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Rioja Is the Secret to Successful On- and Off-Premise Wine Programs

In a recent panel bringing together five of the top wine professionals from across the U.S., buyers and sommeliers extolled the value, diversity, and exciting new discoveries to be found in Rioja

Photo courtesy of Rioja Wines.
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Rioja is one of the greatest and most diverse wine regions not just in Spain, but around the world. It was the first region in Spain to earn DOCa status and has been known for generations for its traditional, long-lived reds and vibrant, complex whites. 

But Rioja doesn’t just add value to Spanish-centric wine lists and old-school steakhouses. Today, wine buyers are making room for Rioja in every facet of their programs, from by-the-glass pours and under-$15 selections to reserve lists. And because of the range of what the region has to offer, everyone from new collectors to longtime connoisseurs is finding excitement in all that Rioja has to offer.

SevenFifty Daily and Rioja Wines recently brought together a panel of five top wine professionals from across the U.S. to explore, discuss, and taste what makes Rioja so particularly relevant right now. Robert Gamble, head sommelier at Catch in Las Vegas, pointed out that, above all else, Rioja is “an incredibly versatile wine” for a wine program. “It’s the red that you want by the glass,” with fantastic gastronomic abilities thanks to its vivid acidity. “With Rioja,” he added, “I always think of an intersection of sweet but also tart fruit. So there’s kind of this sweet black cherry intersecting with a tart cranberry.”

That bright kick of acidity is one of the reasons that Rioja is so beloved on wine lists: Its ability to pair with a wide range of foods is unparalleled. At Catch, for example, Gamble relies on it to accompany the Asian-influenced seafood, steak, and sushi on the menu that wouldn’t, at first glance, seem to call out for the great Spanish red. But it works brilliantly, framing the dishes in entirely new and exciting ways. Rioja’s top wines, Gamble concluded, “will rival Bordeaux, will rival some of the best wines of Italy. In fact,” he added, the great names of Rioja “will rival, in my opinion, some of the best reds in the world.”

Map of Rioja
Map courtesy of Rioja Wines.

A Region of Diversity and Surprises

Until fairly recently, producers in Rioja were either discussed as being traditional or from the more modern school of production. Today, however, the boundaries between the two are more blurred than ever—and the wines, as a result, are compelling in often unexpected ways. A.J. Ojeda-Pons, the director of operations at Temperance Wine Bar in New York City, loves the “diversity of [what] Rioja can show,” he said. It boasts “all the tradition and the history, but now you have this new generation, and you have these styles that I wish people would go out and seek more because they’re just so eye opening and vibrant and fresh and lively and gastronomical. They’re food friendly, and there’s so, so much that you can do with these wines.”

The new generation that Ojeda-Pons talked about is driving the region forward in ways that are sometimes forward-looking and occasionally rooted in the deep past. The wine brought to the panel by Cyrus Tolman, the Spanish wine buyer for Houston Wine Merchant, is a perfect example. His bottle of Luberri Orlegi Rioja employed a bit of carbonic maceration, which was popular in Rioja Alavesa in particular well into the 18th century. By the turn of the 19th century, however, more stemless fermentations and oak-influenced styles came to the fore. Today, more and more producers are employing the technique, bringing back the old-school method of making their wine in a way that is paradoxically quite new. 

The results are fantastic. It’s “really fun to just [experience] the carbonic side of stuff again, just for the gastronomical aspect,” Tolman noted. “But it’s really cool too that this sort of thing was traditional in Rioja Alavesa going way back, and so to kind of see that throwback and what it offers and brings to the table is deeply exciting.”

That sort of excitement is typical throughout Rioja, where unique attributes of land and microclimate are being leveraged in both traditional and more idiosyncratic ways—or both. Between the influence of the Atlantic in Rioja Alta, the cooler temperatures and higher elevations in Rioja Alavesa, and the influence of the Mediterranean in Rioja Oriental—not to mention the incredibly varied soils and underlying geologies between them—Rioja as a whole is capable of producing reds, whites, and rosés in a broad sweep of styles. That’s before the work of the winemaker even comes into play, which is increasingly used to interpret these classic terroirs in new and unique ways.


