with the places you visit, the food you eat, and the drinks you consume; it has much more to do with the people you are with and the memories you share.  When visiting a wine region such as Prosser, take people with you on this trip who love food and wine as much as you do.

On this trip, I had the honor of being with four wonderful people, two of which I knew quite well from previous wine encounters and trips:  Mattie Bamman of By the Tun and William Pollard of Wild 4 Washington Wine.  I also had the chance to get to know Sarah Wolcott better; Sarah just launched her own communications company called Wow Communications and works for Zephyr Adventures as a phenomenal wine guide.  She is also the one who organized and led this wonderful Prosser wine tour. In addition to these three fine people, I got to meet Ken Trimpe for the first time.  Ken is a native of Washington and has a great video blog called Decanter Banter and runs his own agency called Vine Vertical.  Our friend, Alina, joined us but had to leave—what a pity; we hope you feel better!

We wine geeks love to geek out over food and wine, and while our significant others sometimes can’t help but roll their eyes at us, we have a blast. I’d like to share some to the great things to eat, drink and do in Prosser. Enjoy!

PLACES TO EAT

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The beautiful Bunnell Syrah vertical at Wine O’Clock.

 

  1. Wine O’Clock

Prosser is not normally the type of town you would think you could find Michelin Star quality types of restaurants, but I found this place and only wish I could be closer so I could visit it daily.

Wine O’Clock is located in Vintners Village in Prosser, a place where you will find a number of my new favorite Washington wineries, such as Martinez & Martinez, Gamache Vintners, Cayote Canyon, and of course, Bunnell Wines.

Home to the winery of Bunnell Wines, Wine O’Clock also serves as a wine bar and bistro with an amazing and rotating selection of food made from local produce. I would not leave Prosser before thoroughly enjoying the wine flights and menu of Mrs. Susan Bunnell.  Check out her weekly menu here.

  1. Martilla’s Kitchen- Caterer

You can find wonderful food working with Kristin of Martilla’s Kitchen.   This is run by Mrs. Kristin M. Johnson, formerly of Alaska; she named her restaurant after her grandmother, who showed her how to cook her beyond-delicious meals.  If you need an Alaskan chef to cater your meals, or perhaps you are hosting an event, be sure to contact Kristin.

PLACES TO DRINK

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In Washington, there is always wine for you too!

 

Other than Wine O’Clock and Bunnell Wines as your favorite winebar, make sure to visit the following great places:

Prosser Vintner’s Village:

1. Gamache Vintners:  Prosser Vintner’s Village, 100 Merlot Drive, Prosser, WA, 99350

Since 1982, Gamache Vintners have been farming a unique spot of land in the White Bluffs of the Columbia Valley, working alongside Mother Nature to grow top-quality grapes for some of the state’s best vintners. They decided along the way to make a few bottles of their own and have since had award-winning success. Make sure to try their 2010 Estate Cab Franc.

PROSSER TASTING ROOM: Summer Open daily 11-5 | Winter- Call for Appointment: 509-786-7800

2. Martinez & Martinez Winery: Prosser Vintner’s Village- Winemaker Loft- 375, 100 Merlot Drive, Prosser, WA, 99350

Martinez & Martinez Winery is dedicated to the production of high-quality wine from high-quality grapes, focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon from the Horse Heaven Hills. I had the pleasure of meeting Monica and trying her 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon.  The people at Martinez & Martinez are wonderful people and have phenomenal wines.

PROSSER TASTING ROOM: Call to confirm hours: 509-786-2392 or email at info@MartinezWine.com.

3. Bunnell Wines: Prosser Vintner’s Village, 100 Merlot Drive, Prosser, WA, 99350

Although I previously mentioned Bunnell Wines, I wanted to point out my favorite wines from Bunnell.  I loved, loved the 2009 Bunnell Alx- Syrah; it was stunning—as was their 2006 Horse Heaven Hills Syrah, which they paired with an amazing duck plate that blew me away.

PROSSER WINERY & TASTING ROOM: Wednesday – Sunday from noon until 5 pm; Tastings for groups of 6 or more by appointment: (509) 786-2197

The team

The dream team at Mercer Estates Winery

Prosser Food and Wine Park:

1. Mercer Estates Winery:  3100 Lee Road, Prosser, WA 99350; 509-786-2097

The Mercers have a long history in Washington.  Mercer Wines is now in its fifth generation of farming in Washington State. Make sure to stop by their tasting room and try their Ode to Brothers-Grenache, Syrah, and Mouvedre blend, and their beautiful Sauvignon Blanc. If you want to contribute to the Flight 93 Fund, make sure to take home a bottle of Eagle and Plow Cabernet Sauvignon; with your purchase of this wine, Mercer Wines donates 100% of its profits to First Responders groups and veterans. Well worth the visit, and say hi to Jenna! That’s where we took this great picture in front of the terracotta egg used for fermenting wine.

PROSSER WINERY & TASTING ROOM: Wednesday – Sunday, 10am – 5pm (March-December)

2. Chinook Wines: 220 Wittkopf Lane, Prosser, WA 99350; 509.786.2725,  info@chinookwines.com

Chinook Wines just celebrated their 30th anniversary in 2013.  The brainchild of Clay Mackey and Kay Simon, Chinook Wines has become well known for its gorgeously balanced wines and its beautiful, renovated farmhouse tasting room. Make sure to try Chinook Wines’ tropical 2013 Sauvignon Blanc and its food-friendly 2011 Cab Franc.

