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Rioja Rocks!

What is it about the Spanish Classic Red Wine that makes it so special?


23In the world of football, Spain are once again champions of Europe. Their winning team is brimming with flare and natural talent. And it’s blessed by not having any over-inflated egos amongst its talented players. The majestic Iberian footballers simply stick to what they know best - stylishly out-classing the opposition, by playing the beautiful game with skill and accuracy. In the world of wine, Spain also currently excels within Europe. Again, without all the brouhaha of others, the Spanish winemakers simply and masterfully stick to what they know best - making exceptional wine. And for me, the one Spanish wine that truly stands out, from an impressive range, is the fabulous Rioja.

    Pronounced “re-ock-ha,” and named after its region of origin, in northern Spain, the best examples can be exceptional. True gems. Classic style wines, always barrel-aged in oak, with only traditional practices used throughout the wine making and bottling process, the results speak for themselves. Rioja is gorgeously smooth, well rounded, flavour packed, unadulterated, pure and instantly addictive to lovers of complex wines that display a long lingering finish. This type of wine is the antithesis of the industrial giants of the New World. It’s slow wine - no gimmicks, no short-cuts, no need for clever marketing ploys, and best of all, no catchy names.

   For many years, Rioja had a virtual monopoly on the Spanish wines gracing the wine lists of top restaurants. Of course, these days there is a myriad of wonderful Spanish wines available. But even so, Rioja is still regarded by many as the Bordeaux and Burgundy of Spain. This is mainly a question of geography and history. Rioja is not far from the French border, and indeed, not so far from Bordeaux. When the phylloxera bug arrived in the 1870s many winegrowers took off to Spain. When the phylloxera inevitably caught up with them, they went home. But not before leaving a valuable legacy of French methods and know-how.

      The Rioja region is distinctly mountainous. It lies in the shelter of the Sierra Mountains, and its best vineyards are at altitude, around 400 meters above sea level. They get plenty of rain and long springs and autumns, rather than typically Spanish endless parched summers. The wine is correspondingly delicate by Spanish standards. Well made, and at the right age, it can be exceedingly fragrant and fine, yet with a faintly toasted sweet warmth, and the dark mahogany tones that seem to embody Spain.

       In Rioja, red wine is more important than white. And echoing the great Bordeaux red wines, it’s made from a blend of grapes. Classic Rioja contains Tempranillo, Spain’s best red wine grape, which is backed up with Granacha for strength. Graciano is added for tannin and fragrance, and Mazuelo is often used, when needed, for extra colour and acidity. Bordeaux and Burgundy style bottles are used for the respectively, lighter and fuller bodied Riojas. And by and large, these red wines are made just as Bordeaux was 70 years ago. Barrel ageing is a key factor, probably the one thing that marks it out from most from other Spanish wines. Some reserve Riojas are aged for several years in oak barrels, until their darkness and fruitiness has been tamed, and replaced with an almost tawny colour. And the soft dry vanilla flavours that come from the oak. It still has that intensity of colour and almost mysteriously dark characteristic, but it’s also light and smooth - the effect of all that ageing in wood. Having said that, the greatest change in Rioja recently, has been the move to bottle earlier. The objective is to reduce the dominance of the oaky aroma, and allow the grapy flavours to shine through. It works. And the change in style, although very subtle, is producing some glorious results, which certainly please the more contemporary wine drinker’s palates, so used to fruit-forward style wines.

      In a mark of how importantly they are regarded, Rioja red wines are classified into four categories. The first, simply labelled Rioja, is the youngest, spending less than a year ageing in an oak barrel. A Crianza is wine aged for at least two years, at least one of which was in oak. Rioja Reserva is aged for at least three years, of which at least one year is in oak. And finally, Rioja Gran Reserva wines have been aged at least three years in oak and three years in bottle. (Obviously, the Reserva and Gran Reservas are not necessarily produced each year.)

      I suppose I should elaborate, a little, on the white Riojas. Although to be honest, I find they pale in comparison to the reds. Nevertheless, to wine enthusiasts less biased towards reds than me, there are some interesting examples. White Riojas are made of the freshly acidic Viura (a.k.a. Macabeo) blended with Malvasia Riojana, which adds body and aroma. And even white Riojas are given a couple of years to barrel-age. Comparable to the best Graves, white Riojas are often memorable classic-tasting wines. But more suited to the connoisseur than a beginner.

      Spanish wines are becoming more popular in Thailand (as most other places). But unfortunately, we are not necessarily getting the very best bottles of Rioja imported here. A combination of the desire to keep the-highly-sort-after Gran Reservas within Europe, and prohibitive Thai import taxes, means we mainly see the regular Rioja and Crianza varieties. But I have noticed some Gran Reservas gracing the wine lists of the island’s more up-market hotel’s restaurants. Not particularly cheap… but, my God worth it!


Peter James


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