By Celia Strong
This week’s lesson takes us to Rioja, a wine region in northern Spain, which might bring back memories of previous lessons and wines. Wines in this area have an extremely long history, over 2,000 years dating back to the Phoenicians and the Celtiberians. The first written mention of grapes in Rioja is from 873 A.D. In 1102, the King of Navarra and Aragon legally recognized Rioja wines. Exporting of Rioja wines dates to the 13th century, one of the earliest signs of commercial wine production.
The vineyards of Rioja are located in three principal sub-regions. Rioja Alavese, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja. Wines from any one of these have their own unique styles and characteristics, but many Rioja producers blend grapes from all three. Rioja wines are 85 percent red, and are often blends of several grape varieties — mainly Tempranillo (about 60 percent) and small amounts of Garnacha (same grape as the French Grenache), Graciano and Mazuelo.
Winemaking in Rioja, for their red wines, is heavily influenced by Bordeaux — the use of oak barrels, and the resulting vanilla flavors. Tempranillo is well-suited to aging, like Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux. Unlike Bordeaux, Spanish wine laws have classifications for four age levels of red Rioja. A wine labeled “Rioja” is the youngest, with less than a year of oak aging. A “crianza” is aged less than two years, at least one of which is in oak barrels. “Rioja Reserva” must be aged for at least three years, with a minimum of one year in barrels. Finally, Rioja Gran Reserva is aged a minimum of two years in barrels and three years in bottles. The finest Gran Reservas have been aged for up to 40 years.
Our Rioja is the Campo Viejo Reserva. The winery was founded in 1959, by Jose Ortigüela, but its name dates back to the Romans, when fourth legion soldiers who graduated with honors from battles for the Empire were awarded plots of land in northern Spain. These plots, as a group, became known as “Campus Veteranus.” Over time, this name became Campo Viejo. Much of the history of modern red Rioja wines, is due to innovations at Campo Viejo. For their first several decades, they were steadfast in their support of traditional Rioja styles — wines, bottles, everything. In 1971, they started selling their wine throughout Spain, and the newfound accessibility and quality made it hugely popular. In 1973, they began aging their Reserva bottles on their sides, keeping the corks wet. This simple innovation let them age their wines until they were ready to be drunk. From 2000 to 2003, they built a new, modern facility that included biodynamic and green winemaking techniques.
The Campo Viejo Rioja Reserva is made from 85 percent Tempranillo, 10 percent Graciano and 5 percent Mazuelo. The grapes are fermented in stainless steel, at about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Maceration lasts 20 days and the finished wine is aged 18 months in American and French oak barrels and 18 months in its bottles. Its color is a deep and bright ruby red with a golden rim. It has deep and complex aromas including black cherries, Rainier cherries, blackberries, black plums, cocoa powder, herbs, olives, tobacco and more. From its time in barrels, it has vanilla, baking spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove), black and green peppercorns and coconut. The texture is smooth and juicy, with an underlying earthiness. The finish is elegant and long lasting. A delicious wine for your holiday meals and shopping recovery. For $14.99 per bottle, but cases of this wine, while they last, come in wood boxes with a special 10 percent discount for each box. Enjoy.
Celia Strong works at Bill’s Liquor & Fine Wines on Lady’s Island.