What is Rioja? Certainly, a famous name but, despite its popularity, some are clearly confused about it. In fact, I’ve been asked the same question twice in just the last few weeks – and both times, a wrong answer was suggested to me.
So, let me put the record straight: Rioja is not a grape variety. Nor is it a brand name (although some would argue that, given its familiarity, it’s close to becoming one). It’s actually a legally defined wine region in northern Spain stretching out on both banks of the River Ebro famous mainly for red wines (although some rosé and white is also made). The main grape for the reds is Tempranillo although, in many of the wines, some Garnacha (also known as Grenache) and other minor local varieties are blended in.
The one thing both questioners knew (or thought they knew) about Rioja is that it’s quite oaky. Well, yes, it can be – but it isn’t always. Look at the label. If you see ‘Gran Reserva’, it will certainly have a distinct oak flavour, having spent at least 2 years in barrel. The word ‘Reserva’ alone (without the ‘Gran’) or bottles labelled ‘Crianza’ will only have had half that time in barrel and so will have more emphasis on the fruit, less on the oak. And, if none of these words appear, the wine may never have seen oak at all – or just briefly.
A perfect example of a wine with just a subtle hint of nutty oak is Arienzo de Marques de Riscal Crianza (Great Western Wine, £10.95). Nicely mellow, with delicious, vibrant red fruits, this is really well-balanced and harmonious. Easy drinking either on its own or, even better, with some lamb or a hard cheese.
If you’re still confused about Rioja, try this bottle as a most enjoyable lesson 1! And, even if you’re not, it’s well worth tasting anyway!