PROSSER WINERY & TASTING ROOM: Saturday and Sunday 12–5 May through October, or by appointment

3. Alexandria Nicole Cellars: 2880 Lee Rd, Suite D , Prosser, WA 99350

Alexandria Nicole Cellars is dedicated to producing small lots of hand-crafted wine from their 267-acre estate vineyard, Destiny Ridge Estate Vineyard.  This vineyard is located high above the bluffs on the Columbia River, near the town of Paterson, Washington, where the grapes thrive in the soils and climatic conditions of the Horse Heaven Hills.

PROSSER TASTING ROOM: Open daily 11-5 | 2880 Lee Rd, Suite D , Prosser, WA 99350  | 509.786.3497
HOLLYWOOD SCHOOLHOUSE: Open daily 12-5 | Friday night happy hour 5-8 |
14810 Northeast 145th Street, Woodinville, WA 98072 | 425.487.9463
DESTINY RIDGE VINEYARD AND WINERY: Open by Appt.| 158422 W. Sonova Rd., Prosser, WA 99350 | 509.242.9979

OFF THE BEATEN PATH

Pontin del Roza

Pontin del Roza

1. Pontin Del Roza:  35502 N Hinzerling Rd, Prosser, WA 99350

If you love bocce ball and love a beautifully designed tasting room, this is your place. Scott Pontin will host you with some of his very nice white and rosé wines; however, he’s sold out completely of his reds (which is a pity, as this region is now becoming known for their stellar red wines)!  Scott’s family began as turkey farmers; however, in 1967, they started selling Concord grapes for juice to Yakima Valley Grape Producers, now Welch’s. Today Pontin del Roza is a thriving estate winery with over 100 acres of 10 varietals including: Riesling, Malbec, Syrah, Dolcetto, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère and Petit Verdot.

Scott’s family also farmed wheat, mint, potatoes, and sugar beets and later planted five varieties of apples, which they still farm.  Scott generously took us to see…and pick his apples. I took home some as-big-as-your-head Fuji apples, which I am now enjoying as I write.

Scott will show you a great time, and you will love the events he has at his place.  To get a sense of his place, check out his latest video:

[http://vimeo.com/68493659]

PROSSER WINERY & TASTING ROOM: Open daily 11-5

2. Davenlore Winery: 23103 South Davlor Pr SW, Prosser, WA 99350

This family-owned Yakima Valley winery produces high-quality DavenLore wine from hand-picked local grapes. Gordon Taylor heads up the winemaking and is also the December pinup for the Prosser Winemaker’s Calendar! He’s a hoot, and he has some beautiful wines to boot! I took home a bottle of his Sangiovese Rosé.

PROSSER WINERY & TASTING ROOM: Fri – Sat – Sun: 11am-5pm, Mon – Thurs: Call for Appt. 509-786-1575

3. Domanico Cellars:  825 NW 49th Street, Seattle, WA 98107; 206.465.9406; info@domanicocellars.com

Domanico Cellars is a small family-owned-and-operated winery.  Jason and his wife first started their winery in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle and have since grown their operations to a larger warehouse, where they house their tasting room and winery in the same neighborhood. I had the pleasure of walking through Jason’s vineyard in Prosser.  His vineyard is home to a number of different varieties and vines that have been long planted in the soils of Prosser.  Jason commutes back and forth between Prosser and Seattle and is also a very active member and board member of the Prosser Wine Network. I fell in love with his two amazing 2008 Domanico Mesa Rojo and Domanico Family Wine.  This latter wine, unfortunately, is not for sale but is only for the family. I guess I can count myself very lucky!

SEATTLE TASTING ROOM: Friday – 5:00 to 9:00PM; Saturday –  2:00 to 9:00PM

PROSSER TASTING ROOM: Coming soon!

 THINGS TO DO

While every town has its attractions, Prosser is the place to come if you want to enjoy wine events. .  Click here to find out more about the latest winery events in Prosser. The events change by the season, so it’s worth checking before you head out.  You should also book your spots in advance, as spaces fill up fast.

In addition, Prosser offers great Farmers’ Markets, including their Prosser Winter Market, where you can find all the greatest of the local produce that this region is known for

Berns Tavern

Every location has a dive bar that is worth visiting at least once to get a feel for the local wildlife. We had the pleasure of visiting the one place that everyone says you have to visit before you leave.  This place is Bern’s Tavern. Bern’s Tavern is where you can rub shoulders with a lot of the local winemakers and ask them how things are going in the fermentation hall.  Even if there isn’t a local winemaker there when you go, the people in Prosser are really nice and will chat you up over an ice cold beer.

PLACES TO STAY

Desert WInd

Desert Wind Winery not only has wine but also offers four luxurious guest suites.  It’s located in the heart of the Prosser Wine & Food Park, right next to Kestrel Vintners, Alexandria Nicole Cellars, Hogue Cellars, Mercer Wine Estate, and across the street from Chinook Wines.

Also highly recommended is the Seven Gables Pensione, which is a beautiful restored historic home built in the early 1900s.

There is always a place for you and your budget in Prosser!  For more recommendations, contact the tourism office of Prosser at Tour Prosser for more information.

I hope you will enjoy Prosser as much as I did!   Cheers!