The wine world is constantly evolving. Fifty years ago -- a blink of the eye for some of us -- France was the preeminent producer of world-class wines. Although most Americans had not tasted a great wine from Bordeaux or Burgundy, there certainly was a vague awareness that these storied regions were the source of great wines. Italy and Germany were minor players, producing inexpensive plonk, and California was noted for their post-Prohibition jug wines.
Fast forward to present day, and, while France is still certainly a leading producer of world-class wines, American, Italian, German, and Spanish wines are some of the best and most competitive in the world.
The newest region to attain this well-deserved recognition is the Rioja region of Spain. Tempranillo is the dominant red grape of Rioja, although it is frequently blended with garnacha (grenache) and mazuelo (carignan).
A recent meeting with Eladio Fernandez, export manager of Bodegas Muriel, gave us a chance to taste their Rioja offerings, as well as a delightful albarino from Rias Baixas. Bodegas Muriel is a large producer of Rioja, with ownership of several wineries producing one million cases of wine per year.
The Muriel Vendimia Seleccionada Blanco 2015 is a steal at $12. A perfect summer sipper, this clean, 100 percent viura offered thirst-quenching apple and citrus flavors with balanced acidity.
We also enjoyed the Pazo Cilleiro Albarino Rias Baixas 2015 ($20) made entirely from albarino grapes, which presented a bit more acidity and citrus notes than the viura. The albarino grapes are grown on a 6-foot high pergola system that allows for effective air circulation away from the damp ground. According to Fernandez, all of the Rias Baixas D.O.-approved land is already planted to mostly albarino (90 percent), thus cutting off any potential expansion of albarino plantings in the area.
The well-priced Bodegas Muriel Vina Eguia Tempranillo Rioja 2014 ($14) features fresh cherry fruit in a rich and round package with some black pepper notes.
The Vina Eguia Reserva Rioja 2013 ($19) is a step up. This delicious reserva presents very ripe cherry with a hint of licorice and is elegantly balanced.
The Bodegas Muriel Reserva Rioja 2011 ($20) is another fantastic reserva that deserves attention. Coconut and fruit dominated the nose with a bare hint of mint. Ripe cherry and coconut flavors and hints of vanilla developed in the mouth with a long, pleasing finish.
The Conde de los Andes Tempranillo 2013 ($50) is a stunner. Although this wine could benefit with some bottle aging, it already displayed delicious cherry and berry flavors, with coffee and cacao notes in the nose and mouth. Very elegant, this beautiful wine can compare to some of the best wines in the world. A bit pricey, but worth it.
Clos du Val Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($52). This historic property seems to have turned a big corner with a series of new estate-grown wines made by the new team of Steve Tamburelli, president and CEO, and Jon-Mark Chappellet, director of operations, and winemaker Ted Henry. The wines slipped in quality in recent decades, but this house cabernet takes it back to the quality that made it famous in the Judgment of Paris. This wine is concentrated and complex with a velvet texture and rich plum and cocoa flavors.
Saldo California Zinfandel 2015 ($28). From The Prisoner Wine Co., this lively and rich zinfandel shows off beaucoup raspberry aromas with strawberry and blackberry flavors, with a hint of oak and vanilla.
Concannon Vineyard Mother Vine Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($45). Concannon earned a footnote in history by being the source of virus-resistant vines back in the 1960s. It estimates that today 80 percent of California's cabernet sauvignon is planted with Concannon clones. The fruit for this aptly named cab comes from vines of the first planting. It's a winner. Smooth, quaffable, mouth-filling fruit. Ripe plum and black cherry notes with a hint of mocha and a long finish.
Drumheller Columbia Valley Merlot 2015 ($12). The merlots from this Washington state region are overshadowed by syrah and cabernet, but shouldn't be. This incredible deal is a medium-bodied, rich, and tasty merlot that is blended with 20 percent syrah. It has blueberry and plum notes with a hint of chocolate. The Drumheller cabernet sauvignon ($12) is also a killer wine with cocoa powder and expresso to accent the dark berry flavors.
Olema Chardonnay Sonoma County 2014 ($15). This is a lot of wine for the price. Citrus and pineapple in the nose, with mouth-coating tropical fruit flavor framed in a bit of toasty oak.
Markham Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley 2014 ($28). If you've forgotten how good a California merlot can be, try this delicious example from a well-respected Napa winery. Fantastic aromas and flavors of raspberry, cherry, and mocha waft from this elegant wine. Firm but soft tannins make this wine drinkable now or a candidate for 3-5 years of aging.
Vavasour Sauvignon Blanc Awatere Valley Marlborough New Zealand 2014 ($22). Classic, well-made Marlborough sauvignon blanc with ample grapefruit. passion fruit, cut grass, and herb notes. Refreshing, thirst-quenching acidity.
Charles Krug Merlot 2013 ($25). Merlot fans looking for a good deal should turn to this flavor knock-out. Made by one of the oldest winery's in Napa Valley, some cabernet sauvignon, malbec, and cabernet franc is blended with the merlot. Big-time forward and ripe black cherry flavors and a dose of vanilla.