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June 27, 2010

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Reliable red wine quality and value from Spain

FOR high quality red wines at a reasonable price there are two words you should never forget, Rioja and Crianza. Rioja is Spain's most famous wine region located in the hilly north of the country.

Winemaking in this region dates back thousands of years to the Phoenicians and Celtiberians, but it wasn't until the mid-to-late 19th century that the region gained global recognition for making great wines.

At this point of history, winemakers in Bordeaux were devastated by the phylloxera vine disease and many settled in Rioja, bringing their considerable winemaking skills. In 1991, Rioja became the first region in Spain to receive the Denominacion de Origen Calificada (DOCa), the nation's highest designation of quality for wines.

The term Crianza means a Spanish red wine aged at least one year in oak that can not be released until two years after the harvest. Many top producers age their Crianza wines even longer. This careful aging imparts a wonderful smoothness and soft texture to the wines.

There are also Rioja Reserva and Rioja Grand Reserva wines that are aged longer and are more costly, but Crianza level wines offer the best price to quality ratio.

All Rioja Crianza wines are predominantly made with the tempranillo grape. This variety features a thick skin that results in plenty of tannins but is low in acidity and sugar.

Therefore tempranillo wines from Rioja and elsewhere in Spain are often blended with other Spanish varieties like grenache and carignan and more recently also cabernet sauvignon to increase acidity and provide structure.

Typical aromas and flavors we find in these wines are dark berries, earthy leather and minerals.

In Shanghai, you can find some deliciously deep and complex Rioja Crianzas from the two historic producers Marques de Riscal and Muga. Both wineries played important roles in building the reputation of Rioja as one of the world's great wine regions and make excellent wines that are still quite reasonably priced.

Other wineries that make consistently good Rioja Crianzas include El Coto and Ibericos from the Torres family. Generally medium-bodied, these balanced wines are among the world's most consistently good red wines with abundant Spanish character.

Another feature of Rioja Crianza wines is they are very food friendly. It's no surprise that they pair perfectly with traditional Spanish fair like roasted suckling pig and lamb, but they are also some of the best wines to enjoy with traditional Chinese meat dishes.

I highly recommend enjoying them with northern China style BBQ lamb, Cantonese suckling pig, roasted duck and pigeon as well as Nanjing smoked duck. In each case the tannins of the wine will facilitate digestion of the fattiness of the meat leaving your palate clean and better able to taste the savory qualities of the meat.

The dark fruit, leather and oak flavors of the wine also add intriguing flavor dimensions to the meat. Overall, the combination of roasted meat and Rioja Crianza wines is a recipe for happiness.


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