By Celia Strong
Well, again we go back. But, this time I for one don’t care because I love the grape and the wine we’re going to talk about this week. And, hopefully drink too! We’re back to Spain and their great red grape, or at least their red grape claim to fame, Tempranillo. You may remember, Tempranillo is the grape that makes red Rioja wines. So, back we go to look at Rioja and Tempranillo. The whole time, I for one, sipping the one appropriate wine. We must never forget the sipping is why we’re all here.
Let’s start first with Rioja. This is the name of a region of Spain and the wines, red, white and rose, from that region that carry its name. Rioja, or La Rioja, is a Spanish D.O.C., a.k.a. legal appellation, and probably the best known of Spanish wine regions. Historically, the harvesting of wine in La Rioja dates back to the Phoenicians and the Celtiberians. The earliest written record of grapes in the area dates back to 873, in the form of a document from the Public Notary of San Milan dealing with a donation to a monastery. Like many parts of the civilized Mediterranean then, monks were the main practitioners of wine making and the advocates (like us) of its virtues and benefits. In 1102, the King of Navarra and Aragon gave the first legal recognition to Rioja wines. In 1560, harvesters chose a symbol to represent the quality level of their wines. And, in 1635, the mayor of Logrono (a town in Rioja) prohibited the passing of carts through the streets near wine cellars in case the vibrations caused a decrease in the quality of the wines in the cellars. (One of my personal favorites in the realm of wine laws!) The first document to really protect the quality of Rioja wines was dated 1650. From the 1850’s through to today, associations and laws have been formed and passed to augment and enhance the quality and the reputation of Rioja wines. In 1991, Rioja DO was upgraded to DOCa, a more elite level in the Spanish legal hierarchy of wines. In 2008, the Regulatory Council for La Rioja DOCa created a new logo to go on all Rioja bottles. This was an attempt to appeal to younger more modern drinkers. The new logo was, supposedly, a Tempranillo vine in modern form but symbolized the heritage of its past. In theory, Crianza wines from the 2006 vintage, Reserva wines from 2005 and Gran Reserva from 2003 should bear this new symbol.
Geographically, Rioja benefits from a continental climate. The Canabrian Mountains to the north help to isolate the area and moderate its climate. These same mountains help to protect the vineyards from the fierce winds of northern Spain. This region is home to the Oja River, and, hence its name Rioja – River Oja. The region is divided into three sub-regions: Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja. The first two of these are located closer to the mountains at slightly higher elevations with cooler climates. The Baja area is to the southeast and drier and warmer. Each of these three sub-regions produces its own style of wine. In terms of their wines, the Rioja Alta is more “Old World” style, a shorter growing season with less fully ripe fruit and wines that are lighter bodied. Rioja Altavese has a similar climate, but its wines are fuller bodied with higher acidity. In this area, the soil is less rich and the vines are spaced further apart so that they don’t have to fight so hard for their share of the nutrients. The Rioja Baja is the warmest and driest of the three Rioja sub-regions. These wines are deep colored and can be highly alcoholic. Often they are used for blending into wines of the other two sub-regions.
Rioja wines are usually a blend of grapes, Tempranillo being the most common in the red, “tinto,” wines. Other varieties include Garnacha (Grenache in France), Graciano and Mazuelo. A typical blend is about 60 percent Tempranillo, 20 percent Garnacha and the rest Graziano and Mazuelo. Like any other blend, each variety gives the wine a unique component. Tempranillo gives the main flavors and aging potential, Garnacha gives body and alcohol, Mazuelo gives seasoning and Graciano gives aromas.
A distinct characteristic of red Rioja is the effect of oak aging. Bordeaux wine making techniques played a big part in the development of Rioja wines. The use of oak and the vanilla flavors that come from it became part of the identity of Rioja. Although it started with French oak, the cost pushed Rioja producers to use less expensive American oak for a while, and then return to the French with some American still used for the subtleties. Owning 10,000 to 40,000 barrels is fairly normal for a Rioja bodega (winery). You’d need that many too if you were used to aging your wines for 15 to 20 years before their release. One bodega held a “gran reserva” from the 1942 vintage until 1983 — 41 years! But times and styles change and most Riojas are now typically aged four to eight years. The wines now are meant to be drunk sooner. Thank you!
Wines from Rioja, red ones anyhow, have four categories. If it is labeled simply “Rioja,” the wine is the youngest, aged less than one year in oak. “Crianza” labeled wines are aged for at least two years, a minimum of one in barrels. (So, yes, some of the time is in bottles too.) A “reserva” Rioja is aged for a minimum of three years, at least one of them in oak barrels. And, finally, “gran reserva” must be aged at least two years in oak and at least three years in their bottles. Traditions die hard, but the walls of Rioja kept crumbling. Reserva and Gran Reserva Riojas are not made every year, only in the better vintages. Duh! The grapes have to be a certain quality to sustain the wines until we get them into our glasses. Needless to say, as the level of Rioja goes up, so does the price. But, when you’re lucky enough to have one these wines, enjoy it!
Now we know enough about Rioja wines to get to ours for this week. El Coto de Rioja Crianza. El Coto was founded in 1970 by a group of wine makers who wanted to make a new style of wine. Not a traditional family owned for generations bodega, they still knew what they were doing. Their first wine was released in 1975, and, today, El Coto is the leading brand in Spain itself and a top selling brand of Spanish wine in Europe. They own about 1,200 acres in Rioja Alta with soil that has iron and clay, sand and limestone. In addition, they buy grapes from select growers in Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. When making this wine, it is macerated and fermented in stainless steel vats for 20 to 25 days. They use extended time on the skins to extract more flavors and complexities. Then, it is aged for one year in new and used American oak and six months in its bottle. This wine is 100% Tempranillo with layers of fresh raspberries, cherries, cedar and spice all wrapped up in vanilla and leather. A traditional Rioja but young. How modern! This wine is sure to please year in and year out, all seasons, and with so many foods. And it’s only $10.99 I’ve spent years and many nights enjoying this old favorite. Now it’s your turn. Let me know. Enjoy!
By Celia Strong