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Rioja: Wine region of the year

January 20, 2012: 12:52 PM ET

The northern Spanish wine region takes top honors this year for its diversity of wine-making styles and its unbeatable value.

By Gregory Dal Piaz, Snooth

Photo: Alex Porta/Flickr

Looking back on my reams of tasting notes and experiences, one thing really stuck out in 2011. Rioja is producing some of the finest wines available at prices that can make a Scotsman blush. Rioja is my region of the year for 2011. The northern Spanish wine region has proven that its wine ages as well as any other, and can age even better than many more famous and costly examples. The ability of a wine to age, to improve in the bottle while morphing into something profound, is one of the core elements that makes wine such an attractive and enthralling subject.

Like many wine regions, Rioja went through a rather convulsive final decade of the last century. With massive investments, technological temptation, and a marketplace that seemed intent on replacing all that had come before it with oaken power, it was  difficult for many producers to resist the urge to join the modern set.As with almost all wine regions that saw their pendulum swing past their apex, we are now seeing it come back down, perhaps more slowly than on the way up, but without a doubt, Rioja's tides are changing. Let me just state for the record that while I appreciate a good Luddite, I am not myself a practicing member. But having a variety of wine styles successfully implemented in a region is, if nothing else, a safe and secure business choice and one that I applaud.

Not only do I applaud the region for the simple financial advantages it offers, but also because not everyone is cut out to be a traditionalist winemaker. Being an old-school winemaker takes certain attributes, not to mention terroirs (a term for the environment in which a wine is produced), of which there are simply not enough to go around. If we forced all winemakers to make the style we preferred, say "natural" for example, I am afraid that many would fail and the few who succeeded would have the market all to themselves. We would be kicking our collective selves as consumers would be given little choice as to what to drink and would be paying more. With wine made in hyper-traditional and hyper-modern styles and all that falls between, Rioja is able to satisfy nearly all palates.

And the final factor, the keystone of Rioja's choice as Snooth's region of the year in 2011, is simple. It is pricing. I tasted so many $30-and-under wines from Rioja this year that simply blew away almost all other wines at the same price point. Even at higher price points, the values are still there. And at lower price points, there is simply no competition.

Think of what you get when you plunk down $20 on a 2004 Rioja Gran Reserva, for example. You're getting a beautiful wine that has been lovingly aged for you. Yes, part of Rioja's appeal is the regional requirement that Rioja producers  age your wine for you, before you even pay for it. This is no futures scam, it's a bureaucratic anomaly.

Rioja is a region you must explore in 2012. The wines are simply too good to ignore and they are continuing to improve. Producers are learning where to join the line with more modern interpretations of Rioja, and even the traditionalists can't argue that they benefit from increasing awareness and improvement of viticultural and cellaring concerns.

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