Today was a cooler day in an otherwise warm month, followed by a pensive evening full of planning. Before summer hits full-tilt, I want to gulp down as much Rioja as time and my budget allow. Yes, that was as far as my planning took me. “Wait,” you say, “why Rioja?” Well, stop talking to your screen, and I will tell you why Rioja.
Spoiler alert: Rioja is from Spain. For those who have read my previous post and already knew this, thanks for reading. It is generally a blended wine. In fact, the vast majority of Rioja has traditionally been blended wine, featuring juice from three different regions: Rioja Alta, which has the highest elevation and coolest climate of the three; Rioja Baja, with its heavy Mediterranean influence and dry weather making the vines struggle, leading to deep, rich wines; and Rioja Alavesa, where poor soil conditions are ideal for grapevines and wines tend to have higher acidity.
And now let me drop some more knowledge: Rioja is generally thought of as a red wine. Oh yes. It may surprise you that white Rioja is also made – usually with the Viura grape, also known as Macabeo. Viura tends to produce mild white wines with citrus notes and snappy acidity, meant to be consumed young. It is one of the main grapes found in the esteemed Spanish sparkling wine Cava, and is generally blended with Malvasia, which adds softness as well as aromas of peaches and apricots, and Garnacha Blanca, which acts to round out the wine’s texture.
For the red wine, which wine people (like me) usually rave about, the blend tends to be Tempranillo and Garnacha (known in France as Grenache). Tempranillo offers fruity aromas such as berries and plums to the mix, with secondary notes such as tobacco and dried herbs. It can also possess good acidity, a crucial element when evaluating a wine’s balance. Garnacha generally contributes structure in the form of alcohol, as well as a nice spicy character. I won’t get too specific, as this has been covered elsewhere, but the three “tiers” of Rioja – Crianza, aged at least two years; Reserva, aged for at least three years, one in oak; and Gran Reserva, aged for at least two years in oak and three years in bottle – encompass a great variety of styles, resulting from various decisions made by the winemaker. Decisions about French oak vs. American oak. Decisions about percentages of grapes in the blend. Rioja brings enough to the table to appeal to the most discerning of drinkers, at every level of quality.
For a drinker as discerning as myself, there is this: the 2007 “Banda Azul” from the Paternina winery. The vines maintain a precarious existence at an elevation of 1500 feet in Rioja Alta. Shorter growing seasons in this region lead to lighter wines, and lend a nice sappy quality to the fruit aromas in the glass. In this case, the blend is 75% Tempranillo and 25% Garnacha, and the wine is aged in American oak barrels for 14 months after fermentation. A lovely ruby in the glass, this wine immediately wafts fragrant aromas of dark cherries when opened, as well as redcurrants, loam, cedar, and allspice. Extremely soft on the palate, like velvet, but with enough acidity to make it a food-friendly addition to the table. Medium finish, tending towards baking spices. This wine absolutely kills with braised lamb shoulder. $13.