Map of Rioja

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Age, Oak, and the Effects of Time

Rioja is home to one of the most highly regulated aging systems in the entire world of wine. As a result, professionals and consumers alike can understand at a glance what to expect in the bottle and how to pair it with food; generico, crianza, reserva, and gran reserva aging classifications can easily be identified by the Rioja seal on the back label.

Often, a Rioja’s age designation is evident to trade professionals by taste alone. The panel’s crianza had a freshness to it that would reward a slightly cooler serving temperature, according to Marika Vida, a sommelier, wine writer, brand ambassador, and founder of Vida et Fils Wine Consulting—typical of a wine that, regardless of producer, is generally crafted to express the freshness of the fruit

A Rioja gran reserva possessed “layers of complexity” according to Vida, who also looked for “the sweet smell of decay.” Oscar Garcia, the buyer for 67 Wine in New York City, also identified the same wine as a gran reserva when he “started sensing this ripe fruit and started finding secondary notes of long-aging umami—a little bit of walking in the forest in the fall.”

The panel also stressed the increasing presence of Riojas that aren’t based on Tempranillo. Bottlings that lean on Maturana Tinta, Graciano, and more are perking up wine lists and retail shelves and charming consumers in thoroughly new ways. “People will assume that Rioja is Tempranillo,” Gamble explained. “And so to be able to show them something that’s not Tempranillo but is still Rioja, and you might have to explain that to them—it’s a treat and it gives them the opportunity to go tell their friends [about a new discovery].” 

Even professionals find themselves won over by the unexpectedness of Rioja. “Even for individuals such as ourselves, who have had so many different types of Rioja, something like this definitely brings something new and exciting to the table,” Tolman said.

In addition to offering new discoveries on retail shelves and wine lists, Rioja often over delivers for the price. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s the $20 Rioja or whether it’s the $150 Rioja. It’s one of those [wines] that always represents a value,” said Tolman. 

Vida agreed, reserving special praise for the fact that even high-end Riojas sit at remarkably comfortable price points on restaurant wine lists. “If you want to sit just under that $100 [mark on a wine list], it’s so easy to do with Rioja,” she said. “You can even find gran reservas that you can do that with! There’s no other category like that.” Quality from Rioja comes at far less of a premium than in any other major European wine region.

Photo courtesy of Rioja Wines.

Versatility and Value

That sense of overdelivering for the price is just as important for collectors, Gamble explained. “One of the things I think of when I think of Rioja in general is this is a wine that I would recommend to a young collector,” he said. “When we think of classic regions, there’s Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont … and Rioja is right up there, but without costing like the rest of these regions. So if you’re starting your cellar, what a great bang for your buck! It’s giving you everything in terms of flavor, history, ageability,” but at far less money than the other worldwide greats.

Rioja also has the advantage of appealing to wine lovers across the entire spectrum of taste: Fans of more traditional wines will find plenty to love from the region, and the quality of those producers is as high as ever. Yet younger, more adventurous drinkers also have a lot to look for in the region, from intriguing reds to fresh and fun whites and rosés—even from producers whose history goes back generations. 

Garcia brought the Bodegas Bhilar Tinto 2019 to represent “the new generation of winemakers in this region, going a little bit against the grain.” It’s a blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, and Viura, which ties it back to the region’s traditions. But it’s also very much a product of our times. It’s a wine, Garcia explained, “that you can present to a new wine drinker of the category,” and that will embody all that Rioja has to offer today. But “it’s also a wine that you can present as natural,” which appeals to a younger wine-drinking demographic.

Rioja is unrivaled in its ability to speak to wine lovers from casual to connoisseurs, and to raise any meal at which it’s served to the stratosphere. “There is a lightness” to Rioja’s best, Vida explained. “It’s kind of effortless. The tannins are still there, [but] they’re silk. There’s no corduroy going on here … It’s fine grained, it’s fine tuned. And I think when we have all these things put together, your pairings are limitless.”

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