If Irish wine drinkers are becoming ever more adventurous (we are!), how come Rioja – one of the most familiar fine wine regions in the world – is seeing its popularity here surge? Despite our small size, Ireland is now Rioja’s eighth most important export market. Figures for the year to June 2020 show that sales have increased in volume by a whopping 37 per cent. A love affair that has flourished for decades has entered a heady new phase.
The reasons lie within Rioja itself. While staying true to its traditions, Spain’s flagship quality wine region has moved with the times and become more dynamic. Up-and-coming winemakers are seizing the opportunity to create individualistic wines, often focusing on specific soils or situations, favouring the flavoursome fruit of old vines and limiting the use of oak barrels. While red wines remain centre-stage, whites and rosés are also attracting new attention – the rosés dry and strikingly fresh, the whites either young and zesty or barrel-fermented and exotically rich with an interesting backward glance to white Riojas of the past.
Running parallel to this promising vein of innovation is much-loved, traditional Rioja, produced to the highest standards by historic companies dotted all over the region that wraps itself around 120 kilometres of the river Ebro in northern Spain. Because long ageing in oak gives the red wines the mellow vanilla-and-spice notes that characterise classic Rioja, they are categorised accordingly.
Crianzas spend at least one year in oak and one year in bottle. Reservas (Ireland’s favourites, with volume sales increasing by an astonishing 46 per cent in the past year), must be at least three years old before release. That period is increased to five years for gran reservas – the most majestic Riojas, some taking their place among the world’s finest wines.
Add the classic to the contemporary and it’s clear that Rioja today produces a wonderfully diverse cornucopia of wines. For the reds, Tempranillo is by far the most important grape, with Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo adding nuances of flavour. Many white wines reveal a new appreciation of the Viura grape, with Malvasia and other varieties also playing their part. Rosés often rely on Garnacha and Tempranillo.
As the Rioja region is Spain’s gastronomic heartland, it’s no surprise that its wines harmonise with a wide range of dishes based on fish, seafood, succulent vegetables and meats as well as cheese. Many young new-wave whites, rosés and reds are brilliantly versatile, suiting lightish food from cuisines right across the globe. Oaked whites shine with rich fish dishes, pork and veal. And, as well as pairing perfectly with simply roast lamb or beef, classic red Riojas with age on their side stand up well to red-hot spices.
Besides being food-friendly, high-quality Rioja usually comes at a remarkably fair price. Remember that next time you’re wondering which wine to order in a restaurant, or what to buy in your local wine shop. Whether it’s intended to smarten up a simple Tuesday supper or add glamour to a very grand dinner, you’ll find a Rioja that is just right. Here are some to try.
ARTUKE RIOJA 2019
If you’re wondering what a modern young Rioja tastes like, organic Artuke makes a delicious starting point. Produced by a family winery set up in 1991, this juicy charmer has lipsmackingly pure summer fruit flavours with a mineral edge. As enjoyable by itself as it is with food.
BUY FROM: 64WINE.IE
BADIOLA LAS PARCELAS RIOJA 2018
Subtle, elegant and alluring, Las Parcelas augurs well for a brand new venture launched to take advantage of the superb grapes yielded by 300 small parcels of old bush vines. The relatively cool zone of Rioja Alavesa seals in freshness and the use of oak is minimal.
BUY FROM: THECORKSCREW.IE
LAN XTRÈME RIOJA ECOLÓGICO CRIANZA 2015
For classic Rioja enthusiasts, this offers plenty of oomph for a crianza. It’s 100% organically grown Tempranillo, fermented with native yeasts and treated to 14 months in French oak barrels. The result? Layers of spicy, savoury, grippy depth. Give it meat or strong cheese to shine.
BUY FROM: WINEONLINE.IE
LINDES DE REMELLURI VIÑEDOS DE SAN VICENTE DE LA SONSIERRA RIOJA 2015
High-profile winemaker Telmo Rodriguez worked all over Spain before returning to Remelluri, his family’s Rioja estate. His main interest is in terroir, as this wine from an exceptional single vineyard outside Remelluri demonstrates with flair. It’s silky, supple and gloriously hedonistic.
