In honor of International Tempranillo Day, we sip first Campo Viejo's 100 percent tempranillo, pictured here -- if no one minds -- among the orchids at the patio window, because that is where the light is best. Likewise for the reserva below, in its bright, autumnal orange "Art Series" packaging. (I can't help but point out my pumpkin in the background, and my overturned patio chair. Last night's autumn winds were blustery, and they have not stopped yet.) The reserva is a blend of tempranillo, graciano, and mazuelo (carignan), aged 18 months in oak and another 18 months in the bottle.
Both have that certain wholeness that I like, but find hard to describe, about Riojas. We can try to discern a bit of berry or cherry, a bit of spice, a bit of vanilla, but while we with our noses in the glass are puzzling out the fruit basket metaphors and then gulping away, we find the wine does slide down easy -- "dangerously gulpable," I've heard Riojas called -- as its own product, a separate whole: wine. You might almost say: wine as it should be.
Perhaps what we're tasting is the fact that Rioja's red wines have traditionally been well aged before release, with the expectation that they will therefore be ready to drink -- whole -- upon purchase. You might say, the Spanish winemaker, with 2,500 years of viticulture since Roman times behind him, generally does your waiting for you. The three categories you will see identified on Rioja labels are crianza (aged at least two years, one of which must be in oak barrels), reserva (aged at least three years, one in oak required) and gran reserva (aged at least five years, at least two in oak). Our reserva in its decorative orange tube meets its requirements of course, but you will note that the light and delicious tempranillo in the yellow label is ... a tempranillo. Only the grape is identified. This is because, at four months' aging, it has not met the legal strictures needed to call itself crianza.
I would imagine this means the world market is thirsty for the light, fresh Spanish reds that tempranillo can make at a very affordable price point, and so Campo Viejo meets the demand by cutting barrel time and foregoing the crianza stamp of approval. A perfectly wise and user-friendly trade-off. Both wines retail at about $10 to $12, and make good introductions, if you haven't already begun your own explorations, of the further sophistications of Rioja. They pair well with ... almost anything, except maybe ice cream.