Rioja’s three shades

Splash­ing out on a reserva is a great treat but there are bud­get va­ri­eties

The Irish Times Magazine - - DRINK - WINE JOHN WIL­SON

Hav­ing a roast of lamb this week­end? Or tur­key on Thanks­giv­ing? Our favourite wine to go with cel­e­bra­tory din­ners is Rioja, and not just any Rioja. In Ire­land it must be a Rioja Reserva. How­ever, they range in price from ¤ 9 to more than ¤ 50, so what should we buy?

It used to be sim­ple. There were only three kinds of Rioja: cri­anza, which had been aged in oak bar­rels and then in bot­tle for a lit­tle while; reserva, which had gone though the same process but for a longer pe­riod; and gran reserva, which had spent a very long time in both bar­rel and bot­tle be­fore be­ing re­leased. The the­ory was sim­ple, too; Rioja came ready- aged, so there was no need to wait be­fore drink­ing it. It was smooth, rounded and soft. And we loved it.

Things be­came more com­pli­cated as a gen­er­a­tion of young Turks de­cided to make more mod­ern, youth­ful in­ter­na­tional wines with plush, rich, dark fruits. Then, as those young Turks aged, a new gen­er­a­tion came for­ward, mak­ing lighter, fresher wines, of­ten made from sin­gle vine­yards and fre­quently with low lev­els of sul­phur. All of these pro­duc­ers sim­ply put the word cosecha ( vin­tage) on the back la­bel. It was con­fus­ing for some, and that may be why a great many Ir­ish con­sumers stuck to buy­ing reserva when they wanted some­thing special. It has be­come our go- to wine when we want to splash out.

The term “reserva” sim­ply means the wine has been aged for a min­i­mum of one year in oak bar­rels, and at least 24 months in bot­tle. Start off with a great wine, age it qual­ity oak, you should end up with a sublime, ma­ture, smooth, com­plex wine. Poor- qual­ity wine aged in poor- qual­ity oak will only get worse.

Each of the mul­ti­ples will have an in­ex­pen­sive Rioja reserva. Aldi and Lidl both have one at ¤ 8.9, see right for the Lidl ver­sion, but both are per­fectly drink­able. Tempt­ing as cheap reser­vas are, at less than ¤ 15, I would go for a cri­anza in­stead; they tend to have a bit more fruit. At the mo­ment the mul­ti­ples seem to be pro­mot­ing Cune cri­anza at ¤ 10-¤ 11 a bot­tle, which is good value, al­though it may have re­turned to ¤ 15 by the time you read this. The ma­jor­ity of the best- known Rioja reser­vas are grouped around the ¤ 22-¤ 25 mark, pe­ri­od­i­cally marked down to about ¤ 15-¤ 18.

Rioja reserva is a great choice if you are look­ing for a wine to serve at a cel­e­bra­tion. It is one of the food- friendli­est wines, great with white and red meats. In Rioja, they love their lamb; chops grilled on a bar­be­cue, cooked slowly with beans ( their ver­sion of Ir­ish stew, I guess), lamb shanks or sim­ply a roast.

Cepa Le­brel Rioja Reserva, 13.5%, ¤ 8.99 Light, smooth black cherry fruits over­laid with sweet vanilla. Stock­ist: Lidl.

Rafael López de Here­dia, Viña Bosco­nia 2005 Rioja Reserva, 13.5%, ¤ 31 Mag­nif­i­cent wine – red cher­ries, straw­ber­ries, an earth­i­ness and lovely min­eral back­bone. Stock­ists: World Wide Wines; Black­rock Cel­lars; Green Man Wines; 64 Wines.

Cune Rioja Cri­anza 2103, 13.5%, ¤ 10-¤ 11 Medium- bod­ied black­cur­rant fruits, with spice and to­bacco. Great value on pro­mo­tion. Stock­ists: Tesco, Su­per­Valu, Dunnes Stores and oth­ers.

Conde Valde­mar Rioja Reserva 2010, 13.5%, ¤ 17.50 En­tic­ing el­e­gant smooth black cherry fruits with a spicy note. An award- win­ning Rioja reserva. Stock­ists: Widely avail­able from in­de­pen­dent off- li­cences.

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