Sunday, March 05, 2017

Red, Rioja, Ribera

Oh, Spanish reds, how do I love thee?

The Naked Vine Rule #1 of Food Pairings is “People make wine to go with the foods they love to eat.” Well, Spaniards eat just about everything – from fish to fowl to flesh to flowers. Tapas is just behind fútbol as their national sport. It follows that Spanish wines, particularly Spanish reds, would need to be as flexible as their broad-ranging countrywide palate.

Spanish reds really can go with just about anything. I personally love Rioja and paella, with strong flavors like chorizo, saffron, and shellfish mixed in with all that rice. Manchego cheese, almonds, various cured meats – you really can’t go wrong.

Those Tempranillo grapes in Rioja
If you remember a few weeks ago in my “Ten Years” retrospective – I bungled my first experience with Spanish wines. When I saw “Rioja” on the label, I thought that was the name of the grape, and that’s just not right. No, to my chagrin, it turned out there aren’t picturesque vineyards of Rioja grapes ripening in the warm sunshine of Spain. Rather, there are picturesque vineyards of Tempranillo grapes ripening in the warm sunshine of Rioja.

Rioja, along with closely neighboring region Ribera del Duero, are two of Spain’s main producers of their delicious red goodness. The two regions compete with and complement each other much in the manner that Bordeaux and Burgundy do.

Both regions are on the plateaus of northern Spain. Rioja is somewhat cooler, being on the other side of the Cantabrian Mountains, which moderates the climate and shields the vineyards from some of the strong Cierzo winds blowing off the coast that can reach hurricane force. Ribera del Duero (which translates as “Banks of the Duero” – the river that runs across the region) is located on a high plateau, where it gets sun scorched in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. This terroir difference means that the wines, made from identical grapes – largely Tempranillo and Garnacha – have very varied flavors.

In general, both wines run along the lines of Cabernet Sauvignon from a weight perspective, but the flavors run closer to Pinot Noir’s cherry than to super dark fruits. The length of aging is one of the primary characteristics of how these wines is classified. There are four general classifications in ascending order of quality:

If the bottle says simply “Rioja” or “Ribera del Duero” – that’s the “table wine,” designed to be drunk young, and will be the fruitiest versions. Next is Crianza – to receive a “Crianza” designation, the wine must spend a minimum of a year in oak and at least a few months aging in the bottle before release. If you snag an under $15 bottle of Rioja at your local wine store, odds are you have a Crianza in your grubby paws.

Then comes Reserva and Gran Reserva – made from specifically selected grapes, thus they are not produced every growing season. Reserva must age a minimum of three years before release, at least one year of which must be in oak. They usually run up to about $30. Gran Reserva are aged a minimum of three years, two years of which must be in oak. Both Reserva and Gran Reserva wines are designed for long aging, and are considered some of the best value fine wines in the world.

I enjoy comparing these wines side-by-side (or at least within a close amount of time) to get at the contrasts. Here are a few I tried recently:

Siglo 2012 Rioja Crianza – This one’s almost worth picking up for the bottle itself, which comes wrapped in burlap. Fun to bring this one to a party, for sure. It’s got a bright, fresh nose of cherries and cedar. The cherry flavor passes over to the body, which is relatively light for the fairly solid backbone this wine possesses. The tannins gradually emerge on the finish, leaving a lightly fruited aftertaste. Easy to drink on its own, but really shines with food. About $14-15.

The sample of Torres 2013 “Celeste” Ribera del Duero Crianza provided an interesting contrast. The nose was fragrantly full of cherries and violet. I thought that the flavors of the RdD were deeper than the bright cherry flavors found in the Rioja Crianza that I tried. The mouthfeel was considerably chewier with some more pronounced oak flavors. There were dark fruits – blackberry and plum – on the palate, which finished up with some chewy, plummy tannins. I thought this was a pretty serious red, but not so big as to be overwhelming. Around $20 for this.

Both went well with the aforementioned paella, although I’d probably give a nod to the Rioja if you twisted my arm. 

I also had the Coto de Imaz 2010 Rioja Reserva – which was, as you might expect, an entirely different experience. The nose is fuller and richer, but more restrained. Darker fruits are in evidence – blackberries and raspberries dominate the nose. The body is softer and tongue-coatingly rich with full chocolatey tannins. The finish is long with plummy smoke. I thought this was a fascinatingly complex wine for $20. It calls for grilled or roasted meats, especially beef. A NY strip was a lovely accompaniment. A real find and certainly worth it.

Spanish wines, in general, are much less expensive than their French and Italian cousins. If you like your Old World wines more on the fruity side, my guess is that you’re going to enjoy a Rioja more than a wine from Bordeaux or Tuscany at a similar price point.

Of course, there’s only one way to find out…

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