Wines in Spain are anything but plainGET TO KNOW RIOJA
Ben Sigurdson features Wines from Rioja in Uncorked in the food & drinks section of the Winnipeg Free Press
Literary editor, drinks writer
Spain is known for its rustic fare and equally earthy wines, and no region has defined Spanish wine more profoundly over time than Rioja.
Located inland in northern Spain, Rioja is sheltered from most of the cooling maritime influences of the Atlantic Ocean by the Cantabrian mountains. The bulk of the vineyards in Rioja line the banks of the region’s Ebro River, and most of these vineyards are planted with the region’s signature red wine grape — Tempranillo. When well-made, Tempranillo-based wines deliver tart red and black berry flavours, earthy and cedar notes along with plenty of acidity and tannin, meaning the best examples have solid mid- to longer-term cellaring potential.
Many Rioja wines labels are adorned with an old-school classification system that indicates how, and how long, they were aged both in oak barrels and in the bottle. A wine designated a Crianza (typically in the $18-$20 price range) must be aged for at least two years before release, at least six months of which must be in barrel; Reserva wines ($20-$25-ish) must be aged for three years, and at least one of those years is required to be in oak.
Gran Reservas, made only in the best vintages, must be aged for five years before release, and the wine must spend at least two of those years in barrel. As top-tier reds go, they’re probably the best value out there. Gran Reservas typically only cost between $30-$40, which is remarkable given the quality of the wine and the amount of time and labour involved in their production.
Generally speaking, Reservas from Rioja can be put away for three to five years, while Gran Reservas can age for seven to 10 years or more. As they age, the tannin and acidity the Tempranillo brings tend to mellow out, making for a complex, captivating experience in the glass.
Beyond the Crianza/Reserva/Gran Reserva wines are Rioja reds made from the Tempranillo grape but which don’t fall into (or bother) with the classification. Some might not meet the minimum aging requirements; others prefer a more modern, New World approach to winemaking. These wines are typically well-priced wines ($15-ish or less) and bring a more fruit-forward, drink-now style that appeals to the global market — tannins are lower, there’s less (or no) oak aging, and the fruit flavours are more pronounced. For those less familiar with wines from the region, these types of wines offer the best entry point into Rioja reds.
Pairing Rioja reds with food is where the fun really begins. The oakier/old-school examples work well with hearty stews, braised beef, big steaks, spicy chorizo and sharper, harder cheeses. The more fruit-forward examples are great with tapas/charcuterie, burgers, pizza or tacos/burritos, especially when chilled for 10-15 minutes.
Wines of the Week:
Viña Zaco 2016 Tempranillo (Rioja, Spain — $15.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)
Beronia 2019 Tempranillo (Rioja, Spain — $14.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)
Gran Cerdo 2019 Rosso (Rioja, Spain — around $18, private wine stores)
Tentenublo 2018 (Rioja, Spain — around $27, private wine store
Bordón 2014 Reserva (Rioja, Spain — $22.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)
Ben Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer, and spirits.
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