What’s so sassy about Spanish Red Wine?
Barney Stinson is the king of sass. He was a comedic force on the sitcom, "How I Met Your Mother". Spain could be characterized as sassy especially when it comes to wine. Spain is a wine force. With over three million acres of vineyard planted, it is the largest areas under vine in the world. It is also the third largest producer of wine after France and Italy. Does Spain get the respect it deserves given the stats? Not really. Many think of Spain as a great region to shop for cheap wine. Yet Rioja put Spain on the high quality wine making map. Why? Because Rioja set itself apart with a focus on Spain’s most famous grape Tempranillo, the use of American oak for ageing, and ageing wine so that when it goes to market, it is ready to drink.
Did Spain flip the proverbial “bird” at Bordeaux by trading with the new world – buying American oak and ageing their wine for even longer than the Bordelaise? It could be construed that these two decisions were moves that set Rioja apart and helped to establish it as one of the top five regions in the world of wine, today recognized in 130 countries around the world. Sassy Spanish winemakers were focusing on differentiation – and boy, did it work.
American Oak – the Quercus alba tree
Spanish red (and sometimes white wine) is aged in American Oak not French oak. Was this a snub to France? Actually Spain had lost a war and was financially in tatters. It’s conquests in the New World were creating new trade routes and new partners. It turns out that American oak from 4000 miles across the water was not only a finer hardwood, but also an economic choice over the French alternative. While driven by economics, the marriage of Rioja red wine and American oak resulted in a wine that is appreciated for its smoothness and drink-ability.
Oak Barrel Ageing
In Spain, and perhaps most importantly in Rioja, red wine is aged in oak according to a classification system that once learned, provides a lifelong key to understanding the style of wine in the bottle. Was Rioja aiming to out shine Bordeaux? It would seem so. After all, Bordeaux was not noted for its drink-ability upon release and generally needed more cellar time – unlike wines coming out of Rioja.
Spanish Wine Label Terms
Here are four key terms appearing on Spanish red wine labels that refer to the style of wine in the bottle based on its time spent in oak and in bottle before release. These four terms are: Jovan, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva. This chart below shows the minimum requirements for Rioja Tinto (reds). Top quality producers release bottles often extending far beyond these minimums. Typically other Spanish regions have lower minimum requirements for barrel and bottle ageing.
Rioja Wine Regulations for Ageing Red Wine
Joven is considered young wine. Drink now. The prices are usually very reasonable. Joven wine is great on its own or with light vegetarian fare.
Crianza is fresh, fruit forward and a great companion to food. Again drink now. It is usually the lowest price class of after Joven. Think easy going and perfect for tapas.
Reserva starts showing a bit more character and the price is usually a bit higher. Here you can find bottles that are perfect companions to grilled meats, jambon and flavourful cheeses. Drink now but can continue to improve in the bottle.
Gran Reserva is the most elegant, with excellent structure, balanced acidity, alcohol and tannin with some tertiary aromas and flavours that include leather, tobacco, spice and earthiness. Here usually the best grapes are used and these tend to be the highest priced bottles. Drink now but these wines can improve beyond their release date with bottle age.
How does Rioja compare to Bordeaux?
When it comes to ageing red wine the rule of thumb in Bordeaux is the wine spends a minimum of 1 to 3 years in bottle, with a minimum of 6 months in oak barrels. There is no specific marking that indicate barrel or bottle age on the label. A statistic that reminded me of the quality issue Bordeaux faces is that only 3% of Bordeaux wine falls into the quality wine classified growth and Bordeaux Superior category. This includes maybe 500 wineries and means Bordeaux is a giant plonk producer outside of these 500 quality chateaux. That’s not to say that Rioja doesn’t have its challenges. But the perception of Bordeaux is quality and yet based on comparison; the bottles seem expensive with consumers paying the price.
Sassy Spain – You bet!
If you consider the underdog persona and the price of Spanish wine in the market, you might find yourself agreeing that Spain, especially Rioja, provides a sass that regions like Bordeaux, Napa, Barossa and Burgundy have to deal with. The quality is high and the relative price is low. This is what we refer to as “good wine”.
Here are some recommended Spanish Wines from Rioja and beyond that offer great value. You can find these bottles at the BC Liquor website and Marquis Wine Cellar.
Fresh & Fruit Forward
Alicante Monastrell – Volver Tamira Hill Old Vines 2015 $24.99
Monstant – Celler des Capcanes Mas Donis Old Vines 2015 $24.99
Toro – Terra D’Uro Finca La Rana 2012 $22.99
Rioja Crianza - Bodegas Lopez de Heredia 2011 Cubillo $46.87 |Marquis
Mature & Balanced
Carinena Gran Reserva Monasterio de Las Vinas 2011 $16.99
Ribera del Duero Crianza Torres Celeste 2015 $25.99
Ribera del Duero - Villacreces Pruno 2016 $29.99
Rioja Reserva – Muga 2016 $30.99
Rioja Crianza - Lopez de Heredia 2011 Cubillo $46.87 | Marquis
Elegant & Age-worthy
Priorat – Alvaro Palacios Gratallops vi de vila 2016 $69.99
Priorat – Scala dei Cartoixa Formiga 2015 $58.99
Rioja Reserva - Lopez de Heredia Vina Bosconia 2008 $66.86 | Marquis
Rioja Reserva – CUNE 2015 $36.43 | Marquis
Rioja Gran Reserva – CVNE Imperial 2012 $91.99
Penedes - Cabernet Sauvignon - Torres Mas La Plana 2013 $70.99
Food Pairing Recommendations
From Manchego cheese, spicy chorizo, warm tapas, fish croquet, ceviche, blood sausage and octopus, the options are many. Grilled pork dishes are killer with flavourful reds.
Here is a link to so great recommendations.