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Grape Varietals

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ree-OH-ha / temp-prah-NEE-yo

Besides being fun to say, Rioja is perhaps Spain's best-known table wine. Ironically, while it is based on Tempranillo, the country's bread-and-butter red grape, that variety is hardly known in the U.S. because it doesn't grow well outside of Spain.

Flavors and aromas: Rioja comes in three basic levels of quality, which are based on age. Young crianzas are vibrant with strawberry/cherry fruit alongside bright acidity and a touch of earthiness. Reserva and Gran Reserva wines, aged longer by law, tend to be smoother, woodier and even earthier (bordering on musty)—as well as more expensive. Rioja is likened to Pinot Noir and Chianti for its tangy fruit and mid-weight body.

Color: Rarely opaque, Rioja leans toward garnet and brick red.

Prominent plantings: While Rioja is considered the standard-bearer for Tempranillo, this grape also is the main player in other important Spanish regions such as Ribera del Duero, Penedès, and Toro. Rioja may include Garnacha and Mazuelo grapes in the final blend, but Tempranillo is always in the driver's seat.

Pairing with food: Rioja's smooth texture and good acidity prove to be real benefits at the table. It pairs admirably with bold-flavored foods and tapas, grilled goods in general, sausages, burgers, and cheeses, especially Manchego.

Insider tip: Riojas at all levels are considered ready to drink when released. Reservas and Gran Reservas are usually among the oldest wines on the shelves. But if you prefer fruitier wines, stick with the fresher, young crianzas, which you may even prefer with a slight chill.

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