We Irish have loved Rioja for quite some time. Decades ago, when the question of which wine to drink largely boiled down to red or white, Rioja was one of the first European wine regions beyond Burgundy and Bordeaux that the new consumer of Modern Irish wine has come to know and trust. With Ireland now its eighth largest export market, La Rioja loves us too. We grew up together, our tastes developing with the changing styles of the region.
Ironically, Spain’s most famous wine region owes the French for laying its foundations a century and a half ago. For a few fortuitous years (at least for Spanish wine growers), the small but powerful sap-sucking vine pest phylloxera had devastated French vine production, but had not yet traveled south of the Pyrenees. Bordeaux wine merchants moved faster, establishing trade links with Rioja winegrowers. The phylloxera would be widespread in almost all wine regions of the world. But when the French switched to Plan C (grafting vines onto phylloxera resistant rootstocks, as is now common practice), they left their influence in the form of barrel aging which would become the trademark. factory of La Rioja. Due to the demand for expensive French oak, the region adopted the American white oak (Quercus alba) and the frank notes of vanilla that it brings to wine and whiskey.
In the 1980s, the Consejo de Rioja introduces classifications for aging in barrels. You paid the most for the Gran Reserva wines, which spent the most time in the cellars, most of which are in barrels, and at least for the young wines of Joven, with little or no aging in barrels; Reserva and Crianza closed the gap. Joven has since been replaced by Genérico, indicating wines without aging requirements. The new Viñedos Singulares indicates, among other requirements, wines from isolated vineyards that are at least 35 years old. Classifications today reflect a diversity of styles that have evolved over decades.
Besides being one of the oldest wine regions in Spain, La Rioja is one of the largest, with three distinct sub-regions. La Rioja Oriental (formerly Rioja Baja) straddles the lower, warm and fertile eastern half of the region. The higher altitudes and the soils dominated by the limestone of Rioja Alta in the west and Rioja Alavesa in the north result in more nuanced, fresher and finer wines. Many winemakers choose to let these wines speak for themselves, employing a restrained hand with French oak. Today’s selection leans towards this contemporary Rioja style, but not exclusively.
Wines of the week
Bodegas de la Marquesa 2018, Rioja Alavesa, 14pc, 15 € (from €17)
A good deal of wine, even at its full price, and an interesting example of an old-fashioned, fifth-generation family estate that isn’t afraid to tinker with modern Rioja flair, this would make a great wine to serve at home with everything from Sunday roast to cold cuts for cozy movie nights. With refreshing aromas of wild mint, tea and rain-soaked stone giving a touch of pomegranate and cherry, it plays on the lighter side of the medium body, with linear focus dampened by soft edges. In short, balanced. Whelehans Wines, winswines.fr
Bodegas Roda ‘Sela’ 2017, Rioja DOC, 14 pieces, € 27 to € 30
Led by tempranillo with a touch of graciano and garnacha keeping things bright and juicy, this is a supple take on modern style, with 12 months of ‘semi-new’ French oak imparting subtle balsamic notes, tangy spices and naturally polished tannins of cherry, sloe and elderberry. Jus de Vine, Le Corkscrew, Le Vintry, Margadh, Nectar Wines, The Winehouse, deveneys.fr
Finca la Valentina Montana 2018, Rioja Crianza, 14 rooms, € 18.50
With 12 months in cask and a touch of elegant Graciano among the Tempranillo, this wine marries delicate aromas of white fig, black tea and plum with balsamic spices with a surprisingly fresh and crunchy character on the palate. Think poultry, pork, or even wild boar, or chill a bit and serve with a pizza. Fallon & Bryne, fallonandbyrne.com
M&S Found Mazuelo 2019, Rioja DOC, 14.5 pieces, € 12.50
M & S’s ‘Found’ series focuses on lesser-known wines: here, the once traditional grape varieties of Mazuelo (or Carignan), with which only 3pc of the region’s vineyards are planted today. Food, from manchego cheese to duck confit, thanks to a fresh, catchy and peppery profile. Mark & Spencer
Marqués de Murrieta 2016, Rioja Reserva, 14 pieces, € 19.95 (from € 24.95)
This American beauty aged in oak barrels evokes autumn leaves, licorice and black fruit poached in tea, with high notes of meat, supple tannins and a well-integrated freshness: a nice pairing for rustic cooking stews. slow. Also don’t miss the glorious Cappellania de Murrieta, a rich white wine. O’Brien Wine, obrienswine.ie