A few years back, my husband and I vacationed in the Canary Islands, which, though located off the coast of Western Africa, is a territory of Spain. You’d think that since it was summer on an island, we drank tropical cocktails or some such, but A) I’m almost exclusively a wine and beer gal and B) Even in the summer, an island in the middle of the ocean is breezy especially when you are dining al fresco each evening.
Most of the restaurants we frequented featured Spanish fare and heavily Spanish wine lists—I happily ate and drank my way through both. Tenerife being a tourist destination, many of the wines on offer were from the widely recognized Rioja region, in northern Spain, known for its namesake wine made with deliciously earthy and spicy Tempranillo grapes. In between hiking over lava fields and cruising cliff-side roads in a tiny stick-shift, I drank my fair share of Tempranillo and Garnacha (known as Grenache in France). In the past, we’ve enjoyed many a Malbec and been serious about Syrah, so it made sense that we would be in to two slightly spicy Spanish classics.
In an effort to ride the travel high as long as possible when we returned from vacation, we continued to drink our latest discovery. After our Canary Island trip, I kicked off a years-long Spanish red habit. No matter the region of the world, I find myself drawn to grapes grown near mountains and water, where the soil is rich with minerals. Rioja is no exception. The region is also known for artichokes and white asparagus. Hello, yum! (Note to my husband: Can we go on an adventure vacation asap please?!)
Wine labeling in Spain gets confusing, as it is all about the aging and their obsession with oak. So it is not just the Rioja label wine buyers need to seek, but also the quality level—which, in Rioja, is determined by the time spent in oak (in addition to grape quality). With no or low contact with oak, a baby Tempranillo wine won’t have very developed depth or tannins, but it will be fruit-forward and fun to drink. These are inexpensive and simply labeled Rioja.
The next level up, with about one year in used oak and another six months to a year in the bottle, the Crianza level indicates it is a high-quality, affordable everyday wine.
Serious about Spanish wine? Let’s step it up a notch to the serious bang-for-your-buck, Reserva, made with the best grapes of the harvest and aged a minimum of 3 years, with at least one of those years in casks. It is not as fruity as Crianza but not as oaky and highly tanic as the highest level, Gran Reserva. According to Rioja labeling laws, Gran Reserva Riojas must be aged a minimum of four years, with at least two of those years in casks. The thing is, most winemakers won’t release to the market until they feel a wine is ready, meaning bottles are generally at least ten years old by the time they make it to your local shop’s shelf. Even then, they are really only worth the investment if you’ve got a safe (i.e., climate-controlled) place to store it for another ten years.
Seek out these widely available Spanish sips—and remember, like with most decent red wine, please, let it breathe:
Rioja: Campo Viejo 2010 Rioja Tempranillo
Crianza: Marqués de Chivé 2012 Crianza Tempranillo (Utiel-Requena)
Reserva: La Rioja Alta Wina Ardanza Reserva 2007
Gran Reserva: CVNE Gran Reserva, Rioja – 2008
I know I mentioned garancha early in this post, but I fear I’ve ran out of space to say more. Next time! For now, just go buy a bottle of the super drinkable and affordable Las Rocas Garnacha from the Calatayud region, the older the better (but don’t break the bank).
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