Rioja Wines are Brimming with Value


Rioja remains one of the very last bastions of value when it comes to traditionally styled wines. However, it offers consumers considerably more than that: it affords consumers the chance to purchase aged wines that are ready to drink at prices that make them undeniable bargains. But today that is not what I want to talk about. I’m still going to harp on about the values here, but at the same time I want to address the differences between wines that occupy the so-called value segment of the market.
So what’s a value? For me it’s usually a wine that retails for $16 or less, an admittedly arbitrary figure. Today though I’ve extended that limit to $20, if for no other reason than to make a point. Simply put, we as consumers need to stop using Rioja’s age related denominations as a de facto ranking system. Cosecha (which means vintage, and indicates that a minimum of 85% of a wine thus labeled is produced in the year marked) is not inferior to Crianza (aged a minimum of 24 months, with six months in barrel; in the regions of Navarra, Rioja, and Ribera del Duero, that minimum barrel time is one year; white wines must be a year old, with six months in barrel) and Crianza is not inferior to Reserva (aged a minimum of three years, with one year in barrel; white wines must be two years old, with six months in barrel). I’ll leave Gran Reservas (aged a minimum of five years, with 18 months in barrel; in the regions of Navarra, Rioja, and Ribera del Duero, that minimum barrel time is two years; white wines must be four years old, with six months in barrel) apart for the sake of this argument. Once you get to that level you are really talking about a different beast, a wine that showed so much promise that the producers are confident that it will not only endure but improve with time.
The same might also be said of a Reserva, and a Crianza for that matter. Tempranillo, the main grape of Rioja, does produce a structured wine, rich in tannins and acids, so it’s no surprise that these wines are ageworthy. What might be surprising though is that a Reserva may not age any better than a Crianza. To understand this you really need to understand that the difference between the two are the ageing requirements, both in wood and in bottle, before release. The additional ageing a Reserva undergoes might make it both more complex and perhaps more approachable on release, but it doesn’t necessarily increase the quality of the end wine.
The quality of the wine you buy is determined by both your needs, and your palate. A juicy fruity wine is, in all likelihood, a more enjoyable partner for a simple meal of burgers or sausages off the grill, though a rich, gamy dish of grilled duck might need the additional structure and earthy complexity that a Rioja Reserva has to offer. Keep that in mind. Wines are made for you to enjoy, and the great variety of wines on offer from Rioja supply the consumer with a wine perfect for nearly any occasion. 
Having said all that, the point of this tasting was to determine if there was a qualitative linking of the terms Crianza and Reserva. I obviously did not think so and the results of my tasting mostly bore that out. My top wine of the tasting, the fabulous 2008 Viña Bujanda Rioja Reserva was a Reserva, but at the same time, at $20 a bottle it was also the most expensive wine of the tasting. Rounding out my top five wines were four Crianzas, priced between $12 and $18. My notes will offer details on the wines' styles, but there is no denying that Crianza can not only equally the quality of some Rioja Reserva wines, but at amazingly affordable pricing!
These are fabulously food friendly wines that have the near unique ability to appeal to novice and aficionado alike. At their best these wines are bright and juicy yet with layers of complexity supporting the beautiful fruit of Tempranillo. Much of this complexity comes from the enthusiastic use of wood that is traditional in Rioja. 
Whereas American oak was historically the dominant oak used in Rioja for ageing wine, modern produces often opt for the spicier, more nuanced spice flavors of French oak over the classic, sweet vanilla and coconut that American oak has long contributed to Rioja. I find that both types of oak work well with Rioja, though at the end of the day I might actually prefer a blend of the two, which lends the most complexity to the finished wines. These flavors of vanilla and spice are significantly responsible for the wide spread popularity of Rioja, appealing to a palate more used to drinking warmer climate wines well laden with oak. 
On the other hand the complex, earthy, spicy herbal, and often leathery edged black berry and bitter cherry fruit of Rioja appeals to the aficionado, and manages to carry a rather heavy load of oak even when the wines remain decidedly medium bodied and elegant. This is the recipe that yields such bounty for consumers. I strongly urge you to take a look at some Rioja soon. I found that the Crianzas in my top five really hit my sweet spot in terms of value and style. I look forward to opening these wines with simply grilled meats, especially garlicky pork ribs, and well seasoned grilled sausages. All that acidity and bright fruit serves as a fantastic foil for those simply grilled meats but don’t take my word for it. Check out Rioja and see for yourself. See wine reviews on the next page.
And just to get you started, here are recipes that I can’t wait to pair with Rioja once I get my grill fired up!

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