While the official beginning of summer may still be a few weeks away, summertime heat and humidity have already arrived here. For many wine drinkers hot weather calls only for white wine, and indeed no red wine can be as refreshing on a hot and humid day as a crisp, cool, white. Yet so many favorite summertime foods — cold-cuts, hotdogs and hamburgers — simply scream out for soft, easy drinking, medium-bodied, red wines. These days, one of my favorite summer reds is Rioja.
Located in the northeast of Spain, just south of Basque country, the Rioja region has been producing quality red wines for centuries. Yet, if the name Rioja doesn’t sound all that familiar, it is probably because for much of the 20th century the region’s wine industry was in decline, first because of vine infestations, and then because of the ravages of the Spanish Civil War. It was only in the 1960s that Rioja’s wine industry began to recover, and today it has once again become one of Spain’s most prominent wine producing regions.
Rioja’s dominant grape is Tempranillo, a thick-skinned black grape native to the region. Though often used in blends and lacking any dominant flavor characteristics, when vinified by itself Tempranillo tends to produce fruity, medium-bodied wines that are just right for summertime drinking.
So for this month’s Fruit of the Vine we decided to taste all of the kosher Riojas we could find. Unfortunately the number of kosher Riojas available in the U.S. at the moment seems to have dwindled to only three. Fortunately though, all three wines, which are all made from 100 percent Tempranillo grapes, are good summer reds.
The most interesting wine in the tasting was Ramon Cardova’s 2001 Rioja Reserva Especial. Aged in new American oak barrels for 18 months, this garnet-colored, medium-bodied wine has a bouquet of cedar, leather, cherries and spice. Look for flavors of cedar, stewed cherries and stewed prunes, with an interesting, and not unpleasant, note of maderization. Unfortunately this wine has reached the end of its life, and should be consumed within the next few months. Score B. ($37.99. Available at Skyview Wine and Spirits, 5681 Riverdale Ave. in Riverdale. (718) 759-8466)
Ramon Cardova’s 2007 Rioja is a smooth, medium bodied, bright garnet colored wine with flavors and aromas of cherries, red currents, strawberries, oak and pencil shavings, with a hint of white pepper. Drink now through 2012. Score B. ($13.99. Available at Astor Wines & Spirits, 399 Lafayette St. in Manhattan. (212) 674-7500)
The newest kosher Rioja on the market is Elviwine’s Rioja, Matiz, 2008. This medium-bodied ruby-to-garnet-colored wine has a nose of cranberries, cherries and oak, with an intruding woodsy element. Look for flavors of red cherries, cranberries, toasty oak and salad greens. Drink now through 2013. Score B ($14.95. available at Sherry-Lehmann, 505 Park Ave. in Manhattan. (212) 838-7500)
Rioja is a versatile wine that can be served with food or on its own, at room temperature or even slightly chilled. Rioja can also be delightful when used as the base of that ever-popular Spanish wine punch, Sangria (See recipe below). So the next time you light up your barbeque, crack open a bottle of Rioja. You won’t regret it.
Please Note: Wines are scored on an ‘A’-‘F’ scale where ‘A’ is excellent, ‘B’ is good, ‘C’ is flawed, ‘D’ is very flawed, and ‘F’ is undrinkable. Prices listed reflect the price at the retailer mentioned. Fruit of the Vine appears monthly.
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