Fun Fact: Rioja is not a grape. Sauvignon Blanc? Grape. Chardonnay? Grape. Merlot? Grape. Rioja? Region. Rioja is a region in Northern Spain where the grape, Tempranillo, is grown. Most Riojas are primarily made out of the Tempranillo grape, There can be a mix of other grapes, but it is usually almost all Tempranillo. There are white Riojas (Rioja Blanco) and red Riojas. This post is about the red.

Rioja is a very versatile wine. It has a body similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, but brighter flavors similar to Grenache. This body and flavor profile make the pairings endless. It is actually a great pairing with Italian dishes, like lasagna or chicken parmesan, due to the fact that there is enough tannin and dry flavors to offset the acidity of a marinara sauce. It is a fabulous red meat pairing, or vegetables with similar flavor profiles to red meat, like portobello or black beans. Harder cheeses are better suited for the full body and flavor of the wine.

Riojas are often fermented in oak barrels to give it some tannin and vanilla-type flavors. After, they spend some time sitting in the bottle before being sold. Rioja is broken into 4 categories, which all depend on how long they fermented in oak and how long they were bottled. The categories, in order from youngest/least complex to oldest/most complex are:

  1. Rioja: The wine spent little to no time in an oak barrel. These wines are younger and have brighter/zestier flavors. The price is usually very inexpensive.
  2. Rioja Crianza: After spending 1 year fermenting in oak and one year fermenting in the bottle, a Crianza is most similar to a cabernet. There is slight oak flavor detection, and is generally midrange in pricing.
  3. Rioja Reserva: 1 year in oak and 2 years in a bottle make this a wonderfully rounded Rioja. It is made with better grapes than Rioja or Rioja Crianza. There is more oaky roundedness and heavier dryness and tannin on the palate. These guys average $20-30.
  4. Rioja Gran Reserva: 2 years in oak and 3 years in a bottle give a lot of oaky flavors to this wine, often with flavors of vanilla, tiramisu, or bourbon. It is made with the best grapes of the harvest. Expect to spend $35 or more on a bottle of Gran Reserva. Usually, they will be at least 10 years old.

The Rioja Reserve that I had, Viña Alberdi Rioja Reserva, was wonderful. There is a lovely, velvet oaky character to the wine, with lots of notes of vanilla. Spices, like nutmeg and cinnamon add a nice character, and dried violets and herbal notes give a savory component. However, with such spicy, oaky, and earthy flavors, the wine is not overly tannic or dry. Bright cherry and raspberry jam flavors give the oak and spice a bright personality. One of my favorite parts about the wine was the texture. It was truly like liquid velvet; so smooth on the tongue and went down easy. I had this with and without food, and I enjoyed it just as much with as I did without. I also loved the cherry vanilla flavors of the wine. Something tells me this would be excellent with chocolate 🙂

Sirloin was on sale at Whole Foods this week, so figuring out what to make for dinner this week was an easy decision. The recipe I followed was Skinnytaste’s Quick Skillet Steak with Onions and Mushrooms. It was one of the easiest recipes to make, and takes almost no time. After slicing some sirloin, onion, and mushroom, flavoring it with salt, pepper, and garlic powder, I stir-fried it all together for no more than 5 minutes. Boom. Done! The “hardest” part was my side dish, which was roasted Brussels sprouts. I added salt, pepper, garlic powder, and olive oil, and roasted it in at 425º for 45 minutes. Easy, peasy, lemon squeezey. I chopped up some parsley and sprinkled it on top for both aesthetics and to bring out some of there herbal notes of the wine.

The pairing was quite breathtaking. Everything just worked. The fruity, oaky qualities of the wine made the sirloin seem juicy, even though it was cut up into small strips (and slightly overcooked). The oakiness also brought out the sweetness of the onion, whereas the parsley and mushroom brought out the savory notes of the wine. To sound poetic, it was like a symphony of flavor was performing in your mouth, and you had the prime, most acoustic seat in the house. This didn’t surprise me, however, that the pairing would be so wonderful. If you think about it, what do they eat a lot of in the Rioja area of Spain? Red Meat. What do they drink a lot of? Rioja (Tempranillo grape). It just makes sense! 5 grapes.

Questions for you:

  1. Have you ever had a Rioja? What did you have it with?
  2. What vegetable dishes do you think will go with a Rioja?

Recipe: Quick Skillet Steak with Onions and Mushrooms by Skinnytaste

Wine: 2010 Viña Alberdi Rioja Reserva ($22)

Sources: Rioja Wine: From Crianza to Gran Reserva



4 thoughts on “Learn More About: Rioja w/ Viña Alberdi Rioja Reserva”

  1. Well written Sarah! I have had lots of wines from Rioja and enjoy most of them! The beef recipe looked yummy! Love, Dad

  2. Great photos on this post! Two questions: First, is Rioja a protected term like Champagne? You mentioned that it is a region, but it looks like there are regulations that comes with labeling a wine “Rioja.” Second, do you know more about the oaking process in the barrels? Do they have to use new barrels? Do they buy used from old bourbon or scotch distilleries?

    1. Hi Jack!
      Yes, Rioja is a protected region, similar to Champagne. There is a specific set of rules having to do with everything from growing the grapes to bottling the wine that wineries in the Rioja region must uphold in order to be called a Rioja. What the exact rules are, I don’t know. In terms of the barrels, it is typically French oak. They may be used or new, but I am not sure. Often, bourbon and scotch barrels are not used in Riojas.
      Cheers, and Bon Appétit!

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