Being the perfect dinner table red, Rioja is a food lover’s dream, as it’s great for pairing with those warming stews and hearty meals throughout winter. However, many people seem confused by it, so I've put together an overview to help you get to grips with everything Rioja.
First and foremost, it’s not a grape variety but a wine region in northern Spain. It’s made mostly from Tempranillo and Garnacha grapes, but Mazuelo and Graciano grapes are often also used in the mix. Red Riojas tend to be medium to full bodied and have a smooth texture. Strawberry and plum flavours are common, and the use of American oak barrels to age the wine can add wonderful sweet spice aromas of vanilla and coconut as well as hints of toast.
You often find Rioja Reservas on the supermarket shelves, but ‘Reserva’ doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s better – it depends what you like. Red Riojas are made in four styles – Vino Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. These all relate to how long the wine spends ageing in oak barrels and bottle. So a Vino Joven will be fresh and fruity, while the best Reservas and Gran Reservas will have richer aromas of fruit and spice.
As for the food match, red Rioja is great with lamb or a rich stew. Hard cheeses such as Cheddar and Lancashire are a good bet with oaked versions. And with the lighter Joven style, try a pork chop or ham and eggs. Scrumptious.
Although it’s true that as much as 85% of Rioja is red, don’t overlook the delicious white and rosé varieties that are also made in the region. The Viura grape is prominent in these styles, often blended with Garnacha Blanca and Malvasía.