October Wine of the Month: Spain!

FOCUS: Rioja

THIS MONTH SAVE 20% on all Spanish Wines when you buy 3 bottles or more.

Spain is one of the world’s leading producers of wine. From the alluring white wines of Galecia, the Sherries of Andalusia, the deep rich reds of Jumilla and the iconic Tempranillos of Rioja and Ribera del Duero; Spain has a wine for every palate, occasion and cuisine!

With over 60 Designation of Origins (D.O.) and dozens of indigenous grapes, Spain has a virtual cornucopia of wines for every preference. Because the European model of wine labelling focuses more on the place of production, thus D.O. instead of what grapes are in the bottle, it is important to learn about the regions to successfully navigate the wines of this Iberian juggernaut.

The most famous wine region in Spain is Rioja. Producing wine since the 2nd century BC when Romans conquered the area, the wine of Rioja was so well respected that by 1560, producers forbade the use of grapes from outside the region, guaranteeing authenticity of their wines with a brand on the goat skins in which the wines were transported. Most of the Rioja wines are red and are based on Tempranillo. This early ripening grape has many different names throughout the country, depending on the region. Other grapes of Rioja include Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo. If you come across a white wine from Rioja, these are usually made with Viura and Malvasia.

Tempranillo is Spain’s highest quality red wine grape. A typical Rioja blend uses 70% Tempranillo for its bouquet, acidity and aging qualities. Also known in different regions as Tinto Fino, this variety ripens almost 2 weeks before Garnacha. Tempranillo has a naturally low oxidizing enzyme content allowing its wines a longer life-span. Key aromas and flavors of Tempranillo are: berries, plum, tobacco, vanilla, leather and herb.

Located in the north- central part of Spain, along the Ebro River and its tributaries, there are three sub-regions in Rioja that produce distinctively different styles of wine:

  • Rioja Alta is located on the western edge of the D.O. At a higher elevation, this area is known for its ‘old worl’ style of wine. Because of its situation and the calcareous clay and river stones dominating the soils, these wines are highly aromatic with more concentrated plum flavors and more leathery, cigar box notes. The elevation maintains the balancing acidity while the minerality of the soils assist in the long-term aging of the wines.
  • Rioja Alavesa is situated on the north bank of the Ebro River and straddles the La Rioja region and Basque Country. The landscape is dominated by the Cantabrian Mountains to the north where the vineyards are planted at higher altitudes of almost 4000 feet. The soils of the area is rich in chalky clay and limestone that assist in producing wines that have a firm constitution and a lively acidity.
  • Rioja Baja is a semi-arid area that is sunnier, hotter and drier than the rest of the D.O. The wines of Rioja Baja are similar to the neighboring Navarra region where extracted, fruit-intense table wines are produced. There are a handful of producers in this area that create more complex wines, but the majority of these bottles are meant for immediate consumption.

In addition to breaking down the region by landscape and situation, Rioja also has labelling requirements that speak to maturation of the wine:

  • Tinto: no aging requirements, usually ready to consume table wine.
  • Crianza: Aged for a minimum of 2 years, 6 months must be in oak.
  • Reserva: Wine from a favorable vintage that are capable of further aging. Minimum of 3 years, with one year in oak barrels.
  • Gran Reserva: Only made in the very best vintages. Minimum of 5 years, of which 18 months must be in oak.

Many Rioja producers keep their wines for longer than the minimum requirements. This allows the wines to mature while in the winemaker’s care and are consumable upon release. While the wine enthusiast who purchases these bottles may age their Riojas longer, it is not necessary.

While an ancient wine producing region, Rioja is known to break from traditional, European wine-making techniques and has been more experimental with new-world winemaking and cellaring techniques to create new expressions. Using a smattering of different barrel regiments and winemaking techniques, the producers of Rioja undulate from strictly traditional to wildly experimental.

Exploring the different expressions of this storied Region is a great way to learn the subtleties of the Tempranillo grape. From the light and easy-drinking expressions of the Tintos to the brooding, complex and haunting flavors of the Gran Reservas, you can experience the quality that the Romans realized a millennia ago. So grab some Jamon Iberico, Membrillo paste and a chunk of Manchego Cheese and lean into the magic of Rioja!