Rioja is a region in Spain with a long viticultural history. Until recently, Rioja was steeped in very old, traditional varieties and winemaking techniques, but during the last two decades it has made a leap from the 16th to the 21st century, with stainless steel, refrigeration, and modern microbiology supplanting ancient wood.
There is not one true style of Rioja; instead, several versions are valid. The ancient style exemplified by oxidative red, while not to everyone’s taste, remains. More recent variations include the modern style that came forward in the 1960s to 1980s, which emphasizes time in oak and supple expressions and softer structures, and the new internationalist school, which can produce some powerful inky-dark and tannic wines with new French oak.
Situated in north-central Spain about 100 miles south of Bilbao, along the meandering Rio Ebro, Rioja covers a vineyard area roughly the size of the state of Delaware. Rioja lies at the confluence of three major climate types: Atlantic (cool and wet), Continental (hot summers, cold winters), and Mediterranean (hot and dry). Because microclimate and vintage variation dramatically affect ripeness and quality level, blending is traditional in Rioja, though exceptional vintages can be outstanding.
The “red Rioja” is the most well-known style of Rioja. Rioja Tinto (Red Rioja) is classically a blend of several red grape varieties, but Tempranillo is unquestionably king. Classic, bold, these wines taste mostly of their Tempranillo roots and have a bright, fresh flavor. Indigenous to northern Spain, but cultivated successfully all over the country, Tempranillo reaches its apex of expression in Rioja, with unmatched levels of complexity, finesse, and elegance. Garnacha Tinta, another red grape, gives Rioja red blends a boost of fruit and warmth. Mazuelo, known elsewhere as Carignan, adds acidity and tannin (for longevity) to blends, while Graciano offers regal color and extraordinary aromatic notes.
Officially divided into three subzones— Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja, and Rioja Alavesa—the vast majority of the region’s bodegas practice traditional grape- sourcing, typically purchasing grapes from growers from all over the region and blending them to create a Champagne-like house style. The result is an abundance of uncharted microvineyard distinctions and a seemingly limitless variety of styles and tastes. Many of the area’s long-aging wines are made from grapes sourced in the Alta. Rioja Baja is the driest and warmest subzone, with sandy soils, enormous old-vine Garnacha plantings, and a largely Mediterranean influence. Rioja Alavesa is composed mainly of limestone deposits and younger sedimentary soils, with an abundance of south-facing vineyards and a mixed climate dominated by Mediterranean influence.
Typical Rioja aging marks include: Crianza (one year in a cask, at least three years old), with a young, fresh and juicy flavor accented by a hint of vanilla and spice; Reserva (three years old, at least one in oak), which has depth and character and often an explosion of aroma and taste sensations, darker in color; Gran Reserva (two years in oak plus three in the bottle), a very traditional Rioja, which uses the finest red grapes; and Guarantee of Origin (minimal oak aging, less than 12 months, or no oak aging at all), a young red with a deep red berry scent, which some modern producers favor.
Rioja pairs nicely with simple, homey foods, or hearty meals. Try with grilled lamb chops, steak, game birds, or roasted chicken.
Wines To Try
Marques de Caceres Crianza
Stylistically this sits astride the traditional and modern schools. Super-versatile, it’s delicious and reliable.$18.49
A traditional Reserva at a price that makes it one of our finest values, this delivers fresh fruit with succulent oakiness and a long, lovely finish. $16.49
Faustino I Gran Reserva
This high-profile wine is not to be missed. $45.99
photo: spain-recipes.com via Pinterest