North Central Spain’s La Rioja is the country’s most acclaimed wine region, with roughly 150,000 acres in grapes. It’s no wonder that when it came time to take another trip with my mom, whose family tree grows in Spanish soil, we headed straight to the vineyards of our ancestral homeland. Lucky us, right?
Riojan wines are primarily red blends, made from the tempranillo grape. Tempranillo wines tend to be bold–chewy almost–with hints of leather, spice and cherry. After more than a few glasses (all right, bottles), my mom and I asked ourselves why the wine was so damn good. Luckily, Inma Bezunartea from Rioja Wine Trips was there to shed some light on the five elements that make La Rioja so special
The Secrets of Rioja Wine
Secret No. 1: La Rioja sits in the Ebro River Valley and is affected by three distinct climate zones: maritime, continental and Mediterranean. Rioja typically has sunny summers and mild winters, resulting in grapes with balanced sugars and acids.
Secret No. 2: A few different soils types dominate, most of them bone dry. On top of that, growers generally don’t irrigate, so the grapes have to put up a fight just to grow. As a result, they tend to be small, leading to a high proportion of skin to juice. That means you get seriously concentrated flavors.
Old vines mean good wines
Secret No. 3: La Rioja is rich in old vines. In fact, the area near Haro is home to the world’s largest concentration of prestigious, hundred-year-old vineyards. Old vines mean low yield of grapes, which again means concentrated flavors. Yum.
Secret No. 4: In Spain, the government takes an active role in determining how much wine is produced. To be precise, they limit vine density to 3,000 vines per hectare and output to six thousand kilos (roughly 13,000 pounds) of grapes per hectare. If you don’t know what a kilo is, let alone a hectare, just know this: output in Spain is much less than in other regions in the world. The idea is that it encourages farmers to harvest and sell only the very best grapes. Quality starts in the vineyard so I say “gracias!” to the government.
Secret No. 5: Spanish wines deliver some of the best value in the world. In 2015, Wine Spectator magazine found the average price of a Spanish wine rated as “outstanding” was $61, compared to $71 for Italian wines, $82 for Californians and $100 for French.
Before you hop a plane or head to your local wine merchant, you should know something about Riojan wine labels. Typically, you’ll see no mention of grapes or specific vineyards. Unless the label says otherwise, red wines are likely tempranillo-based blends from a variety of vineyards across the region.
What labels do contain is information about the age of the wine and the conditions of its aging. When dealing with reds, Rioja or Rioja Joven are the youngest wines on the market. They’re usually fruity with no oak influence. Crianza wines have been aged for two years, with at least the first six months in an oak barrel. Reserva wines have been aged for at least three years, with at least one year in a barrel. And wines with the Gran Reserva designation have been aged for a total of five years, with at least a year and a half in barrel.
Recommendations by tribe
Finally, it wouldn’t be a My Wine Tribe blog post unless I provided a few recommendations tailored to the tribes. If you don’t know your tribe, take this quick quiz to identify your palate preferences. That way, you can see which wines you’re most likely to enjoy.
Accessible Tribe: The wines of La Rioja are fairly bold, so I think you’ll like a younger, fruitier joven or crianza wine. Try a 2013 CVNE Cune Crianza, a light red with lively flavors of cherry and vanilla. It got a 91/100 rating from Wine Spectator and is a bargain at $13 a bottle.
Balanced Tribe: Try either a Crianza or Reserva. These wines have more oak and heft than a Joven. Allow me to recommend the Gomez Cruzado 2010 Reserva ($17). This is a classic Rioja, with bold aromas and silky flavors of dark fruits, leather and a hint of dirt. Its nicely balanced with enough acids and tannins to hold up to food, but not so much that it overpowers. Try it with barbecued meats or anything with a tomato-based sauce.
A wine to fall in love with
Developed Tribe: I’m a member of the Developed tribe and I love either a Reserva or Gran Reserva. La Rioja Alta Viña Arana Rioja Reserva 2009 ($25) is one of my favorites. It smells a bit like black cherry and campfire and tastes like candied fruit and spice. I also love with the heft and flavors of plum, dark chocolate, leather and butterscotch in the CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva 2010 ($60). It would be a delicious with lamb or steak.
Complex Tribe: Inma from Rioja Wine Trips suggests the following two wines for the Complex among us. They’re both from single-vineyard, family-owned wineries. Since they are classified as “estate wines,” they don’t use the aging categories I talked about earlier, but be confident that these wines are appropriately aged for your palate. Finca Allende Calvario 2006 ($70) is known for its intense jammy, dark berry and meaty flavors. Get a steak to go with this one, folks. Señorío de San Vicente 2011 ($42) is a top pick of Wine Enthusiast, which awarded it 95 points. It is a full-bodied wine with silky tastes of mocha, boysenberry, blackberry and toast. Sounds good, right?