Probably the wine that got me hooked on wines for good was a 1973 Rioja Vega. I bought it because it was so inexpensive--about $3 a bottle--and it already had seven years of bottle age on it. I bought a few bottles, then a case and later a second case. Along with my circle of friends, I became enchanted with the classic Rioja scents and flavors--American oak, cherries and a delightful level of maturity. Compared to the domestic wines available at that price range--Almaden, Inglenook, Beaulieu Burgundy, Pedroncelli--this wine had real personality. When the supply of Rioja Vega started running low, I found an even greater bargain, Domaine Domecq Rioja at $2.69 a bottle! And it was at least as good.
I still have a few bottles of Rioja in my cellar from that era--Olarra, Ramone Bilbao and Muga-- and every time I open one I smile. That haunting bouquet that drew me in, I now know, has more to do with oak than with fruit, a product of long aging in old American oak barrels. But the wines were all traditional artisanal wines made in the mountains of Spain.
In the early 1980s, many of the bodegas of Rioja moved away from traditional winemaking and became wine factories not unlike Almaden and Inglenook. I moved on to other wine regions but still venture back occasionally, and this Montecillo reminds me quite a bit of the Riojas of the 1970s. American oak takes center stage but it's married gracefully to mature cherry-tinged fruit. While the fruit gives a ripe, full bodied impression, there is a strong acidic backbone that keeps you coming back for another sip. Rioja, because of this acidity, is a red wine that goes well with chicken, fish or ham as well as traditional red wine dishes.
Crianza means literally "made with care." Montecillo also produces a Reserva, which is made with a little more care and, as a result, is more ageworthy. A higher level yet for Rioja is Gran Reserva. A few years ago, I had a 1954 Rioja Gran Reserva, brought back from Spain by a friend, that provided one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had. The combination of old American barrels and incredibly alive 50-year-old fruit (temperanillo and garnacha) created layers and layers of complex aromas and flavors.
I bought this 2000 Montecillo Crianza a few years ago, and it is definitely ready for drinking. In fact, I'm sure the 2005, now on the market, would be showing even better. For a blast from the past, it's worth a try.