La Rioja is the smallest of Spain’s autonomous regions and is synonymous with quality wine in the way that Bordeaux is in France or Napa Valley in the US. Indeed, it’s sometimes known as the Bordeaux of Spain, not least because French winemaking techniques were introduced to it in the later nineteenth century, which really helped it up its game and capitalise on its natural resources.
Two of its greatest resources are the tempranillo and garnacha grapes, which are often blended together in one of its staple reds. Since varietal wines (wines made from a single type of grape) are increasingly popular, why blend? Well think of it as a bit like your favourite football team. You want your team to win and you want your manager (winemaker) to pick a winning team. The manager has two types of player in the squad to choose from. The first type is comprised of those silky smooth players who are a joy to watch on the ball and kick the scores that are an expression of the beauty of the game itself, but unfortunately they’re also a little too delicate at times and get muscled off the ball a little too easily — they’re the tempranillo. The second type of player is that doughty ball carrier who knows how to get stuck into the opposition but isn’t always the prettiest to watch and a little lacking in the finer skills of the game — they’re the garnacha. A team of tempranillos often won’t be heavyweight enough to win and a team of garnachas have the beef but not always the finesse needed for those game-winning scores. But the manager who picks the right combination has a winning team on their hands; so it goes with blending tempranillo and garnacha. Great wines can be made from either individually, but together they’re a satisfying combination that always stands a good chance of winning.
On the label of a Riojan wine you’ll often see Joven, Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva, and this refers to the aging of the wine, in barrel and bottle. Joven means young in Spanish and unsurprisingly refers to the youngest of the three; Crianza (meaning ‘cradle’) is the next oldest followed by Reserva, while Gran Reserva is the oldest. Except for Joven wines, each of them must be aged in both oak barrels and in their bottle before being released onto the market. Older wines tend to be more expensive partly due to storage costs (but you’ll often see restaurants put Crianza on their wine list and sell it at Gran Reserva prices, simply telling you it’s ‘Rioja’!). However, although you often hear the expression ‘aging like a fine wine’ it doesn’t always follow that a young wine is an inferior product. Not every wine is made for, or can withstand aging. Some are best enjoyed sooner rather than later (which is particularly true of most white wines), while others are aged for longer in order to tease the fullest potential from the grapes. And of course, fancy wine tastings are one thing, but wine drinking is quite another!
You’ll probably only spend about three days walking through La Rioja (roughly 60km), but don’t worry, their wine seems to be popular outside of there too. If you’re interested check out the excellent official Rioja wine website, which even has a Rioja wine app that allows you to scan the bottle label for more information including how to purchase directly (especially useful if you find one that you’d love to have back home but don’t fancy dragging it another 600km to Compostela airport).