BUY FROM: THENUDEWINECO.IE
CUNE RIOJA RESERVA 2015
Although you may be tempted by Cune Crianza 2016 at around €16, this mellower, more complex reserva merits an extra fiver. From a big company that has been a bulwark of classic Rioja for generations, its dark fruit notes and peppery succulence cushion underlying firmness.
BUY FROM: SUPERVALU.IE
MUGA RIOJA RESERVA 2016
Based in Haro, one of Rioja’s most famous towns, for nearly 90 years, Muga in its reservas marries tradition with reliabililty. Notes of plum, spice, toast and leather with a smoky overlay… they’re all here in a peppery mouthful with a fleshy, tannic finale. Meat eaters will especially appreciate it.
Up-and-coming winemakers are seizing the opportunity to create individualistic wines, often focusing on specific soils or situations, favouring the flavoursome fruit of old vines and limiting the use of oak barrels.
MARQUÉS DE RISCAL RIOJA RESERVA 2015
Although you might not think it from Riscal’s spectacular Frank Gehry-designed luxury hotel, tradition remains deeply embedded at this winery with roots in the 1850s. Aged for two years in American oak, this affordable, medium-bodied reserva is one to enjoy with a simple roast.
PRICE: USUALLY €23.49, NOW €19.99
MARQUÉS DE MURRIETA RIOJA RESERVA 2015
History is important here too: Luciano Murrieta was a founding father of the region, producing his first wine in 1852. However, talented chief winemaker María Vargas has steered Murrieta gently towards modernity. Expect richness with a sumptuous mouthfeel in this perfectly-judged reserva.
BUY FROM: OBRIENSWINES.IE
VIÑA HERMINIA RIOJA RESERVA 2014
Herminia may not be among Rioja’s most familiar bodegas but it’s owned by the same company as Lustau sherry – a sure sign of serious intent. This plummy reserva stands out from the crowd for its harmony of flavour, fine texture and lingering finish. Plenty to like at a fair price.
BUY FROM: MITCHELLANDSON.COM
LA RIOJA ALTA VIÑA ARDANZA RIOJA RESERVA SELECCIÓN ESPECIAL 2010
Founded in Haro in 1890, La Rioja Alta merged in 1904 with the Ardanza winery, the name that has brought it most renown. From an exceptional year, this long-aged, full-bodied, finely-tuned reserva is a masterpiece of savoury intensity. For a special meal, traditional Rioja at its best.
BUY FROM: CELTICWHISKEYSHOP.COM
Add the classic to the contemporary and it’s clear that Rioja today produces a wonderfully diverse cornucopia of wines.
CONDE VALDEMAR RIOJA GRAN RESERVA 2011
Fans of mature, oak-aged Rioja will be won over by this gran reserva from a well-known fifth-generation bodega – particularly at its special price. With hallmark aromas of cooked strawberries, tobacco and vanilla, it offers spicy warmth and lively acidity in a smooth body. Best with beef.
IZADI LARROSA RIOJA ROSÉ 2019
Whereas traditional rosados tend to be generously coloured and robustly flavoured, this fashionably pale rosé is more delicate while still having enough substance to stand up to food. Made from the fruit of old Garnacha vines grown at 790 metres, it’s vivacious and elegant.
BUY FROM: ELYWINEBAR.IE
LÓPEZ DE HARO RIOJA BLANCO 2018
Just three months in barrel give this fruity, modern white Rioja hints of vanilla and spice together with a creamy texture and a nice little bit of weight. This makes it ideal for autumn or winter enjoyment. While it will partner many dishes, pork roast with apples would be spot-on.
BUY FROM: STATIONTOSTATIONWINE.IE
LÓPEZ DE HEREDIA GRAVONIA 2011
Such is the demand for this cult classic from a history-soaked bodega that you’ll be lucky to lay your hands on it. Try. Made the old-fashioned way (fermented and matured for four years in American oak) it’s just magnificent: lemony, waxy, saltily appetising… and still youthful.
BUY FROM: SIYPS.COM
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