Rioja, arguably Spain’s best known area for producing wine, is in the far north of the country, surprisingly close to France. And ever since its origins as a modern wine region roughly 150 years ago, Rioja has in many ways been Spain’s attempt to emulate French wine, though in its own distinctly Spanish timbre.

The elegant, aged and age-worthy wines of Rioja, intense yet soul-baring, structured yet lithe, are for me like Bordeaux with the addition of duende. First named by the great poet Lorca, duende is a nearly untranslatable combination of guts, earthiness, acknowledgment of death, irrationality and a devilish darkness. Great Rioja brings me to that true, somber, chilling place.

Great Rioja is rare, though, and nothing important is easily won. You can’t just grab any bottle of $12 Rioja and expect a quick duende shot. Everyday Rioja is fine, yet it decidedly lacks the black oomph I wish it had. I want every Rioja to at least mention the agony, the blood, the sorrow of the ideal Rioja.

This is grossly unfair of me. Yet various decisions made by many Rioja winemakers and marketers – harvesting earlier, increasing yields, aging in new French oak rather than the traditional old American oak, etc. – have rendered a modern, innocuous, cleaner style that bears little connection to the classic. I am generalizing. However, I am confident asserting that in most other wine regions I love – Mosel, Beaujolais, Loire, Piedmont – the spiritual gap between the expensive classics and the everyday modernities is far narrower than in Rioja.

Quickly, some semi-speculative math to back this up. A decent $12 Mosel Riesling, at 20 percent the cost of a $60 jewel with significant bottle age, provides, conservatively, 80 percent of the latter’s glory, and does so in the same vein. A decent $12 Rioja, generally speaking, provides at most 40 percent of its $60 counterpart’s significance, and does so bearing little if any trace of its heritage.

There is a way around this conundrum, however, a way to find inklings of duende in inexpensive Spanish wine, including Rioja. To find it, we need to follow a grape that until quite recently functioned mostly in Rioja’s background. The most prominent grape used in red Rioja wines is tempranillo. I will not generalize about tempranillo, for it comes in something like 70 different clonal varieties, it is planted in many regions in Spain and beyond, and it responds sensitively to different climate situations and winemaker choices.


Tempranillo has always led in Rioja, as it has (sometimes under different names) in other well-known Spanish regions such as Toro and Ribera del Duero. After tempranillo comes garnacha, and then the bit players: mazuelo (aka carignan) and graciano. That’s it, our savior of low-cost soul: graciano.

Graciano comprises less than 1 percent of the vine-planted acreage of Rioja, and yields miserly. However, it is well regarded for contributing structure and aging potential to the wines, much of it going into the highest-classification Gran Reservas. Most exciting for those of us ever seeking less expensive wines of distinct character, though, is how a small but increasing number of producers are focusing on developing graciano into a complete wine all on its own.

Graciano grows best in limestone soils in a cool climate, the same parameters as for pinot noir in Burgundy. While I’ve drunk much more of the latter than the former, in my limited experience I’ve found a similar expression between the two grapes: pronounced acidity, beautiful floral aromas, purity of fruit, liveliness. Tempranillo can have these too, but in cheaper wines usually at a cost to its character, its depth of purpose. Graciano is agile and pleasing, but with apparently less loss of self.

Aromas of loam and all sorts of flowers accompany the peppery black cherry flavors. And graciano’s texture, the element that looms increasingly large in my experience of any wine, is a fascinating counterpoint to tempranillo’s. With tempranillo, a basic, un-oaked or lightly oaked young wine usually seems to have had all its interesting edges sanded down. With graciano, the texture of the basic wine is more evident, the contours of its edges more clearly revealed.

Despite my attempt to describe the nature of graciano, the two wines suggested here are dramatically different from each other. One is from Rioja, the other from Uclés, a newly designated D.O. – Denominación de Origen – in central Spain’s Castilla-La Mancha. Both are surprisingly full of character. They may not yield a full experience of duende, but they recognize duende’s home in the corners of our hearts, and yearn to point the way there.

Bodegas Fontana Oveja Tinta 2013, $13, from Uclés, is the place to start if you like your wines stripped down, rugged and raw. With wild-strawberry aroma and flavor, sun-dried tomato, and an undeniable undercurrent of white pepper, it’s fresh, clean and immediate. The balance among components indicates its readiness for all sorts of meals: I’ve drunk it happily with pasta puttanesca, pizza with broccoli rabe and squash soup.


The Oveja Tinta achieves by virtue of absence and simplicity. Bodegas y Viñedos Ilurce’s Rio Madre 2013, $11, from Rioja, strikes a decidedly bolder figure. The fruit is blackberry and plum, the feel in the mouth is silken, and there’s a hint of vanilla. The wine bears the distinct imprint of new oak, but judiciously applied and subtle. I don’t like new oak; I like this wine. It comes through semi-fancy, like a cowboy getting dressed up for an evening out with just a hint of dust still on his jeans. Spend time just smelling its deceptively complex aromas before you start drinking. Once you drink, though, serve it with bolder flavors: cheeseburgers worked great for me, as did a black bean chili and, surprisingly, pork with kimchee.

“Surprising” is the word I keep coming back to in describing my experience with graciano. Surprise isn’t the highest plane to which a wine can aspire, but I’ll gladly spend time there when for one reason or another I can’t find my way to the depths.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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