September 24, 2020
Food & Drink News Opinion

WINE O’CLOCK: A Rioja by any other name

The patience of restaurant staff often surprises me, particularly nowadays when they have to work behind a mask and deal with customers who don’t know the Covid rules or have decided to ignore them.

But even before Covid reared its ugly head, I witnessed many an example of forbearance. I recall, in particular, a debate in a Dublin restaurant between a very tactful Spanish waitress and a customer who insisted that the wine he wanted was Rioja, not the Tempranillo she had brought to the table.

The waitress explained, several times, that Tempranillo is a Rioja. But there was no persuading this man and, in the end, she gave in and returned, not with what he ordered but with what he wanted to see – a bottle on which the biggest word simply said ‘Rioja’.

The waitress was, of course, correct. Rioja is neither a grape nor vineyard. It is a wine growing region in north central Spain. It produces the red (tinto) we are familiar with in Ireland but also whites (blanco) and rosés (rosado).

The region is divided into three zones: Rioja Alta, Rioja Oriental and Rioja Alavesa. They produce somewhat different wines but many of those on sale here are blends from all three zones.

The grape most widely used for the reds is Tempranillo and that is often, but not always, the name most prominently displayed on its bottles. Other grapes used are Garnacha, Graciano, and Mazuelo.

Rioja red wines are classified into four categories and the category name will sometimes be what you see on the label.

Those simply labeled Rioja, are the youngest, some are unoaked and none spend more than a year in an oak-aging barrel. Crianza is aged for at least two years, one of which must be  in oak. Rioja Reserva is aged for at least three years, one in oak. Rioja Gran Reserva wines have been aged at least two years in oak and three years in the bottle.

Albizu Tempranillo (€11.75 Le Caveau, Kilkenny)
Unusually, this wine is from grapes grown in just one 
of the Rioja zones, Alavesa. It is very lightly oaked and, while it will certainly go well with any white or red meat,  it’s a nice wine to sip unaccompanied, perhaps slightly chilled.

Conde de Valdemar Crianza (€14.99, Worldwide Wines, Waterford)
This wine, rich in red berry flavours, packs a peppery punch. The store says it is excellent with beans. I can’t vouch for that but it’s good sith cold meats or a casserole.

Grimon, Rioja Reserva (€29.75,  Le Caveau, Kilkenny)
Tempranillo and Garnacha are the main grapes in this complex blend with flavours of dark fruits and vanilla. This is an excellent wine. Perfect with any meat dish, particularly pork, and with those Spanish favourites, Jamon Serrano and Manchego cheese

Marcelino Blanco Rioja (€13.95 La Touche Wines, Greystones)
In Ireland we don’t see much white wine from the region. This one has a citrus tang with an after taste of honey and goes very well with oily fish, such as mackerel or sardines.

MICHAEL WOLSEY

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