Tuesday, January 17, 2012

the ten year old Rioja


2001 Marqués de Cáceres Gran Reserva, DOCa Rioja

Eleven years ago when this wine was made - although technically, the wine was born towards the end of 2011, so ten years and a few months ago - I was beginning high school. Young, impressionable, clueless . . . yet somehow I thought I knew it all. We've all been there. So stupid. So immature.

My favourite class in the second semester was an art class called Media Arts. They let us play with digital cameras (giant bricks that you put 3.5" floppy disks in), Photoshop, iMovie . . . and taught us what art installations were. It was my first experience with non-Classical art, and in my first assignment for that class, I wrote I don't think this counts as art. A decade later, I still think it's questionable for the arts curriculum to insist that a bunch of 16 year olds learn contemporary art before the classics. What they don't teach you is that the most successful contemporary artists have a solid foundation in the classics - illustration, sketching, painting, etc. You can't just suddenly become conceptual without developing strong, basic art skills. It doesn't work like that, which is why our class produced students who were deluded into thinking that they were, in fact, artistic.

There are no shortcuts. When I send my piano students to performances and recitals, they sound magnificent on stage. It's a few minutes of glory, but what the audience doesn't see (or hear) are the hours and hours of practice, of technical exercises . . . of endless repetition and often, frustration. Fundamentals are everything. You can't become a artist/musician/whatever by showing up and trying to go right for the end product. You have to start at the beginning, and go through all the steps. Patient, methodical, and diligent work is not sexy (or easy), but it's the only way. As they say, it may take 100 hammer strikes to break the rock, but was it that 100th blow that did the job, or the preceding 99?

The last issue of Decanter magazine had an (excellent, as always) article written by Andrew Jefford, explaining exactly how oak is used in Rioja. The classification rules dictate the years that the wine must remain in oak and bottle before release. For example, Reserva wines require at least 1 year in oak, 2 years in bottle, and Gran Reserva requires 2 years in oak and 3 years in bottle; producers often age the wines even longer. What Jefford explained was that often, the wines are aged into several different types of wood before they're bottled. They may be aged first for a few months in new American white oak for toasty flavours and tannins, then into older French casks to allow for a subtle oxidation and a harmonious integration of all the parts. Or, the winemaker may experiment with casks of varying toasts. All very complex indeed, underlining the skill and precision demanded of the winemaker's palate. It's never so simple as simply sticking the wine in oak for 24 months, then into bottle. Good things take careful study and hard work. This particular wine, from a traditional producer of Rioja, is stunning. That gentle rusticity, that beautiful Rioja nose of strawberries and cream. Developing in the glass and with more air, becoming more complex, more refined, more singular. And at a decade old . . . it was worth the wait.


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