A good friend turned me on to the joy of Rioja during a whirlwind trip through Europe many years ago. The fruity yet dry reds from this wine-producing region in north central Spain delight the palate and save wear and tear on the pocketbook.
One wine in particular — Marques de Caceras — is still my house wine of choice nearly 20 years later. At about $15 per bottle, the wine never seems to change from one vintage to the next; it is wildly consistent, delicious and eminently drinkable.
Rioja, on the whole, has seen a rise in popularity the past few years. The region is the only one within Spain to receive the denominacion de origen calificada “super category” designation. Think of this as similar DOC designations within Italy and France like Piedmont or Bordeaux. Basically, it means it’s the best of the best, and when you see the phrase on the label, you don’t need to run for your glossary of wine terms.
I know the labels of European wines, including Rioja, can be intimidating, but all the information and terminology is there to inform and protect consumers. You need to know what you’re getting in the bottle, right? Right. Three other Spanish terms you’ll likely see are crianza, reserva and gran reserva. As its name implies, gran reserva is the top tier within Rioja and is only produced in particularly good vintages. The wine receives extra aging, too, which mellows and rounds out the wine even more — two years in barrel and an extra three in bottle before release. Reservas and crianzas receive subsequently less aging, but are definitely worth your hard-earned wine dollars.
Finally, we need to mention the principal grapes that make up most Rioja reds. Thick-skinned, glossy black tempranillo is this wine growing region’s cab. The word “temprano” means early, and the grape was named tempranillo because it ripens about two weeks earlier than the second-most prominent grape, which is garnacha tinta. Think of this one as a softening agent to energetic tempranillo (example, cabernet franc to cabernet sauvignon in California, or Grenache to syrah in the Rhone Valley of France).
All of this said, my passion for Rioja recently sent me into the stores recently in search of good wine and values. Time and time again, I found bottles that reaffirm my affinity for the unheralded wines of Rioja.
• Fra Guerau Montsant 2003. A wonderful mix of syrah, garnacha, merlot, carinena, cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo and monastrell makes for an intriguing, inky wine with loads of red cherry and plumy fruit. Spicy black pepper and wood waft in the background. Serve as a starter with olives and cheese, or perhaps snuggle up with a bowl of stew.
• Vaza Rioja 2008. This is what you’re looking for for an everyday drinker. It’s bright, fruit-driven, unoaked and works exceptionally well with food. Oh, yea, and it’s affordable at about $14. Works with everything from grilled fish and pasta to spicier dishes like curry.
• MXP Brut Cava, Penedes. OK, we had to throw in a bottle of beautiful Spanish cava, or sparkling wine. This one is made in the traditional Champagne method – without the price tag. It’s full and creamy and pangs of apples and herbs. $12.
• Bodegas Faustino Crianza. A good example of the drinkability of straightforward Rioja reds. Made from 100 percent tempranillo, the bouquet of rich, ripe fruit and toasty spicy oak is replicated on the palate. Concentrated yet only 12.5 percent alcohol, which, again, emphasizes food compatibility. $12.
• Campo Viejo Tempranillo Reserva 2004. An exceptionally versatile wine. I’ve sipped this with pasta, ribs, aged cheeses, and they all work. It’s full and ripe with lots of berry fruit and lovely vanilla spice impressions. $14.
• Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva 2004. After Caceras, this is one of my favorites. A bit more potent than the others at 14 percent, the heat is disguised in layers of ripe dark fruit and soft vanilla-oak nuance. Pairs well with a variety of meats, but I like it as an accompaniment to serrano ham. $17.