To toast the arrival of three lovely new Riojas from producer Vega Caledonia, the spotlight this month is on Spain’s most famous region! The reason for its longstanding fame is easy to appreciate; the reds are all about good fruit and gentle oak with lashings of strawberry, blackcurrant, and soft buttery vanilla. This focus on the pure enjoyment to be found in well-made, easy-drinking styles unquestionably, paved the way for the New World revolution and the wines that made their name internationally from Australia, Chile, and the like.
So let’s start with a quick geography lesson. Initially, the name for the basin of land formed by the small Oja river (Rio Oja), the region now accounts for a large portion of the Ebro Valley 100km South of the Atlantic. Although relatively close to the sea, nearby mountain ranges skirt the Northern edge and shelter the vineyards, protecting them from the worst of the cold Atlantic winds. Further divided into three sub-regions – Rioja Alavesa (to the North), Rioja Alta (to the West), and Rioja Baja (to the East), much red production was traditionally a blend selected from all three regions. Times are changing with a battle now to allow both the village and vineyard name to appear on the label – a move that could see some exciting developments in the region soon.
Historically the reds were not only a regional mix but also a blend of different grapes. The rules now allow for just seven varieties, but Tempranillo remains the king thanks to those elegant strawberry flavours and tremendous ageing potential, accounting for over 60% of plantings. Garnacha Tinto (Grenache) is also often added to provide body along with Graciano, Mazuelo, and Maturano (with the occasional splash of the white grape Viura to help balance the wine with a zing of acidity). Therefore, unsurprisingly Viura (or Macabeo) is the mainstay grape of the region’s white wine production. The casks used for fermentation were traditionally often made from American Oak – hence all that oaky butter and vanilla flavours – although French Oak is now increasingly in use, especially at the top level.
So what about the famous grading system in use in the region? What exactly does it all mean? Depending on the ageing process, Rioja wines can fall into one of four categories:
- Joven – Young wines in their first or second year retain all that freshness and fruitiness. They may not have the oak influence, but they certainly offer seductive aromas and vibrant flavours of strawberries and juicy cherries. The mouthfeel is perfectly balanced with zippy fruit, providing a true expression of the Tempranillo variety! These easy-going wines are excellent with tapas; great with Chorizo, Bayonne Ham, and other flavoursome cured meats.
- Crianza – These are at least in their third year, having spent a minimum of one year in casks (for whites, the minimum cask ageing is six months). Crianzas are commonly aged in used oak casks, so those oak flavours are less pronounced, and more of the bright red fruit flavours of strawberry and raspberry shine through. Perfect with Hungarian Goulash, smoky albondigas (Spanish Meatballs), or even a Mediterranean Fish Stew.
- Reserva – Selected wines of the best vintages with an excellent potential that have been aged for a minimum of three years with at least one year in casks (whites must have a minimum of two with at least six months in barrel). This is where Rioja gets serious, a rich and harmonious style sitting between the fruit-driven Crianzas and the powerfully oaked and bottle-aged Gran Reservas. Many enthusiasts swear by this level as the perfect happy medium. A rich tomato-based venison stew, tender lamb cutlets (traditionally cooked over vine clippings in the region itself), or a selection of hard cheeses – Manchego included, of course – would all be great partners.
- Gran Reserva – these selected wines from exceptional vintages must have spent at least two years in oak casks and three years in the bottle (for whites, the period is four years with at least one year in cask). Gran Reservas experience the most oak-ageing, delivering wines with excellent tannic structure and age-worthy potential. This unique, often complex, and yet mellow style is a fantastic match with pheasant or partridge, braised slow-cooked lamb shanks, or a hearty cassoulet.