Wicked Wine Finds: Crianza Rioja

Image from freepik.com.

First in a series on great wine finds on a budget by our professional wine drinker.

The phenomenal ascendancy of craft beer has made the beer-drinking experience, not to mention a bunch of folks on the production and purveying side, much richer. Today’s average beer consumer, the younger ones as well as many a veteran suds fan, has an enhanced appreciation of differences in beer styles, and tradeoffs of mass production and appeal v. individualized attention and independent production. Those who prize an American cuisine of greater variety and quality have celebrated this – there are just a whole lot more good beers to sip!

Yet, puzzlingly, for many consumers there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in appreciation of beer’s buddy, wine. Taste-savvy beer drinkers, who don’t blink at dropping $12 on a 6-pack of Hyperactive Weasel IPA or cacao jalapeño stout, when buying wine too often opt for the equivalent of Blatz. What explains this disconnect?

One reason is the prejudice that wine is expensive, perpetuated in part by truly outrageous markups in restaurants and bars. Also, wine writers are often connoisseurs, whose reviews focus on wines that the average Adam or Ashley simply can’t afford on a regular basis. Every Food & Wine issue opens to a slather of ads for luxury cars and watches. Many consumers conclude that good wine is out of their league, so might as well go bottom shelf, right? Put another way, many think affordable wine is just a commodity.

Another reason is that, let’s face it, the variety of wines available – or even how to decode what’s on the label — can seem baffling. Even with the proliferation of craft breweries, the beer aisle in a typical grocery or liquor store is dwarfed by even a modest wine department. Italy alone has 350 different types of grapes, and who can possibly keep all those French chateaux straight?

Giving in to perceived unaffordability or the intimidation factors is a sad surrender. Wine has endured as a beverage for millennia of human history for the very good reason that it can make dining or socializing more enjoyable for the masses. Even at the lower end of the wine spectrum there are big differences. If you’re looking for a beverage to be part of a great meal, not just an alcohol delivery medium, it’s time to graduate from sickly, generic, preservative-packed mass-production box or jug wines.

An explosion in wine production globally in the past 20 years means that many quality wines can be enjoyed without spending a fortune. Finding these little gems is fun in itself, as is sharing them at a party or dinner with friends. This series of posts will offer some ideas for quality, affordable wines that compete favorably cost-wise with craft beer, i.e., in the $10-$15 range or if possible even sub-$10.

Photo by Jeff Smith.

For today’s debut, consider a country not every American associates with wine, and a type you might not have tried: Rioja, from Spain. If I was limited to only two words about wine value, I’d say “Spanish reds.” Bar bet material: Spain actually has more vineyard acreage than any other country on the planet. Rioja, for wine purposes, refers to a small region in the north where, like most major wine-producing countries, Spain regulates regional producers’ integrity by certification. For Spanish wines, look for a “Denominación de Origen” or “D.O.” mark, and for Rioja, “Denominación de Origen Calificada,” meaning Qualified Designation of Origin. Note that with Spanish wines, even with big names you are likely to be supporting smaller bodega-based grape-growers: more than 18,000 Spanish growers supply a little less than 400 producers.

Rioja, the most historic wine region in Spain, was the first to be designated DOCa. Wine’s been made there for probably over 1000 years, so you could spend a lot of time and money trying to master all the intricacies, histories, and subtleties. But the point of this column is not history, it’s to turn you on to some good stuff cheap. My advice: get a Rioja “crianza,” a wine aged for at least one year in oak barrels, usually two years overall. Most pricier reserves are aged longer; some sub-crianza Rioja gets to market younger; for the Wicked Wine Finder reading this column, crianza hits the Rioja sweet spot.

A crianza grade Rioja will be mainly dark red, juicy Tempranillo grapes, sometimes with Garnacha and/or small amounts of other blending grapes added. It’ll be medium bodied – not too high alcohol, not too thin – with deep currant flavors, and enough tannins from the year in oak to give it some backbone and often a touch of smokiness or spice, as well as the ability to age in cellar. As is often the case, this wine pairs superbly with food of its region, or similar, so Rioja is a better match for seasoned Spanish-influenced dishes than are many reds. Try it with pulled pork, BBQ, burgers, and stronger hard cheeses, besides steaks and other grilled meats, but it will also add interest to milder fare from roast chicken to chips and guac. Think of crianza Rioja as somewhere between the fruit of a merlot and the smoke of a malbec, but with some faded-flower finish, like a Chianti. Is your mouth watering yet?

The best part: many good Riojas are well available within a budget. Marqués de Cáceres, a well-known top producer with an informative website, offers a dependable 85%-tempranillo Crianza Rioja that often earns 89-90 points from reviewers but can be found in the $12-$16 range without difficulty; as I write this it’s available at Trader Joe’s for $11.99 (prices may vary), at Binny’s downtown store (213 W. Grand) for $12.99, and in limited quantities at their Lincoln Park shop.

A comparable reliable alternative is the Ramon Bilbao Crianza Rioja, from a 90-year-old producer, which is 100% tempranillo, easy to find around $13, but often cheaper. After enjoying the 2012 (see photo), I recently snagged some of the award-winning 2013 for $8.97 at Schaefer’s in Skokie, given 88 points by Wine Spectator, and as of this writing they still had about a dozen cases in stock (of 10,000 shipped to the U.S.). The plummy Bilbao was fabulous with a plate of olives and Basque cheese, and with a caramelized onion pizza the next day. You generally can’t go wrong with a versatile crianza Rioja, and at $9 it’s a bargain.

Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s do a decent job of curating their offerings; watch for their sales to pick up a good buy. Surprisingly, in a metro area with roughly two million residents who have some Spanish DNA, Spanish wines are often underrepresented in smaller stores, and you may need to prod your neighborhood wine store, which devotes two feet of shelf space to Yellowtail, to carrying some Rioja. I visited one Rogers Park wine shop today that had seven varieties of Lagunitas beer but no Rioja whatsoever, and another that had 20 Malbec labels but only one Rioja, and no crianza. As a consumer, you can help change this by seeing if your merchant can order some. Many wine merchants will happily place a custom order through their distributor for a customer, and, who knows, you might help spark a local trend.

If you’re interested in giving yourself a tasting of several Spanish wines (and Spanish dishes that go with them), it’s well worth jumping on the Purple Line to Tapas Barcelona in Evanston, which has a well-chosen wine list, or check out Mercat on Michigan Avenue before or after an afternoon at the Art Institute or Millennium Park.

Jeff Smith is a writer whose only formal culinary training was in Boy Scouts, but who has tasted, conservatively, more than 6,000 wines.

Jeff Smith
Jeff Smith
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