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The Wine Cellar: Spain’s Rioja region wines pair well with Thanksgiving meals | TribLIVE.com
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The Wine Cellar: Spain’s Rioja region wines pair well with Thanksgiving meals

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In today’s bustling world, purchasing wine for immediate consumption has become the norm. Most consumers have neither the patience nor the cellar to age wines.

So, like most wine producers, wineries in northern Spain’s famed Rioja region must offer wines crafted for immediate enjoyment. But they do so with an important twist.

Rioja (pronounced ree-OH-ha) producers age the wines in barrel and in bottle at their wineries prior to release. Consequently, consumers can enjoy the best of both worlds with well-aged reds ready on the spot for tonight’s dinner.

Rioja reds come in four classifications. The first, Rioja joven, designates wines aged less than a year in oak barrels and in bottle. Rioja crianza reds receive two years of aging prior to release with at least one year in oak barrels. For Rioja reserva designation, the wine ages at least three years prior to release with at least one year in barrels.

In especially good vintages, producers craft Rioja gran reservas. These marvelous reds age at least five years prior to release with a minimum of two years in barrels. In practice, producers typically lavish gran reservas with longer stays in barrels and bottle prior to release.

Rushing wines to market would do an injustice, in Rioja producers’ minds, to the quality that provides the region’s foundation and brand identity. The quality starts with unique terroir.

“Rioja has contrasting soils as well as diverse climates with a confluence of Atlantic, Continental and Mediterranean influences,” says Ana Fabiano, author of “The Wine Region of Rioja” (2012). “In an otherwise primarily arid county, Rioja enjoys incredible bio-diversity.”

Located in northern Spain inland from coastal cultural centers, the rugged, vividly beautiful Cantabrian Mountains shelter Rioja from cold sea winds. Soils rich in iron, limestone, clay and chalk scattered throughout the region promote fruity complexity. Cold nights follow warm, bright days, creating ideal grape-ripening conditions.

tempranillo, graciano, garnacha and mazuelo grape vines dress the region’s rolling plains with striking seas of vineyards. Some Rioja reds incorporate each variety, while others focus primarily on tempranillo. Regardless of the grapes, the best Rioja reds embody complexity and elegance.

“Rioja wines have tremendous balance — never too much alcohol or overly intense fruit or harsh tannins,” Fabiano says.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s Rioja selections run the gamut of styles. Stock up on the following in anticipation of Thanksgiving’s roasted turkey, lamb and beef:

The 2009 Bodega Montecillo Rioja Crianza, Spain (8106; on sale: $8.99) uses tempranillo grapes purchased from Rioja’s cosecheros, local independent growers. Veteran winemaker Maria Martinez-Sierra skillfully produces large quantities of wines while faithfully reflecting Rioja’s terroir. Aging in French-oak barrels imparts subtle, refined tannins.

Ripe black-cherry and plum aromas with brown-spice accents open to bright black-cherry fruit with zesty acidity. Smooth tannins balance the vibrantly fruity, yet dry, finish. Highly recommended.

The 2007 La Rioja Alta S.A. Viña Alberdi Rioja Reserva, Spain (Luxury 43531; $19.99) comes from traditional producers near Haro, the center of production in western Rioja for more than 150 years. La Rioja Alta has on hand more than 50,000 oak casks and nearly 7 million bottles, the equivalent of eight years of sales.

This lovely wine used 100 percent tempranillo fermented in stainless steel before initial aging in large, 100-year-old vats. The wine then ages in large, 225-liter American-oak barrels to impart understated, silky tannins.

The wine’s dusky ruby color offers red fruit and subtle brown-spice and floral aromas. Rich red-fruit and plum flavors wrap in fresh acidity and the lingering kiss of smooth, elegant tannins. Highly recommended.

The 2001 Bodegas Faustino I Rioja Gran Reserva, Spain (Luxury 43549; $31.99) comes from vines grown at high altitudes between near Laguardia and Oyón in Alavesa, Rioja’s fiercely independent Basque enclave. With 1,600 acres of vines, Faustino operates as a self-sufficient producer and the largest exporter of gran reserva wines.

After aging 26 months in French- and American-oak barrels and 10 years in bottle, this wine has a red-brick color offering complex spice, dried red-fruit and earthy, leathery aromas. Velvety red-fruit flavors layer in fresh acidity and seamless tannins leading to a delightful, lingering finish. Highly recommended.

Dave DeSimone writes about wine for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected].

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