Looking for a wine with the style and structure of a Premier Cru Bordeaux at a fraction of the price? Meet the fruity, tannic and oh-so-age-able wines of Rioja.

Riojas are the most recognizable Spanish wines and, arguably, the best. What are Riojas exactly? Where in Spain do they come from? What should you look for when you buy a Rioja?

The Rioja wine region is in the north central part of Spain. The area has a continental climate with some Mediterranean influence. The summers are warm and sunny, and the winters are relatively mild, creating the perfect conditions for growing Tempranillo, an indigenous Spanish varietal. Over 80% of the grapes grown in the Rioja region are red. No wonder most people think Rioja means red wine. White grapes are also grown in Rioja, including such varietals as Viura, Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca; so, rosés and white wines can also be labeled as “Riojas.”

Rioja reds are typically blends, with Tempranillo as the dominant grape. Garnacha is often added to increase the fruitiness, but other varieties may also be used, including Mazuelo and Graciano.

Riojas can taste somewhat like California Cabernet Sauvignons because of their similar tannic structures. Riojas can also be fruity, bursting with earthy cherry flavors, reminiscent of French Pinot Noirs. Some Riojas can be aged as long as French Bordeaux or Burgundies.

If you’ve never tried a Rioja and would like to experiment, here are a few things to look for.

If the label says RIOJA and nothing else, it is a young wine. This means it has been aged for just a few months in oak, then bottled and sold. This type of Rioja will taste fruity and juicy. Basic Rioja wines are very affordable, sometimes sold for as little as $10 a bottle or even less.

The word CRIANZA on the Rioja label means the wine has been aged in oak barrels for at least 1 year with several months in the bottle before release. The Tempranillo varietal with its strong cherry flavor tends to stand out. Crianzas are also great food wines and are easy to find in the U.S. The prices generally range from $6-$20.

RESERVAS are produced only in good growing years from the best grapes of the vintage. These wines are aged for a minimum of three years with at least one year in oak. Reservas offer flavors of vanilla, cherries and wild berries and can be consumed immediately or aged. Prices range from $14 to $40.

GRAN RESERVAS are made only in exceptional growing seasons from the finest grapes of the vintage. These wines are aged in oak for at least 2 years with an additional 3 years of bottle aging. Winemakers often choose to age them even longer before releasing. Gran Reservas can then be stored in a temperature controlled wine cellar for much longer, some say up to 20 years. These wines are an incredible bargain and can sell for as little as $20 a bottle.

On a recent trip to Northern Spain, we visited the Rioja region and stopped at two outstanding wineries. La Rioja Alta prides itself on its strict observation of time-honored Rioja winemaking methods. Their wines are a testimony to how amazing traditional Riojas can be. Roda in the town of Haro produces some of the most sought-after red wines in the region. Small quantities of ultra-high quality Reservas are released each year and snapped up by those in the know. These are two excellent Rioja bodegas of many, but if you spot their wines in your travels, stock up.

What pairs best with Riojas? Typically lower in alcohol than their French, Italian or California red wine counterparts, Riojas make perfect food wines. Of course, traditional Spanish foods like Jamon Serrano (a dry-cured ham similar to Italian prosciutto), Manchego cheese and ripe olives are matches made in wine making heaven. In addition, almost any lamb preparation and most grilled meats pair beautifully with Rioja reds.

Do you pride yourself on liking only certain types of wine? Reds? Whites? Sweets? Wines from France? Italy? California? Make 2021 the year to get out of your wine comfort zone. Resolve to try something different. And if you’re looking for great place to start, pick up a few bottles of Rioja.

Christine Carroll is a Certified Specialist of Wine. She is also a columnist for Wines and Vines Magazine in San Rafael, California, and one of the principals of Crossing Vineyards and Winery. You can contact her at: info@crossingvineyards.com

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