THE sun surprisingly came out at the weekend and so did the Rioja. I blinked and the sun was still there … if only I could say the same about the Rioja.
A glorious taste of Spain; the signature red wine of the country. It is so elevated that Rioja was the first wine to be granted the superior Spanish classification status.
The Spanish DO (Denominación de Origen) system is the equivalent of the French AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) – but there is a higher status in Spain, DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada).
Rioja was granted the status when it was first introduced in 1991, due to the region’s record in consistently producing top-quality wines.
The Rioja wine region lies in the north of Spain and takes its name from the Rio (river) Oja.
It is divided into three regions: Rioja Alta (concentrated fruity, velvety wines), Rioja Alavesa (firm character) and Rioja Baja (best for blending).
Rioja has a varied range of soil and topographical features. The Cantabrian Mountains provide shelter from the influences of the Atlantic Ocean, but also protect the vineyards from severe winds. Temperatures vary as do the soils, ranging from chalk to iron, limestone and clay.
Now it doesn’t seem as simple to say a glass of Rioja does it! All the taste permutations of soil, air, wind, mountains and varied temperatures combine into this taste of summer; the memory of a Spanish holiday or tapas treat.
A wine which is young and fruity, or aged and velvety.
Tempranillo is the signature grape and occupies more than 75% of the region’s vineyards.
Yes, it is joined along the journey in blends, but it is the thin-skinned tempranillo grape (meaning ‘little early one’ as it ripens two weeks before garnacha) which thrives on the clay and limestone-based soils of the best vineyard sites.
It is often blended with garnacha which brings along spicy body and high alcohol.
Other grape varieties which find their way into Rioja can be mazuelo (also known as carignan) for colour, tannin and aging and graciano (morrastel) for fresh flavour and aroma. Cabernet Sauvignon peeks in now and again.
But the mainstay of a tasty Rioja is its oak aging. Time in an American oak barrel adds the yumminess that is coconut and vanilla.
Rioja can appear in four styles.
Joven: Wines in their first or second year which keep their fresh fruitiness. Crianza which are at least in their third year, having spent a minimum of one year in casks. Reserva: Selected wines of the best vintages that have been aged for a minimum of three years, with at least one in casks. Finally, Gran Reserva which have spent at least two years in oak casks and three in the bottle.
Back to my north Liverpool garden and the surprise, the sun, the wine.
Beronia Tempranillo Rioja Especial 2010 (£11.99, from Waitrose and selected independents. Bronze at the 2012 Decanter awards) This was smoky, chewy liquorice to taste with mocha, chocolate and vanilla on the nose. Deep, deep red and incredibly moreish.
Marqués de Griñón Alea Tempranillo 2010 (£6.99, Tesco, Morrisons). From the Rioja Alta region, this wine had smoky red fruits on the nose; but a little spicy harshness which could do well with maturing.
Altos de la Guardia Tempranillo 2008 (£8.99, www.laithwaites.co.uk) A delight? I think so. Winner of a silver at the 2011 International Wine Challenge. Silky, spicy, autumn plum sunshine and an oaky nuttiness.
First published in the Liverpool Post, September 6th 2012