Rah Rah Rioja

    You may recall that I am a big fan of Spanish wines, so imagine my delight when a few of my regular drinking companions wanted to check out the half-price wine night at Las Canarias, my favourite Spanish tapas bar in Calgary.

    Arriving early on a Monday evening, the restaurant was already half full, an undoubtedly welcome refrain for the Monday night wasteland that is so common in the restaurant industry.

    Quickly scanning the wine list, there were a few Canadian and Californian options, but the bulk of the wines were from Spain, and most of those from the Rioja region, sometimes referred to as the Bordeaux of Spain, due to its position of eminence in quality wines.

    While the French region of Bordeaux is currently the undisputed king of the wine world, this was not always the case.

    From Roman times up until the middle ages, the finest vineyards of the known world were from the region currently known as Spain. Sadly, a little internal difficulty that we remember as the Spanish Inquisition took its toll on the local wine industry, giving those crafty French vintners the chance to surpass the Spaniards, and French wines have remained king of the hill ever since.

    While wine grows all over Spain, it is the Rioja region is by far the most famous. Rioja is located in the northern part of the country, around 300km south of Bordeaux.

    The Rioja wine region is around 400m above sea level, and has a mild climate moderated by warm winds blowing in from the Mediterranean Sea.

    Most of the wine grapes grown in the Rioja region are Tempranillo and Garnacha, which is also called Grenache in neighbouring France.

    For those not familiar with Spanish wines, Tempranillo is widely considered the quintessential Spanish grape, having originated in Northern Spain thousands of years ago. The name Tempranillo literally means “early”, referring to the tendency of this grape to mature earlier in the growing season that most other varietals.

    Tempranillo is sometimes bottled as a single varietal, but is often blended with Garnacha for a more complex bouquet and finish.

    Garnacha is the polar opposite of Tempranillo, ripening very late in the season, and demanding hot and dry growing conditions.

    Much less fruit-forward than Tempranillo, Garnacha produces flavours of tar and leather, with a very low level of tannins.

    These contrasts often lead to Tempranillo and Garnacha being blended together, as the tannic structure of jammy flavours complement the spicier flavours of the Garnacha.

    I have never been one to shy away from drinking on an empty stomach, but the joys of pairing different Spanish wines with the delicious tapas of a traditional Spanish restaurant was perhaps my greatest culinary experience this year.

    Over the centuries, Spanish cuisine and wine have evolved side-by-side, with the food pairings complementing the wine, and vice-versa.

    My favourite dish was the paella, which paired perfectly with a Tempranillo / Garnacha blend, closely followed by the cheese board, which featured an aged manchego imported all the way from Spain.

    After the first few rounds of tapas, one of my drinking companions threw all caution to the wind, and decided to splurge on a 2010 bottle of Gran Reserva, the rarest and most elegant of Spanish wines.

    For snooty old-world wine reasons, the labelling laws in Spain will reflect how old the wine is. On red wine labels, there are 3 different age indicators. Crianza is the youngest type of wine, and is aged 2+ years. Reserva wines are aged for 3+ years, and Gran Reserva wines are aged for 5+ years.

    While we had spent most of the evening enjoying the bargain-priced Crianza wines, the jump to a Gran Reserva made for a perfect finish, ending the meal on a high note. The Gran Reserva wines are the pinnacle of perfection, aged for at least five years, with a minimum of two years in oak. The Gran Reserva wines are only produced during exceptional vintages, so they are not available every year, making them much more expensive due to their age and scarcity.

    With Spanish wines usually a bargain when compared to their French and Italian cousins, do yourself a favour and pick one up at your friendly neighbourhood liquor merchant today!