VarietalsTempranillo, the main grape in Rioja, is probably the most famous and most versatile native grape. It's found in simple reds, as well as those meant to age for decades. Garnacha, a blending grape, gives Rioja more body. White Riojas are made mostly with the Viura grape (alias Macabeo), and are refreshingly acidic and low in alcohol. Monastrell, the Spanish version of France's Mourvedre, is popping up more often on labels, and is light and fruity for everyday drinking (and usually a great deal). Small amounts of familiar grapes Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec and Pinot Noir are also planted, but you don't see them very often on Spanish labels.
ClassificationLike France, Spain is divided into districts (a.k.a. appellations), classified by the Denominacion de Origen (D.O.) system of quality. The system, which also applies to products like olive oil and cheese, refers to where the government has set boundaries and requirements for wines made in a specific area, such as Rioja. It's like a good-better-best scale: Vino de Mesa or VdM(a.k.a. Table Wine); Denominacion de Origen or D.O.; and Denominacion de Origen Calificada or D.O.C. (mostly reserved for Rioja). Look for D.O. & D.O.C. on the label.
In addition to the district classification, on each Spanish label you'll see designations like Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. These refer to the amount of time the wines are aged, starting with Crianza, which means two years of aging, and ending with Gran Reservas that have a minimum of four years of age (at least two in oak).
Now that you know the basics, let's get to drinkin'.
Faustino de Crianza 1997, D.O.C. Rioja A New World-style red made from Tempranillo grapes. Spicy, with a smooth balance of oak and fruit. **** $13
Vionta Albarino 2000, D.O. Rias Baixas An aromatic white with great aroma and nice acid. This would be great with oysters! *** 1/2 $17
Aria Brut, Segura Viudas, Cava A tad on the sweet side, this cava sparkler is smooth and tasty. Great for the price. *** $10--Tina Caputo
Condado de Haza 1999 Ribera del Duero Earthy, big, fat red wine. The oak shines through like a beacon, but works well with fattier foods like red meat and cheeses. *** 1/2 $18 --Taylor Eason
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