Rioja is a Spanish red wine (there’s also a white version as well that we may cover one day – but for now, know that it uses the Viura grape most of the time) that hails from (surprise) the Rioja region of Spain. The most common style of Rioja is a light to medium-bodied red, with berry flavours and a citrus tang.
Rioja, being an old world wine, does not refer to a grape, but rather it comprises of a number of grapes, with the prime being Tempranillo (as Tempranillo is fresh and fruity when young – however when aged, it is a powerhouse of tannin, and leather/chocolate/pepper notes). The Tempranillo grape gives the wine it’s lighter body, more akin to a Pinot Noir, than a richer wine like a Cabernet Sauvignon. The other major grape used is Garnacha.
Rioja may be oaked as well, so you’ll catch vanilla fragrances. The longer it’s aged, the less fruity it will be, and fortunately, there are classifications that help you decide which Rioja you’re in the mood for.
Classifications of Rioja
Crianza – Released two years after ageing, these wines are Light, least oaked, and inexpensive.
Reserva – Released three years after ageing, you’ll find you’ll have an oaky and more substantial wine.
Gran Reserva – Made only in good years, often the oakiest and most expensive. These wines are also released five to seven years after ageing, with a minimum of two years in oak barrels.
Traditionally, American oak has been used, however in recent years, some vintners have been employing subtler French Oak. This newer style adds much more character to the wine, emphasizing plummy flavours. Wineries of this style include Allende, Remelluri, Palacios, and Remondo.
Three other categories are new that you may see on a Rioja Label.
Noble – aged 12 months in a barrel
Anejo – aged 24 monthss in an oak barrel
Viejo – aged 36 months in an oak barrel
Rioja and Food Pairings
As Rioja is lighter like a Chianti or a Pinot Noir, and as it has a refreshing tartness, you’ll find that it is quite versatile with food. For Crianza Rioja, pair it with lighter meats, pasta, Cajun Jambalaya, tuna salad sandwiches, chicken satay, and of course tapas!
Reserva Rioja and Gran Reserva are perfect with lamb, pork, beef Wellington, grilled tuna, veal, grilled sausage, beef burritos, and hamburgers. The oak in these two wines love anything grilled as it complements the charred flavour.
Rioja is not a wine that will go well with Pizza, as the wine’s body can not hold up to the acidity of tomato sauce. Also, never pair Rioja with Oysters. What you’ll get is an extremely fishy aftertaste that is quite unpleasant. If you’re in the mood for sea-food, Rioja is excellent with Tuna, Swordfish, and Salmon.