Drink More Wine: Reign in Spain

Rioja is an intoxicating blend that deserves your attention.

click to enlarge Affordable and tasty, Rioja pairs great with stewed or roasted meats. - Ralph Unden via Wikimedia Commons
Ralph Unden via Wikimedia Commons
Affordable and tasty, Rioja pairs great with stewed or roasted meats.


Last month, I was singing the praises of red zinfandel, for as we move into fall and get ready to set the clocks back, red wine moves to the forefront. One of my favorites, and a dark horse in the world of wine, is Rioja from northern Spain. It’s affordable and delicious to drink on its own or with food. The wine is also easy to understand.

Basically, there are three levels for the wines of Rioja. And while it’s the tempranillo grape varietal that is Rioja’s secret weapon, all you need to look for on the label is the classification. This indicates the time the wine has spent in oak barrels before being bottled, plus how many years of bottle aging have taken place before its release to the public.

Crianza designation requires two years of aging with a minimum of one year in French or American oak. The wines are cellared in 225-liter Bordeaux-style barrels, not huge tanks. Reserva wines are debuted after three years of aging, with a minimum of one year in oak barrels, while gran reserva bottles, only made in the best years, spend two years in barrels and become released after five to seven years of aging.

What these standards mean is that even the lowest designation is equivalent to a reserve wine in the rest of the world. There are similarities between tempranillo-based wines and pinot noir from France or sangiovese from Italy, which is the primary grape in Chianti. They are close to each other in flavor, acidity and tannin level. That’s why Burgundy (pinot noir) and Chianti (sangiovese) are also such good food wines.

Rioja pairs very well with food, most especially with lamb dishes or stews of almost any protein. But also in keeping with “what grows together, goes together,” it’s great for tapas, whether they’re sautéed vegetables or roasted pork or chorizo.

Another match made in heaven is with Manchego, that most amazing sheep’s milk cheese from the La Mancha region. The cheese is widely available, and I always have a big round from Costco in my fridge. It’s got a pleasant, grassy aroma with a sweet tang, almost nutty, on the palate. It’s a great cheese to use for quesadillas.

Rioja producers continue to create wines in a traditional old-world style, but they offer a broad spectrum of quality wines at price points that both newcomers and collectors can appreciate. They’re not stuck in the past and are open to innovations, so some styles highlight riper fruit.

Since 75 percent of the region’s vineyards are planted with tempranillo, the grape dominates the blend. Therefore, most Rioja displays flavors you might normally associate with Bordeaux (tobacco, leather) alongside light berry fruit that’s usually limited to pinot noir from Burgundy. The other major grape in most Rioja blends is garnacha (yes, it’s the same varietal as grenache from Châteauneuf-du-Pape). But, as always, the terroir dictates flavor and aroma.

For me, it’s an intoxicating combination that deserves your attention.

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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