Tour de Spain: Rioja
Ah, Rioja. If I'm remembering correctly in my newborn-induced sleep deprived state, the first Spanish wine that I tasted was from this region and I fell for its delicious balance of a red fruit core, oak notes, and whiffs of leather and tobacco that come with age. Tempranillo is the main grape used for Rioja wines, although Garnacha (Grenache) is also grown and is often used in a blend with Tempranillo to add body and alcohol.
Rioja is located in northern Spain and the climate is continental with hot, dry summers and harsh winters. Vineyards are planted in the foothills of the surrounding Cantabrian mountains at altitudes of 300 to 800 meters to provide the contrast of hot and cool temperatures that Tempranillo responds so well to. Rioja is divided into three subregions which have slightly varying climates and soil: Rioja Altavesa, Rioja Alta, and Rioja Baja. The area has a large number of small growers that sell their grapes to merchants and co-op cellars who then go on to produce, bottle, and sell the wine, so Rioja wines are typically a blend of grapes from each of these subregions. This is why you're likely to see the same selection of producers no matter where you're shopping for a Rioja - many are big brand wines. My inner hipster would like to see "small batch" wines from individual growers, although the current system does make the wines of Rioja a good value.
You've probably noticed terms like "Crianza", "Reserva" or "Gran Reserva" on the labels of some Spanish wines that you've seen. These are used to indicate how long the wine was aged before hitting the market, making it pretty easy to know what style of wine you can expect. Wines from Rioja (as well as Ribera del Duero) are required to spend more time in oak casks than other Spanish wines, so I'm going to outline just the red wines from Rioja here to avoid overwhelming you with way too many numbers. My head is already spinning just reviewing the Spanish law, but that could be the sleep deprivation again. It's hard to tell these days.
Joven: the wine is not aged in oak and is bottled one year after harvest
Crianza: the wine is aged for at least 2 years, at least 1 year of which must be in oak casks
Reserva: the wine is aged for at least 3 years and spends at least 1 year of this time in oak casks
Gran Reserva: the wine is aged for at least 5 years before being released for sale and at least 2 years must be spent in oak casks
To demonstrate the differences in these aging requirements, I've painstakingly tasted two Rioja wines for you. Such hard work, I know. First up is Sierra Cantabria Rioja Crianza 2011. I got notes of cherry, strawberry, cinnamon, tobacco, vanilla, and smoke. The red fruit notes had a fresh quality and the wine had a firm backbone of acidity. The vanilla and smoke notes are from the oak aging and the tobacco aroma shows me that the wine is beginning to develop notes of age. This is a nice Rioja. Thumbs up. $16.99
Next is Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva 2009. Like the Crianza example, this wine showed aromas and flavors of strawberry and cherry as well as raspberry, but they were more like dried fruits rather than fresh. The oak influence came through as aromas of toast and vanilla and it had very nice notes of tobacco and leather from its lengthy maturation. I just love a leathery wine and I can't often find them in wines that I can
afford find on a regular basis, so I was really digging this wine. It has a great acidity that is well balanced with the alcohol and smooth, rounded tannins. This is a good price for the level of development. Two thumbs up! $20.99
That is Rioja in a
oak cask nutshell. Which Spanish wine region would you like to hit next, my dear readers?