Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a fantastic lesson in Spanish wines by our new contributor Marissa Reibstein, who has managed to make a life of traveling the globe, drinking wine! But, really she’s an expert, a level 3 sommelier to be exact. Catch up on Part 1 here, and then keep reading for more fascinating knowledge. It will be great dinner party conversation this weekend!
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First, let me just give you a quick crash course on Rioja wines. And, to keep it simple, I’m just going to talk about red wines because that’s what you’ll mostly find (Yes, there are white riojas, and yes, you should try them too.) There are different levels of Rioja wine which are named based on how long it’s been aged. There’s your basic “Rioja” or “Joven” wine, which is the youngest and freshest expression. The wines are typically aged for only 1-2 years in little or no oak. Then, you move to “crianza”. Crianza wines mature for at least 2 years at the winery – part of the time in oak barrels, part of the time in the bottle. Then it can be released for sale. Next is “Riserva.” Riserva wines must be aged for 3 years – a minimum of one year in oak, then 2 years in the bottle. And finally, the top of the line wines are called “Gran Riserva.” Gran Riservas get to hang out for at least 5 years at the winery — 2 of which must be spent in oak and the rest in the bottle. The body, complexity, and naturally, the price goes up with each level, as you might expect.
The cool thing about Rioja wines is that you can easily get a wine to drink TONIGHT that’s already been aged for over 5 years! I don’t know about you, but I’m impatient when it comes to wine, so it is great to have some of that work done for you. Because Spain is less popular than French or even Italian wines, you can get a great deal and a lot of value for the price (think: $30-45). A wine like that of similar quality from Bordeaux could cost you well upwards of $100. And, like a Bordeaux, if you buy a Riserva or Gran Riserva, you can age it for years to come and see how it changes as it matures even further in the bottle. (Just make sure you have the right aging conditions. That’s a whole other conversation!)
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The next thing you need to know about Rioja is the grapes. When you think Rioja, think: Tempranillo. Tempranillo is like that old leather jacket you love – no matter what outfit you match it with it somehow works – and it smells kinda like it too. Tempranillo is warm, earthy, full of red fruits, plums, black pepper and spices, and when it’s aged you find these delightful leathery, smoky aromas and flavors. Some Rioja wines are 100% Tempranillo, but many are blended with other Spanish star grapes: Garnacha, Graciano, and Mazuelo. Garnacha is the other one you’ve heard of most. The French call it Grenache, but really it originated in Spain so we need to give credit where it’s due. Like Tempranillo, it loves the warmth and thrives in hot weather climates.
Speaking of climate, Rioja has three regions, Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja, each with slightly varied weather patterns that affect the grape growing and winemaking. Overall, Rioja is hot hot hot during the day and cooler at night. This allows the late-ripening Rioja grapes like tempranillo and garnacha to achieve their best expressions. The grape vines are planted close to the ground, and with greater space between each bush so that they can maximize their water intake from the soil. The Alta has the highest elevations, which means cooler temperatures, so it tends to make wines with slightly more acid and tannin. The Alta and Alavesa both have continental climates and are protected from humidity and cold by the Sierra Cantabria and Sierra Cameros mountain ranges. But Alavesa has a slightly lower elevation so you’ll find a bit more full-bodied and fruitiness in these wines. The Rioja Baja has a more Mediterranean climate because it lies in the flatlands of the Ebro river (again, remember: nearby water modifies the weather). The Rioja Baja is the warmest and produces very full bodied, fruity wines.
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Two of the most remarkable wineries I visited (and I visited MANY) were alike in the way they embrace both the old and the new. I loved that about Spain – they honor their past and still look forward to the future in an exciting way. (No old fuddy-duddy wine snobbery in Rioja!) Marques de Riscal is one of the oldest wineries in Rioja at 150 years old. 1862 was their first vintage! Frank Gehry designed a stunning new building there in 2001, which houses a restaurant and a hotel. Created in Gehry’s signature style, the building metaphorically represents wine drinking, the pouring of wine into glasses, and the enjoyment thereafter. It’s a stunning piece of modern architecture juxtaposed against the old, mountainous landscape.
The wine, however, is totally classic old-school Rioja. The grapes are hand-harvested, then sorted for quality, and pressed into juice. The juice is then fermented in huge traditional oak tanks, and put through a second fermentation called “malolactic” fermentation. This takes the malic acid (think: tart apples) and converts it into lactic acid (think: milk). It’s a wine-making technique that softens out wine and gives it a richer, creamier body. Once the fermentation is over, the wine is put into 225 liter oak barrels. That’s 300 bottles per barrel! And at Marques de Riscal, they have approximately 37,000 barrels at any one time where their wine is aging.
