Spain’s best-known winemaking region is Rioja, an area in the north-central part of Spain between the Pyrenees to the north and Madrid to the south. Of more than 30 wine-producing regions in Spain, Rioja is certainly that nation’s most prominent. If you’re not too familiar with the wine of Rioja, you’ll want to be, because they are generally very good values. Well-made, Rioja can be had for under $20, and even high-end Rioja typically sells for less than $50.
There are red, white and pink (Rosé) wines made in Rioja, with about 80 percent of the wine produced there being red table wine centered around the Tempranillo grape. While white and Rosé wines made from Tempranillo are certainly worth investigating, it’s really the reds that made Spain’s wine bones.
Tempranillo is a soft, cherry-flavored grape with very little tannin. In Rioja, it’s often blended with one or more of three common grape varieties: Garnacha, with its peppery tang; Mazuelo, which provides tannins; and/or Graciano, which has distinct blackberry notes. The result is a wine that is surprisingly complex, yet soft and quaffable with very little abrasive tannins. Rioja also often has a somewhat musty quality, probably due to the chalky soil that characterizes the Rioja region. Hints of vanilla (from oak aging) and cinnamon are also typical.
For me, the most appealing thing—aside from price—about Rioja is that the wines are, in a sense, “pre-cellared.” There’s usually no need to put them away for aging since they are aged before they are ever released for sale. So with Rioja, it’s like buying mature wine quality at young-wine prices.
There are four varieties of red Rioja wines. The least expensive and youngest are called simply Rioja, and are aged for under a year. Crianzas must be aged for at least two years, spending at least one of those in oak casks. Another step up in quality are Reservas, which must be aged in oak for at least one full year and aren’t released for at least three years. And the finest wines from Rioja are designated Gran Reservas. These are wines from only exceptional vintages, which are aged for at least five years with a minimum of two years in oak casks. So, with any Rioja—but especially the Gran Reservas—the wine has essentially matured and mellowed before it ever hits the wine store shelf. This takes a lot of guesswork out of the buying process, since instead of reading reviews that only speculate about a wine’s future quality (as with Bordeaux, for instance) wine experts can actually taste and review Rioja wines as fully mature specimens.
Rioja producer Bodegas Lan makes good, inexpensive juice. Lan Rioja Crianza ($13.99) offers up notes of cinnamon and cedar and would be a nice accompaniment to Moroccan-spiced chicken. Another good value is Lan Rioja Reserva ($17.99). And still more complex and meaty is Lan Lanciano Reserva, a steal at around $28 if you can find it. Ripe tannins and thick, dark cherry flavors with anise and vanilla notes could fool wine geek friends into thinking this is a $100-plus boutique wine from California. (Keep the price to yourself.)
For another excellent bang-for-the-buck Rioja, try Bodegas Montecello Rioja Gran Reserva ($20.99), a prototypical example of what a Rioja red should taste like. It’s a ready-made match for grilled meats and burgers. One more: Solar de Randez Reserva ($22.99) is a beautifully textured Tempranillo aged for 24 months in French oak, lending lovely vanilla notes.