One of the nifty aspects of Rioja is “They sell no wine before its time.” (And if that quotation calls to mind the bulky, labored-breathing Orson Welles and his 1970’s TV commercials for Paul Masson Wines, then you also remember Masson sold much of their wine in carafe-like bottles. If so, welcome to the club!) What's important about Rioja’s “selling no wine before its time” is that it eliminates your having to age it on your own time and money. ¡Qué bueno! This business practice is dictated by Rioja’s appellation requirement which positions a wine into one of four aging categories. Each is defined by total time it spends in both cask and barrel.
The first group, vino joven (young wines), are released in the year following vintage and typically undergo very little barrel aging. Though some are exported, most are consumed in Spain. Next up the aging ladder are crianzas which must spend at least one year in cask and at least one more year in bottle. Reservas are the third level and they must be aged at least three years, with a minimum of one year in cask. At the top grade are Gran Reservas which undergo at least five years of aging with a minimum of two years in barrel. Also,they typically represent selected grapes/vineyards from exceptional vintages.
The movement up the aging ladder definitely implies an increase in elegance and complexity. However, while that may be the case from a pure “tasting” perspective, it is not necessarily so from a food/wine matching perspective. A young, fruity joven may well be the better partner with full flavored, garlic-laden tapas at the local bar. ¿Verdad?
(Sidebar: Rioja, like many appellations, has its own share of costly, oak-enrobed fruit bombs, but those will covered at another time—maybe. Also, Rioja is the cover story for the October 12, 2012 issue of Wine Spectator. In addition to Top Wines and Top Values, it is a fine write-up on Rioja’s history, leading producers and dining and hotel recommendations for when visiting there. It’s worth seeking out.)
While Gran Reservas offer interesting and unique tasting experiences, crianzas and reservas are where I recommend you take your first tasting sortie into Rioja. They are polished and user-friendly, elegant wines that make cool nights seem like spring. They’re well balanced, silky, and appealingly aromatic and will work well with roast beef, lamb, or chicken, as well numerous other dishes calling for medium-to-full bodied red wines. As mentioned above, no cellaring is required, because all aging is achieved prior to release. And as you work your way through those two categories, you will also come to an awareness of your partiality for the different levels of age and oak seasoning.
Some of the producers that I’ve enjoyed over the years are Muga, Murrieta, Remelluri, Cune, Riscal, Sierra Cantabria, Conde de Valdemar and Rioja Alta. But by all means, do not confine your search to those. Finally, at prices from $10 to $30+ per bottle, their biggest selling points are their immediate drink ability, plus delivering a level of quality far in excess of their price tag. No bull, could those Spaniards make it any easier for us?