You’ve probably heard people talk about French oak and American oak. Traditionally, Rioja was made with only American oak, but now most producers are using a combination.
American oak tends to produce stronger flavors and aromas: vanilla, coconut, cedar, dill, toast.
While French oak is a little softer and delicate: baking spices, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon.
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Marques de Riscal uses both, depending on each wine, to achieve their winemaker’s desired outcome. Their traditional crianza, riserva and gran riserva wines use entirely or almost entirely American oak, whereas their very top end wines and riserva wines use mostly French oak. I scooped up a bottle of 2007 Gran Riserva for about 28 euros. A total steal and I’ll save it in my wine cellar for a couple of years to see how it evolves!
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Ysios winery, right at the base of the charming old walled town of Laguardia, was another extraordinary winery I toured, with a very different history. Ysios is a baby by Rioja standards, as it was started in 2001. The Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava not only designed this magnificent building, but he actually selected the precise location it would be built. Talk about a bespoke process! Ysios lies in front of the hill of Laguardia, and its undulating roof echoes the mountains that surround it.
Their vineyards are in 4 locations – but all within just 9 km of each other. Unlike Marques de Riscal, nearly 100% of Ysios grapes are tempranillo. They don’t blend their wines with the other typical Rioja grapes. Also, all of their vines are a minimum of 40 years old. In fact, there is one plot that has 120-year-old vines!
This is a winery that is interested in the deep concentration of wine, not in high production. The first vineyard is to the south of Laguardia, near the Ebro river at 400 meters above sea level. This has a continental climate – lots of sun, not a lot of rain, and a big temperature difference between the summer and winter. Of course, there’s also a bit of Mediterranean influence from the river. Grapes from this plot are fruitier and have more alcohol. They are also the first grapes to ripen. The second area is outside of Laguardia, at 500 meters above sea level and in the central part of Rioja. These vines experience more of a mix of the Atlantic and Mediterranean influences. The third area is higher in the mountains at 630-640 meters above sea level. This is the coldest area, sometimes even getting snow in the winter! These grapes have more acid and tannins. And finally, the 4th area is a small experimental plot right by the winery building, which the winemaker uses to try out new wine concepts that aren’t being sold yet to consumers but will in the coming years.
I loved hearing about this winemaker’s process. All grapes are hand harvested by about 60 people over the course of 1 month. And then, the grapes are hand-sorted! This is not a common practice when many wineries can afford to purchase a fancy sorting machine that does this in a fraction of the time. Ysios also only makes 2 levels of wine — their Riserva and a Limited Edition Riserva. Ysios only has 900 barrels of wine aging at any time. A much smaller production than Marques de Riscal and the other wineries I visited. The Riserva is fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged in 85% French, 15% American oak barrels. And the Limited Edition Riserva is made from only 3-4 plots of grapes – the winemaker selects his favorites and the best of each vintage. This Limited Edition wine is fermented entirely in French oak (a-typical for Rioja) and produces only 5,000-6,000 bottles a year. This is evidence of a growing trend amongst Spanish winemakers to break from traditions and try something new and exciting to express the grapes and the terroir in an unusual way.
I had the opportunity to taste both Ysios wines, paired with local chorizo which was a delicious compliment. The Riserva was ruby colored with soft yet strong tannins (not the kind that makes your mouth taste like you’re sucking on a cotton ball), medium bodied, full of red cranberries, raspberries, pepper, and spices with a long finish. Mmmm. The Limited Edition was more complex and layered. Also, ruby in color, it was full of plums, blackberries, prunes, vanilla, spices, smoke, leather and violets. It was creamy and fuller bodied, but its tannins could use some time in the bottle to soften out. I gleefully bought a bottle of both wines and will age them both for a bit to see how they progress.
Rioja wines have the fruity warmth of New World wines, the earthy complexity that you find in Burgundian pinot noirs, and the age-ability of classic cabernet blends from Bordeaux.
They are a great way for wine newbies to experience high-quality wine for a fraction of the price you’d pay for the usual suspects.
And, they are great food wines.
That’s how the Spanish enjoy them. Everything from a simple spread of a loaf of bread, olives, with some ham and cheese, to a grand meal of roasted meat or game.
Back at home, I’d pair a basic Rioja or Crianza with some spaghetti Bolognese or a spicy Indian takeout (the fruity & acidic wine will help balance the meal!), a Riserva with beef or turkey chili (it will go so nicely with the stewed meat and beans!), and a Gran Riserva with slow braised lamb shanks or a stewed oxtail dish. I’m drooling just thinking about it.