Warren’s Wine Notes – Rioja

My father-in-law religiously followed the maxim made famous by the food critic Waverly Root….“drink wine everyday at lunch and dinner, and the rest of life will take care of itself.” When I met Craven Walker for the first time in 1975 he took me to a small barn on his property (The New Forest, England) flung open the doors and proudly pointed to a hundred cases of Rioja….yes, 100 cases. Judging by the amount of wine we consumed that evening (four of us), I calculated he owned way less than a year’s supply.

It was bad enough being an American, but when I told him I never heard of Rioja I could see the look in his eyes…what has Debora done.

That evening I learned about red wine. There was no California, there was no Chile, no New Zealand, or Australia. There was only France and now Spain. Spain according to Craven was the future…..and trust me, standing there was forty years of experienced drinking, we’re talking the best of what Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone had to offer.

Fast forward 35 years, Craven is gone, but he left his children and grand children a love of wine, fine food and adventure. Along with his Lava Lamps, (Edward Craven Walker was the inventor of the lava lamp) he gave them a desire to try new things without prejudice, and to always remember, it’s not the quality of the lead crystal in the glass that matters, it’s what’s in the glass. How I wish he were here today, boy do I have a Rioja for him…a 2004 Sierra Cantabria Crianza. He’d love it.

Rioja is Spain’s oldest wine producing region. It lies in the center of Northern Spain where the climate is cool and there’s some variation in altitude. Typically it is a combination of 60% to 80% Tempranillo, with Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo completing the blend and giving the wine its unique taste. There are three levels of Riojas: Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva, all are classified according to age and quality of the grapes.

Crianza: is the youngest: Minimum one year in the wood and one year in the bottle. A good Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday wine. Made with okay/good grapes. Easy drinking best with simple foods.

Reserva: released after three years of aging, at least one year in the wood and two years in the bottle. Superior growths from prime locations. Don’t for a moment think all Reservas are equal. They are all good, some are better, and others are off the charts. You need to try more than one and make up your own mind. Not long ago I drank one that was aged 30 months in the wood and spent nearly 3 years in the bottle. It was priced like a Reserva should be priced, and drank like you hoped a Gran Reserva would drink. Structure, character, complexity and balance, all that and less than $20.00….has the Euro tanked???.

Gran Reservas:  The rules require from 5 to 7 years aging with a minimum of two years in the wood. In practice many are aged 8 years or more. They are rare, made only from great vintages and the best grapes. Usually Gran Reservas represent less than 10% of wine produced in that year. I keep searching for the “one” but my mojo hasn’t clicked. How about yours….have you any suggestions?

If you want to know what food to pair a wine with, look at what they farm and cook in the region where the wine is made. Rioja is a region of down to earth foods and simple cooking techniques. Braised, grilled, roasted, stewed and boiled. Game, grilled lamb, beef, vegetable stews and casseroles, ham, asparagus, potatoes, chorizo, peppers, and salads. My recommendation…..try Rioja with a greasy gyro.


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