Wine with Food: Rioja | Pairing Tips

Wine with Food: Rioja
By Paul Kalemkiarian Sr. |


I am writing this on the eve of departing for Spain. I was motivated to the topic by my expectations of the culinary surprises I am looking for, and maybe some discoveries of wines.

Spain is best known for its sherry wine. They are in a class by themselves. They are fortified wines which the British seem to have adopted from time immemorial. Nearly as famous is the Rioja wine from Spain. Well known in England and on the continent, it has also been well established in the United States. Most importers of Spanish wines feature the Rioja wines as their leading item. In the pre­mium table wine arena, Rioja to Spain is the same as Chianti to Italy – the banner table wine for each country.

What is Rioja? It is a wine growing region in Spain which is situated just south of the northern Atlantic coast, and toward the cen­ter, with the Pyrenees to the northeast of it. Like many important wine growing regions of the world, a river traverses through it called the Ebro. Another river, the Rio Oja joins the Rio Ebro nearby, thus the name of the region Rioja. By official designation, all wine from the region can bear the name Rioja, but it must comply with certain standards set by the government.

Most Rioja wine is red. Some white wine is produced in the region, but not commonly found on our market I will be referring to red Rioja in this column.

So if somebody gave you a bottle of Rioja wine, what can you expect It to be like, and with what would you serve it?

First: what can you expect it to be like? It is a dry red wine, with some resemblance to French Bordeaux wines. It is usually of medium red color with some possibility of amber tones due to ageing. The aroma of the fruit has usually developed into a bouquet of fragrant vanillins from the extensive barrel ageing all the red Rioja wines undergo. Interesting com­plexities can have developed with this ageing. Some of the red Rioja wines are aged as long as 10 to 15 years in oak before bottling.

It is not a heavy wine usually, but it can have dominant flavors of the blend of grapes of which it is composed. They are usually blends of grapes that are not common to the United States, except for one: the Grenache, or Gar­nacha in Spanish. Other grapes include the Tempranillo, Graciano and Mazuelo.

Great Rioja wines can be intense in their ageing complexities, with a similarity to aged red Bordeaux estate wines (even though they are totally different grapes). An interesting corollary exists between these two regions in different countries. The French grapegrowers and winemakers in the late 1800’s suffered the scourge of phylloxera pest in their vine­yards. Some immigrated to Rioja, and con­tinued their occupations, They upgraded the Rioja quality of the time, and adapted it more to their styles, thus the similarity.

What to serve it with: taking into considera­tion our American diet, I think Rioja red wines would be best served with beef or lamb dishes. I can see it with roast lamb, or lamb chops, with stews, beef stroganoff, or roast beef. It could be a good beef Wellington ac­companiment If you wanted to savor the wine more purely, then a New England boiled beef dinner would be good.

For the Spanish diet accompaniments, you will have to wait for my return. I will be observing very carefully, watching and asking ques­tions, and accumulating material for future columns.

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