Spain’s Best Grape

Momo Ribera del Duero

If you’ve ever drunk a glass of Rioja – and most wine lovers will at some time – then you’ve tasted Tempranillo. It’s the main grape variety used in almost every red Rioja, sometimes standing alone, more often blended with Garnacha (aka Grenache) and other local varieties. Tempranillo isn’t limited to this one region, it’s grown in several countries across the world. There’s plenty in Portugal (where it’s known as Tinta Roriz or Aragonez) and a little in France. California, Argentina and Australia have some, too, but it’s native to Spain and that’s where we find the majority of the plantings.

Few would dispute that it’s Spain’s best as well as their most popular grape – and not just in Rioja. For example, 60 miles (100km) south-west of Rioja, on Spain’s high central plateau, is the region of Ribera del Duero where the red wines are made from Tinto Fino or Tinto del Pais, both synonyms for Tempranillo. Here, in vineyards at altitudes averaging 2800 ft (850m) above sea level, conditions are very different from Rioja and, as a result, you find an entirely different expression of Tempranillo. Momo’s Vendimia Seleccionada (Wine Society, £13.50) is typical. Rich and concentrated with lovely intense red fruits, a hint of spicy oak and a long savoury finish, this is fuller bodied than many Riojas as might be expected from the 14% alcohol.

Ribera del Duero tends to have hotter summer days than Rioja, allowing the grapes to become riper but, on the other hand, the altitude means that nights can be really cool, preserving precious acidity in the fruit and giving the wines the attractive freshness that was certainly a feature in this example.

As with many Spanish wines, the Momo is particularly food-friendly: team with grilled or roasted red meat or game or your Easter lamb to enjoy this delicious Tempranillo at its best.

Rioja at Bar 44

While we were enjoying a delicious tapas lunch at our new favourite wine bar, Bar 44 in Clifton, we noticed a Rioja dinner advertised at the same venue. 6 delicious-sounding courses each accompanied by a matching wine. We booked straight away and we weren’t disappointed.

Tempranillo is the main grape for Rioja’s reds but, as with most red wine grapes, its pulp is colourless so, by careful pressing you can also make an attractive white wine which, here, was served as aperitif and with the opening scallop starter.  Pumpkin gazpacho followed alongside a second white: an old favourite of ours, the complex and subtly oaky Murrieta Capellania.

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The next 3 courses, a risotto, some wonderful lamb with aubergine and roast fennel and some rosemary infused manchego cheese allowed us to explore the range of ageing and oaking that typifies Rioja. Quinta Milú’s unoaked young example was full of simple red fruits, while Beronia’s Reserva 2014, made, unusually with Mazuelo (perhaps better known as Carignan) rather than Tempranillo, had a lovely blend of fruit and gentle smokiness, although will, in my view, be rather better after a further 2 or 3 years in bottle.

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The final red, served with the cheese, was Beronia’s Gran Reserva 2010. I mainly avoid Gran Reservas as, in the past, I’ve often found them dried out and vegetal from just too long sitting in oak barrels. Not here! This was fresh with just the perfect mix of young fruit and spicy, oaky complexity.

The beautiful, tasty dessert of pears prepared 3 ways provided an ideal foil for a not over-sweet dessert wine.

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Bodegas Vivanco’s blend of 4 late-harvested red varieties was an unusual but successful choice with a lovely honeyed nose and palate of red fruits with a certain nuttiness.

What stood out for us in this evening was not just the quality of the food, nor even the interesting nature of the wines but, above all, the care and respect for both the food and the wines that was obvious in the pairing of the two. Congratulations to Bar 44.

 

‘Use By’ Dates for Wine?

There’s been lots of talk in the press here recently about the use of ‘Best Before’ or ‘Use by’ dates on food packaging and whether products are safe to eat after the date shown.  But how about wine?  Does it have a shelf life and, if it does, should it, too, have a recommended date on it?

I certainly don’t recall ever seeing such a date on a wine bottle but I generally advise that most white wines bought in supermarkets and cheaper bottles (say under £10) bought elsewhere are normally best within about a year of purchase; for red wines, you can probably extend this to two years.  The wine should still be perfectly safe even after this time, but wine matures and changes when it is in the bottle and so it may be past its best if left too long.

On the other hand, many (usually more expensive) wines take much longer than this to reach their peak and it would be a shame to open them too early.  Often, good wine merchants and websites will quote ‘drinking windows’ – the period during which they suggest a wine is likely to be at its best.  But these are only a guide; everyone’s taste is different and, unless you know the wine, deciding when you should open any particular bottle is, unfortunately, a bit of trial and error.

A wine I think is drinking perfectly now is Faustino 1 Rioja Gran Reserva 2004 (Sainsbury’s, £15). 

Faustino 1It is already 13 years old and has spent more than 2 years in oak barrels and a further 3 years at the winery (as required by the ‘Gran Reserva’ designation).  Yet, when I took it along to a tasting recently, a couple of my colleagues suggested that it needed still more time or, at least, should have been opened earlier in the evening to further soften the tannins.

I’m not convinced but, as I said before, everyone’s taste is different.  However, this is certainly a wine made to be drunk with food and its mellow, harmonious flavours would work well with so many of the rich dishes that are likely to be on the table over the festive season.