Among wine imports, Spanish wines rank seventh with American consumers, behind Italy at No. 1 and France at No. 5.
Spain’s lower ranking likely has to do with the fact that Spanish wine grapes and regions are less familiar to most Americans.
The Spanish wine industry is vast, with 2.9 million acres under vine. Spain has more land mass planted to vineyards than any other nation. It is estimated that Spain has more than 600 identified varietals and makes infinitely many wines from these 600 varietals.
The red varietal tempranillo (pronounced tem-prah-nee-yoh) reigns supreme. It is thought this varietal was introduced to the Iberian Peninsula more than 3,000 years ago by the Phoenicians.
While tempranillo is grown in numerous wine regions in Spain, tempranillo wines from the region of Rioja (pronounced ree-oh-hah) are most desired by American wine consumers, perhaps because they more closely approximate favored American reds. These red wines strike a familial note on the American palate primarily because they are aged in oak.
Historically, Rioja wines have been exceedingly aged. A 1942 Marqués De Murrieta Rioja Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva was released in 1983 and, remarkably, is still available through some online purveyors.
Both Wine Spectator magazine and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate have reviewed this 1942 vintage and given it rankings of 92 and 97, respectively. The only negative comment from an individual tasting the 1942 vintage was that the tasting was preceded by the 1925 vintage, which far outshone the 1942.
Current Rioja producers have modernized production and backed away from excessive aging, though releases are still aged longer than most American counterparts.
Aging plays a role in how these wines are classified, as does the quality of grapes used in the wine. Grand Reserva, the top classification, requires five-plus years of aging, with two additional years in oak and two more years aging in bottle.
Grapes for Grand Reserva must come from exceptional vintages and from the best vineyards.
The second best classification is Reserva. Reserva wines must be aged three years, with one of those years spent in oak casks.
Below these two top classifications is Crianza. Wines in this class are at least three years old and are required to spend one-plus years in oak casks.
Lastly there is the generic classification, Generico, for which there are no rules regarding aging.
What should a novice expect from a Rioja tempranillo? They are versatile wines, heavier than your average pinot noir but lighter than a cabernet. They are more reminiscent of red wines from the Southern Rhone wine region of France. They are bright to deep garnet in color, packed with dark berry fruit flavors, easy on the palate and finish nicely.
As we Southerners move outside to al fresco dining (known in Spain as comida al aire libre), Spanish Riojas work excellently with things cooked on the grill or open fire, like lamb, pork, beef or even a good Fourth of July hot dog.
We recently tasted the following Riojas. Open and allow wines to breathe for at least two hours before serving.
Bodega Campillo Gran Reserva 2009. In the $30 range from your favorite online purveyor. This wine is encased in an intricately woven golden thread cage. More for ornamentation today, the gold cage in days gone by was used by producers of the region to prevent counterfeiters from emptying bottles and replacing the contents with cheap regional plunk.
This was my favorite of the three wines tasted. Extended oak aging results in a smooth, approachable wine with dark berry fruit flavors laced with a hint of vanilla.
Note that this 2009 vintage is the most recent release of this wine because of requisite time aging in oak barrels and bottle.
Berceo Reserva 2013. $14 range from several online purveyors. Dry red with pronounced acidity. Subdued berry flavors. Versatile red.
Faustino Tempranillo 2017. $15 range by special order from Tyson Fine Wines and Things in Anniston. Good summer quaff. Pairs well with cheesy things like pizza and pasta.
Pat Kettles writes about food, wine and spirits every other Wednesday. Contact her at email@example.com.