Discovering Spain: Rioja & Beyond

Ask someone to name a wine from Spain and, more often than not, the reply will be Rioja. This is no great surprise; wines from this famous region in north-east Spain are extremely well-established in the UK and continue to be highly popular.

A large part of Rioja’s overall success is undoubtably due to the region being able to produce red wines of consistent quality and value to suit a wide variety of budgets and occasions. At entry-level, you have young, relatively inexpensive fruit-forward examples like the Finca de Oro Rioja (100% Tempranillo grape) which delivers appealing blackberry and plum fruit flavours and a smooth, lightly-oaked finish; ideal to drink on its own or as an accompaniment to tapas.

One notch up from the above youthful style is Crianza Rioja, often made from majority Tempranillo blended with a smaller percentage of other local grape varieties. Crianza generally offers the drinker an abundance of fruit character allied to oak-aged complexity, whilst still maintaining an accessible velvety texture on the palate. The Medievo Crianza Rioja and Fincas de Landaluce Crianza Rioja are both great examples, with the oak-derived vanilla, smoke and cedar aromas much in evidence alongside plentiful strawberry, red cherry and plum red fruit flavours. These are great wines to enjoy with a weekly roast dinner, especially when lamb is on the menu.

At the top end, you can find very good and outstanding quality Reserva & Gran Reserva Riojas that have benefitted not only from producers’ highest-quality grapes, but also extended ageing in oak barrels and then further ageing in bottle, prior to release. These rarer wines generally display intense dried fruit character, along with beautifully complex spice, vanilla, smoke, cedar aromas from the oak-ageing, plus further savoury and tobacco notes from the extended bottle-ageing. Fincas de Landaluce Reserva Rioja and CVNE Cune Gran Reserva Rioja (whose 19th century cellar was designed by famous French engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel) are two superb examples of these styles, both being more than worthy of gracing the table at any important celebratory occasion.

Although Rioja is perhaps best-known for its red wines, the last few years have seen a surge in interest from consumers in white Rioja, made predominantly from the Viura grape. Traditionally, Rioja’s white wines were aged for an extended period in oak barrels, which led to with an oxidative deep golden colour and a nutty flavour. However, this old-fashioned style has since fallen out of favour and today many white Riojas are made in a much lighter, crisp, fresh and lemon-zesty style which is much more in tune with current consumers’ tastes. The excellent CVNE Monopole Rioja Blanco illustrates this more modern style to perfection.

As undoubtedly great as Rioja is, the good news for wine-lovers is that it does not represent all that Spain has to offer in terms of wines of excellent quality and value. Further afield in the country’s numerous other wine-producing regions, a wide array of exciting, varied and highly-rewarding wines wait to be enjoyed by those willing to take a most pleasant diversion away from the well-trodden Rioja path.

Cava is the Spanish word for bottle-fermented sparkling wine that is produced in a number of regions of Spain, but predominantly in Catalunya in the north east. Like Champagne, Cava undergoes its second fermentation in the bottle to give it its fizz. This method also gives the wine more complexity in terms of flavour with subtle toasted bread and biscuit notes gained by yeast contact in the bottle, added to the wine’s traditional refreshing green fruit flavours. Today, many consumers overlook Cava and go straight for Prosecco due to familiarity, which is a shame as many would doubtless enjoy the extra richness and variety of flavours that are present in a good quality, affordable Cava like the Segura Viudas Cava Brut NV, compared to a lighter, less complex Prosecco.

Travel over to Galicia in the north-west and a cornucopia of delicious white wines awaits. The Albariño grape variety produced in the Rías Baixas sub-region has become quite trendy over the last few years. It is a highly refreshing wine with plenty of appealing citrus and stone fruit flavours and makes a great accompaniment to most seafood dishes, the Valdocea Albariño and Laxas Albariño both being very good representations of this increasingly-popular style. The Joaquín Rebolledo Godello from Valdeorras is another superb Galician white wine with a real “wow” factor; elegant ripe melon, fresh grapefruit and lemon zest character balanced by a crisp, refreshing acidity.

The region of La Mancha in central Spain is well-known for turning out high volumes of extremely quaffable, yet affordable, wines and the Canforrales Verdejo does not disappoint in this regard; it is youthful, dry and light, with attractive zesty citrus fruit flavours and a mouth-watering freshness.

When it comes to non-Rioja Spanish reds, there are certainly options a-plenty. In Ribera del Duero (situated to the south west of Rioja) the dominant grape is Tempranillo and the wines from here tend to exhibit plenty of dark, concentrated fruit flavours, high levels of tannin but with a fresh acidity, retained due to higher altitude vineyards helping to ensure cool night-time temperatures,  even during the hot, dry summer. See our Valle De Orón or Portia Prima for two fabulous Ribero del Duero examples.

The Flavium Mencia from the Bierzo region, to the east of Galicia, is mid-bodied with red damson fruit flavours and has a fresh, elegant and complex character. The relatively inexpensive cost of this great wine makes it a real “hidden gem” and simply outstanding value for money.

Over in Navarra, the region right next door to Rioja, the Piedmonte Cuatro Tierras is made from a relatively unusual blend: Tempranillo & Garnacha mixed with international varieties Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot. This blend, combined with oak ageing, produces a deliciously complex mid- to full-bodied red with cherry, plum and dried fruit flavours, vanilla and clove notes, all balanced alongside a good level of acidity.

Last, but not least, the Monastrell grape (known as Mourvèdre in France) is a thick-skinned variety which thrives in the hot and sunny conditions of the South East of Spain and produces big chunky reds with heaps of ripe dark and dried fruit flavours alongside high levels of tannin. Go straight to the La Pepica Monastrell or Nauta Monastrell for great examples of this no-nonsense full-bodied red.

So, as our whistle-stop tour of Spain draws to a close, I trust it has been successful in revealing some of the many and varied treasures brought to us by this fantastic wine-producing country; and we haven’t even had time to talk about the numerous delights that sherry has to offer! Regrettably we will have to take that particular mini-excursion together on another day. But in the meantime, may I wish you all the best for your very own Spanish wine adventure – Buen viaje!

Dougal Kenny

Wines & Spirits Manager, Crown Cellars & Distilled