By Rick Riozza

Hey—it seems that this column has recently gone on a vacation, as the world is accustomed to do in the month of August, two weeks ago with our coverage on Sangria in Spain (along with the bottled stuff in the U.S.), and, last week where we partied hearty all over Italy with their traditional dishes and vino. Well, on our way back home, we’re going to figuratively stop over again in Spain to quickly familiarize you with one of the world’s best and reasonably priced wines: Rioja [Ree-‘OH-ha]

Aside from us wine-nerds, few people know precisely what Rioja is all about beyond having something to do with Spanish wine. So before we get down to some serious drinking, it behooves us to become a little more knowledgeable about the wine. And with all of the trendy Spanish/Mediterranean bistros and restaurants blooming around us, you can be well equipped to enjoy a lifetime of drinking fine Rioja.

As mentioned in our Sangria article, Spanish wines have been enjoying growth in the U.S. market, with bottled shipments up by more than half a million cases over the past two years. In 2013, Rioja’s shipments to the U.S. jumped 18% to the equivalent of about 1.1 million cases, increasing its presence by nearly three-quarters since 2009.


Rioja is both a wine area and wine; kinda like “Burgundy”—an area in France, and, a French wine. And as in both of these examples, the area is varied and the wines differ depending where in that area the grapes are grown.

Most people associate Rioja with red wine, and a good 85% of the wine from the region is indeed tinto. Reds consist of a mixture of grapes, including the most commonly found varietal, Tempranillo, along with some others: Graciano, Mazuelo or Garnacha Tinta. If you pull away anything from this discussion: Red Rioja wine comes primarily from the Tempranillo grape. For you Spanish speakers, you already have a clue as the grape’s predominant characteristic: “temprano” means early, and the Tempranillo grape is one of the earliest grapes around to ripen and harvest.

I remember when Trader Joe’s markets opened in the early ‘80s, and sold this unfamiliar red wine with a label written in Spanish and a bottle wrapped in a thin wire mesh arrangement. It sold for $2 a bottle and I surely tried it. I was more than pleasantly surprised at the taste and quality of the wine—like a baby Bordeaux. By the way, that strange wire mesh packaging was utilized early on to foil wine counterfeiters; and for tradition sake, Marques de Riscal Rioja and some other Riojas still wire wrap their bottles—and so does Francis Coppola with his California wines!—always the decorative showman, huh?

When you first taste a Spanish Tempranillo/Red Rioja you’ll get hit with the flavor of leather along with cherries, plums, tobacco, vanilla and clove. The finish is mild, smooth and lingers with light tannins throughout. It’s medium-bodied like a balanced Pinot Noir—which means it’s really food friendly. Another way of describing the flavor is to imagine a Chianti mixing it up with a Cabernet Sauvignon.

As the wine steward at Pavilions, I recommended the very inexpensive ($8) Campo Viejo Rioja to a young lady who wanted something different than a Zinfandel to go with her BBQ chicken; and she was willing to go out of her wine comfort zone to try something new. She said, “Thanks!” grabbed the bottle and scooted right off. I hadn’t tried the Campo lately, but I knew it was a good entry-level Rioja. However, I wondered if her chicken was going to be lathered in heavy barbeque sauce for which an Argentinean Malbec would have been the better selection, or was she simply “grilling” her chicken, which is a classic Rioja pairing.

Ok-Ok—I finally cracked open a bottle, since she hadn’t come back with a yea or nay. So it goes—the stressful life of a wine steward. So after a good quaff—and you know, even with a sweet-heavy sauce—the Campo Viejo surely wasn’t going to match the flavor of the prepared chicken, but it would certainly be a refreshing cleansing wine with appealing back-up fruit to give the meal a bit more style.

The traditional deal with Rioja was that the Spanish really aged their wine in the barrels so when it was bottled, you could fully enjoy the wine immediately. In 1988, I purchased a case of the famed 1976 La Rioja Alta that had just been released! Fortunately for me, but sadly for the producer, the entire case cost me around $140—that means each bottle was less than $12!

The wine was magnificent. Polished but with sway, the flavors a sexy and focused melodious mix of bright cherry, orange peel, cedar, mineral, and licorice. These are the finds that make a wine lover’s day (week/month!).

FYI—old style Rioja designations are still used by many producers: Crianza: require 2 years, with 6 months in oak; Reserva: are aged 3 years with 1 year in oak and are a big step up in quality which have rich, round flavor because of the minimum oak requirement—seek these out as they are great buys; and, Gran Reserva wines are from phenomenal vintages, aged a minimum of 5 years before release. Most producers will do 20-30 months in barrel.

CVNE, whose Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva 2004 was named Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Yearfor 2013, was recently served by the bottle at Catalan Mediterranean Restaurant in Rancho Mirage. When they re-open on September 3rd, let’s see if they still have some bottles available; and please feel free to invite me over.

Hasta muy pronto!