Rioja – Poor Man’s Bordeaux?
With the exception of Sherry, Rioja is the most famous wine district in Spain. Rioja has been dubbed the “poor man’s” Bordeaux, but there is nothing poor about Riojan quality. Rioja quietly offers ready-to-drink good value wines that are excellent with food.
Rioja’s heyday was in the late 1800’s when its northern neighbor, Bordeaux, found its vineyards plagued by newly imported American vine diseases. Frantic to replenish French wine supplies, Bordeaux winemakers flocked to sleepy Rioja and stimulated a fifty-year wine boom. Rioja has had its ups and downs ever since, but the past twenty years has seen a revival in the region.
Rioja is instantly recognisable by its fragrant oak aromas. This wasn’t always the case. Until Bordeaux winemakers arrived, Spanish vino was stored in pig skins. Not the clever bota, or leather bottle, I used to wear on ski slopes but full-sized pig skins, called borrachas. The borrachas retained the shape of the pig, feet and all, but the skin was reversed, with the pig’s hairy coat on the inside. The interior was rubbed with pitch before filling with wine for storage and transport. Wine dispensed from borrachas was malodorous and fetid, but it must have done the trick as the Spanish word for overindulgence is borracha.
It is no wonder Spain now has a penchant for oak barrels. Rioja is the only European wine region that favors American oak barrels. American oak gives wine a distinctive vanilla flavor—much tastier than olor de borracha.
Riojan producers segment their oak-aged red wines into three classes. The simplest class is called Crianza, which is aged in oak barrels one year before release. Crianza is soft and spicy with juicy red fruit flavors, such as Viña Alarde’s Crianza 2000.
Rioja Reserva is a slightly richer and fuller wine that is aged three years before release and the Gran Reserva is aged a whopping five years before it hits the retail shelves—a winery’s cash flow nightmare.
For a classic Gran Reserva as smooth as a chamois, try Viña Alarde, Gran Reserva. Supple with dried cherries, spice and gentle vanilla flavors, this brick-tinged wine is fantastic.
The main grape used to make Rioja is called Tempranillo. Although not very well known, Tempranillo is one of the most widely grown grapes in the world. It is a dark, thick skinned grape, which ripens early. Presumably its name stems from the Spanish word temprano, or early.
Some winemakers chuck the Rioja classification system altogether and simply label their bottles Tempranillo. Berberana’s Tempranillo is fruity and spicy with no discernable oak flavors.
Although Rioja is adored for its red wines, the region also produces white and rosé wines. Until recently, white wines from the region were oxidised and dull, but the area’s producers have adopted modern winemaking techniques and are now producing fresh aromatic white wines, such as Marqués de Cárceras 2001. Sip it with pig skin – preferably crisply roasted.