Located on the southwest tip of Europe, east of Portugal and south of France, Spain has the most vineyard land than any other wine producing region on earth, at 2.9 million acres of planted vines. It is the third highest wine producing country, behind France and Italy, largely because of the lower yields from old vineyards that have wide spacing between rows.
It is hot and dry in most areas, with large mountainous slopes that are ideal conditions for grape growing. Spain’s most famous region, Rioja, is located along the east-flowing Ebro river. The climate is continental, with wild swings in temperature throughout the year, high temperatures in the summer and dry, desert-like air. The vineyards are protected from Spain’s high winds by the mountain ranges that surround the area. This is the perfect climate for Spain’s most famous grape, Tempranillo.
Tempranillo is a medium to full bodied wine, with medium acidity and tannins. It is well rounded, but fairly neural on the aroma profile. In younger, less aged wines you’ll find flavours of cherries and strawberries, and the older, more aged wines come with more leather, tobacco, and vanilla. Tempranillo is extremely versatile and takes on the flavours of oak very quickly. It is often blended with Garnacha (Grenache to the rest of the world) and this is usually to give the wine more body, alcohol and spice notes. These wines need oak aging to soften the tannins over time, and with more oak comes more earthy aromas and flavours like mushroom, savory meats, and leather.
Rioja has very specific designations for its wines, and each one represents how much time the wine has contact with oak and how much bottle aging is done before the wine is released. There are 4 major Rioja styles:
Rioja (or semi-Crianza) - Rioja table wines used to be called “vin joven” which means “young wine”. These wines have little to no oak contact. They are meant to be consumed young, and they exhibit the fruitier tones of the Tempranillo grape. They are not overpowering and are a neutral, food friendly wine.
Crianza - Crianza wines spend a year in “used” oak barrels and a year in the bottle, a minimum 2 years of aging. Using “used” oak means that the wine inside won’t be exposed to the typical “oakiness” that accompanies newer barrels, as several batches have been previously aged within them. It can be hard to tell the difference between a Crianza and Rioja, as their profiles are so similar due to limited oak contact. Pair these wines with heavier meats, as the higher acidity in the wine help to cut through the fattiness of the meat. Try this recipe for Beef Tenderloin Asturias.
Reserva - Winemakers select higher quality grapes for Reserva wines. They tend to age the wine longer than required, a minimum 3 years with at least one year in the barrel. Reserva’s are silkly and smooth and are a good balance of the fruitier Crianza wines with more oak to add subtle vanilla and coconut flavours.
Gran Reserva - These wines see the most oak and the longest aging process, with a minimum 5 years (3 years minimum on oak). Most winemakers will keep these aged even longer and it’s common to see a Gran Reserva that is 10 years old finally released. These wines show far more oak character, with meatier flavours, leather, tobacco, and earthy tones. These wines can be aged for decades more, so if you have one in your cellar, keep it there!
And for you white wine lovers, don't worry, there is a great white wine that comes out of Rioja, and that's Viura (or Macabeo to the rest of the world). It is a lightly acidic, mild white wine that is meant to be consumed young. It is not often aged but there are some Reserva and Gran Reserva wines being produced by high quality winemakers, giving these wines very distinct aromatics of honey and nuts (Honeynut Cheerios, anyone?!). Viura is often blended with Garnacha, Tempranillo, Malvasia, and Garnacha Blanca. These are great wines, highly versatile and food friendly.
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