The Truth about Rioja

Rioja is one of Spain’s best known and most popular wines.  But, based on comments made to me, it’s also one of the most misunderstood.  Over the years, I’ve been told that Rioja is a brand name, a grape variety, that it can only be red and that it’s always very oaky in taste.  If you agree with any of those statements (or even if you don’t), then please read on!

In fact, Rioja is a wine region.  It’s in northern Spain starting about an hour and a half drive south of Bilbao and running roughly south-east in a wide swathe on both sides of the River Ebro ending a way short of the town of Zaragoza.  Climatically, it’s quite a diverse region with the north-west being relatively cool with a continental climate while, further east, there is a distinct Mediterranean influence making that part of the region much warmer.

The wine is usually made from a blend of grape varieties: Tempranillo and Garnacha (aka Grenache) are the main grapes for the reds and rosados (rosés) while Viura and Malvasia are used for the whites.

So, if Rioja isn’t a grape variety and doesn’t have to be red, how about the suggestion that its wines are always very oaky?  Well, that’s not true either as you can easily discover by taking a quick look at the label. 

If it says ‘Reserva’ or ‘Gran Reserva’, the wine will, by law, have spent some time in oak barrels – at least 2 years for Gran Reservas, but even they are not necessarily very oaky in taste.  The Marqués de Cáceres Gran Reserva I opened recently (Majestic, £17.99) had plenty of red and black fruit flavours and was beautifully rounded and soft.  Yes, there was some oak influence as you might expect – hints of vanilla and leather – but this was in no way a wine dominated by its oak character.

But, if this isn’t your style, look for wines labelled ‘Crianza’, (which will, admittedly, have spent a few months in a barrel, but not long enough to impart any real oaky flavour) or, perhaps better, a wine with none of these designations on their label which will, very likely, have been aged entirely in stainless steel tanks to preserve their full fruit character.

And, as for Rioja being a brand?  Well, I suppose it’s well enough known to be described as such, but that’s not the truth of the name.

An Unusual Blend

For a wine lover, Spain has everything – well almost!  From attractive fizz to delicious, crisp, dry whites, sweet-fruited satisfying reds and a unique range of fortified wines.  But you won’t find all of these styles all over Spain; Spain comprises 17 determinedly autonomous regions, each growing its own particular grape varieties and frequently producing distinctly different wines from its neighbours.

One of the most independent-minded of these regions is Catalonia, the home of Spain’s Traditional Method sparkling wine, Cava, as well as many innovative and dynamic producers – Miguel Torres springs readily to mind.  But Catalonia also has many smaller, lesser-known estates offering distinctive high quality wines, often based on unusual blends of grape varieties.

One such estate is Parés Baltà with vineyards in the hilly Penedès district, west of Barcelona.  Here, they grow an assortment of grapes following biodynamic principles – a sort of super-organic regime that I have explained in more detail in past blogs.  The all-female winemaking team have created an interesting product range including a delicious red, Mas Petit (Corks, £15.99), made from a blend of Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, that we enjoyed recently.

I decanted the wine an hour before drinking revealing a lovely deep, ruby colour. The nose, a little dumb at first, soon opened up giving aromas of red cherries, dried herbs and toasty vanilla. To taste, the wine was quite soft and very approachable, concealing the 14.5% alcohol well.  There was a hint of subtle vanilla spice from 7 months in older French oak barrels but the main impression was of vibrant red and black fruits and a delightful herbiness. 

Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon may not be the most common blend of grapes but here it worked well with, perhaps surprisingly, the soft richness of the Grenache taking centre stage ahead of the usually more forward Cabernet.  Food match? Pretty versatile, I’d say, but we teamed it with some roast duck legs coated with an aromatic spicy rub.  Delicious!