Rioja, the well-known wine region in northern Spain near the Pyrenees Mountains, offers balanced red wines that have much in common with the finesse-oriented wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux. They are quite different from the blockbusters from Priorat and elsewhere in Spain, which seem to be generating all the hoopla lately.
There's a place for Priorat and other super-ripe heavyweights, but I'm increasingly convinced that it's not at the dinner table, where their often massive fruit and high level of alcohol are likely to overwhelm the accompanying food. By all means, enjoy a Priorat or a Toro after dinner with cheese or perhaps a dark chocolate dessert, but leave the entree to a wine that will harmonize with the dish.
Rioja's reservas, which are aged in the bottle at the winery before being released, offer the complex nuances of taste and aroma of mature wines. Their gentle flavors are augmented by the traditional Rioja practice of aging in American oak casks -- a method that, if not overdone, as it once was, adds mellow notes of caramel and vanilla that seem to go especially well with wintry cuisine.
Crianza, the level below reserva, is also highly food compatible, in the manner of a petit chateau Bordeaux or young pinot noir. Crianzas offer gentle fruit without a lot of harsh tannins, and they match particularly well with poultry and light meats. If served lightly chilled, they are also appropriate with pizza and pasta.
Here is a sampling of recommended reds from Rioja based on quality and value. Online resources for finding wines include
Baron de Ley Rioja Reserva 2001 ($22):This departs from the traditional reserva recipe; it is aged in French oak and bottled after one year instead of two. Traditionalists may scoff at such "international" style, but fresh, supple fruit combined with Rioja's complexity makes it delicious.
Castillo Labastida Rioja Crianza 2003($13): Supple ripe cherry fruit is generously seasoned with American oak flavors. Offers reserva character and quality at a crianza price.
LAN Rioja Crianza 2003 ($12):The lively mix of blueberry, cola and peppery black fruit flavors has a spicy finish.
Montebuena 2004 Rioja Cosecha($10):This jammy red offers raspberry and vanilla flavors that are soft and sweet on the palate.
Marques de Caceres Rioja Reserva 2000 ($25); Marques de Caceres Rioja Crianza 2003 ($13):I have always preferred the Rioja reserva over the more expensive gran reserva because it is less oaky, allowing the ripe tempranillo fruit to shine through. Although the excellent 2000 is at its peak, it opened up greatly with two hours of breathing. The well-made 2003 Crianza is in a fruit-forward style reminiscent of a young pinot noir.
Montecillo 2002 Rioja Crianza ($11); Montecillo 2000 Rioja Reserva ($19):The crianza brims with berry and cherry fruit flavors, accented by floral notes; the harmonious reserva adds nuances of oak and cedar.
Faustino VII Rioja 2004($12); Faustino V Reserva Rioja 2001($19): The Chianti-like VII emphasizes vibrant, youthful fruit and would make for splendid quaffing with pasta or pizza. The more complex and structured V Reserva, offering tart cherry/strawberry fruit accented by vanilla and smoky notes from barrel aging, would be at home with a roast of veal or chicken.