A few months ago I was sitting home alone on a Saturday night. I decided to write about my summer’s travels, singing on a concert tour through Israel and Salzburg, Austria. I bought a bottle of Rioja wine to sip through the evening and settled in to enjoy a Saturday of solitude. It provided much more entertainment than I ever would have expected.
I must explain.
I’ve been a budding wine enthusiast for many years now, but I’ve only explored viticulture in a focused way for the past year. Whereas before I would have a glass when dining out, leaving myself to the whims of the wine list and prejudices handed to me by Sideways, now I buy a bottle or two to drink throughout the week. I’ve downloaded a wine app (Wine Secretary) and started keeping a moleskine Passions wine journal to track my tastes. More and more, I know what I like and why I like it, and I’m getting better at picking out distinct flavors. Make no mistake: I’m still a total wine noob. But I’m learning more and more, which brings me back to the Rioja.
The Rioja was not entertaining for the obvious reason: I didn’t sit home alone and get sloshed on a Saturday night, although that might have made Saturday Night Live a bit funnier (to be fair, it actually was pretty good). No. What happened was I kept reading the label until I asked myself, “What the hell is a Rioja?” I only bought it because the wine shop recommended it, you see; I thought “Rioja” was maybe Portuguese for “red,” and since it was a red wine that made sense to me. (Note: I don’t speak a lick of Portuguese, but I do know Spanish where red is roja. Seemed a close enough cognate to me, hence my assumption. Don’t judge me.)
No, no. Rioja is the place where the wine is made, a region in Spain. It is not a color, it is not a grape. I’m an idiot. But that’s where the entertainment came in because curiosity led me to Wikipedia where I learned about how integral the wine I was drinking was to the culture in the region. In fact, every 29th of June, in celebration of the feast of San Pedro, the town of Haro explodes in a batalla de vino; folks turn up with supersoakers of local Rioja wine and proceed to hose each other down with red wine by the hundreds. All the t-shirts that begin the day white end it dyed purple.
I read about the tempranillo grape and how it is grown, the borders of the region, etc. I know from reading a wine book or two how important terroir is to the cultivation of grapes and the wines they make, but it wasn’t until that night that I began to taste just how Spanish the wine was; it was so unlike the nearby French and Italian reds I’ve had. I realized how perfectly it would have gone with a paella and chorizos. I wouldn’t say that it made the list of my favorite wines*, but it was so distinctive that it really left an impression on me, as well as an understanding of what this whole wine thing is about. What I mean to say is that I realize why people have gone to such great lengths to learn about wine in its myriad varieties, why they fuss over how to pair it with the right food and the right moments. I’ve tried many different wines here and there over the years, but this Rioja said, “Come here…” (well, okay, it said “Ven aquí…”) and it opened a door to a new realm of experience.
Many posts on this site will chronicle my burgeoning oenophilia. I want a record of my experiences in the world of wine. As with the Rioja, I want to find unique wines from regions I know little about, immerse myself in them, learn, and share. Of course it will be more than just that; if I were to simply rattle off facts I’d read, it would be just as well to simply link you to the articles. I’ll do that (attach links), but I also intend to use the wine as a starting point for other conversations….about Shakespeare, about classical music, about travel, about my experiences as a teacher, an uncle, a friend. There’s no end to the possible tangents to explore as I enter into the tradition of writing about wine as metaphor and history and catalyst.
In the meantime, any recommendations?
[Update, November 2014: After many subsequent bottles of Rioja, it is one of my favorites…]