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RIOJA

COLUMNIST TRISTAN DARBY OFFERS A QUICK RIOJA 101

About an hour's drive south of the northern port city of Bilbao is Spain's most famous wine region, Rioja. With around a third of production being exported it's also an important flagship for Spanish wine - especially here in the UK, rioja's largest export market.

Rioja's wine law permits the production of white, rose and red wine, however, the vast majority of rioja produced is red, made from a blend of at least three grapes and dominated by Spain's famous tempranillo. Rioja is often aged for longer before release than other commercial wines, with the helpful idea that wines are sold to the consumer at the point drinking without the need for further 'cellaring', (though some rioja can continue to evolve for many years after release). Every bottle is then labelled according to its minimum ageing time and style. Wines labelled simply 'Rioja', are released in the first or second year after the harvest, with little or no oak ageing. The inclusion of the words 'Crianza', 'Reserva' or 'Gran Reserva' on the label indicates an incrementally longer time maturing in both barrel and cellar before release - a minimum of two years for Crianza, three for Reserva, and five years for Gran Reserva.

There's growing interest in rioja's diversity at the moment, including white rioja, which can be oaked or unoaked and uses the same labelling terms as red, but with shorter minimum ageing requirements. White rioja is traditionally a blend of local grapes, but following a law change in 2007 wines can now include chardonnay, sauvignon and verdejo. Sierra Cantabria, Otomán 2015 is a blend of sauvignon blanc with the traditional viura and malvasia grapes and well worth checking out. Fruity and fresh with lemony citrus and stonefruit flavours and a long fine mineral finish. The wine is fermented in French oak which adds a subtle creamy vanilla flavour and a soft silky texture in the mouth. Try it with pork, chicken or grilled fish.

Have you ever tasted rosé rioja? If not, then a graceful introduction is Ramón Bilbao, Rosado 2016, a delicious dry rosé made from garnacha (a.k.a. grenache) and a small dash of viura added in for extra freshness and fragrance. A delicate pale pink colour, it's pretty and gentle on the nose with red fruit, citrus and flowers. Light and elegant in the mouth with a gentle fruit intensity of melon and orange zest followed by a fresh and fruity finish. Splendidly sippable rosé that's worth every penny.

For an unusual take on the crianza style of rioja I recommend Ramón Bilbao, Viñedos de Altura 2014. An equal blend of tempranillo and grenache (tempranillo usually dominates red rioja), the wine takes its name from the high-altitude vineyards where the grapes are grown. This is a vibrant and complex rioja. Intensely fruity on the nose - bursting with ripe strawberries and blackcurrants, underscored by sweet tobacco, chocolate, smoky herbs and peppery spice before finishing with a long mouth-watering spiced blackcurrant note. A distinct wine with bags of character, it'll be great with anything from lamb and beef to mature cheese and spicy Spanish stews.

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