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Standing Up to the Holidays… Rioja Wines of Spain

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By Bruce Collier


When I was assistant manager of a wine and cheese store, long ago, we used to stock some wines from Spain. One, “Sangre de Toro (Bull’s Blood),” sported a plastic black bull on a ribbon around the neck. Another—reportedly a favorite of Ernest Hemingway—was “Banda Azul” (Blue Band). Both were under $10. The Banda was from Rioja (ree-OH-hah), a region in the northeast of Spain, close to the French border.


Rioja wines have been in production since the 1100s, with periods of scarcity. The most recent was in the mid-20th century, when the effects of civil war and famine forced the government to order vineyard lands planted with wheat. Eventually the region rebounded, and by the 1970s was producing world-class wines, notably reds.


The grapes used in Rioja reds include Tempranillo (chiefly), Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano. The principal white grape is Viura.


Rioja wines come in four categories—basic Rioja, Crianza (aged minimum one year in oak), Reserva (minimum three years, at least one in oak), and Gran Reserva (in selected years, minimum two years in oak, three years in the bottle).


Rioja wines are bold, fruity, deep, but refined, and there’s not a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal in the world that they can’t match. Yes, I know turkey is a fowl, and we are told to pair white wine with fowl. But who eats holiday turkey without well-seasoned dressing? Or cranberry relish, bread, potatoes and other root vegetables, usually sauced or laced with gravy and butter? Or cheese and cured meats on those pre-dinner “snack” platters?


You need the kind of wine that Hemingway would arm-wrestle you for. For this article, I tried four kinds of Rioja—one white, three red. All are available locally.


Cune’s C.V.N.E. Rioja Blanco 2016 Monopole


13% ABV

This is a white wine, served chilled. C.V.N.E. stands for Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana. DOC (Denominacion de Origen Calificada) Grape is mainly Viura. The color is pale yellow, greenish tint, with a fruity, mildly floral aroma. It’s fresh and cooling, though at 13% (higher strength than many comparable German white wines that weigh in at 7 or 8% ABV) it makes its presence known early. Taste is citrusy, lemon-lime, tart Granny Smith apple, slightly more fruity and less dry as it loses the chill.


With roast chicken and potatoes: the chicken was served with mango ginger chutney, which brought out a peppery spiciness in the wine, and the acidity balanced out the butter in the potatoes.


C.V.N.E. Rioja Crianza Vina Real 2014


13.5 % ABV

Made from Tempranillo grapes, from vineyards in LaGuardia and Elciego (Alava). Rich, purplish red color. Sour cherry, dark berry, plum-peel nose. Very fragrant. Taste—dark plum and blackberry jam. Warm, medium body, velvety, not overly tannic. With more time in the glass the fruitiness comes forward, more pronounced and mouth-filling. Medium finish but smooth and satisfying.


With spicy meat and cheese pizza: strong balance to the peppery meat and cheese. Good all-around red wine, doesn’t cost a lot but doesn’t have that raw, “red ink” quality of some cheaper wines.


Bodegas Muga Rioja Reserva 2014


14% ABV


Dark red, almost purple/black color, a black hole of a wine. Sour cherry, dried plum, raspberry and slight vanilla aroma. Taste is richly and brightly fruity, plush, full bodied, fleetingly sweet. Velvety and delicious, puckers like fresh berries. Long finish, spice and black pepper, begs for another sip.


Even though it’s 14% ABV (highest ABV of the four I tasted), it’s more of a gradual warmth than a burn.


Tasted with Manchego cheese, olives, almonds, cured pork (capocollo) octopus in oil, mushrooms sautéed in olive oil and garlic, and bread. Works companionably with the slightly oily sheep milk cheese, balances the slight sharpness with fruit. Salty almonds and olives countered by the tangy fruit. Creamy, oily, salty and crunchy, meaty, and fishy, garlicky bread—the wine stood up to all of it, pulling it together.


Faustino I Gran Reserva 2005


13.5% ABV

Blend of Tempranillo, Graciano and Mazuelo grapes. Color—brick red on the edges, clear dark reddish purple. Aroma—fruity but a little more austere than the Muga Reserva; slightly musty vanilla/wood scent. Citrus—orange and tangerine peel. Taste—mouth-filling, tart raspberries, sour cherry pucker, full, juicy finish.


Drank it with chicken cooked in honey and balsamic vinegar, root vegetables, more mushrooms in olive oil and garlic. Honey and vinegar is an even match with red wine.


All the above reds are robust, powerful but elegant, dangerously quaffable. Get two bottles in case the Hemingways turn up for dinner.

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