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Rioja as "Food Wine"
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed April 18, 2002. For more information go to

Wine goes well with food: this truism is one of the core principles of wine appreciation. Even the greatest wines gain an extra dimension when they're paired with an appropriate food match, and this is why - except for serious, laboratory-style analysis or formal wine judging - I rarely open wine except with a meal.

But some wines almost NEED food. Serve them alone, and something actually seems to be missing - yin looking for yang, black seeking white, an empty space in search of something to fill it.

The term "food wine" is shorthand for this type of wine, one that simply can't be enjoyed fully without a glass in one hand and a fork in the other.

Participants in our Wine Tasting 101 project are reporting that the two relatively modest Riojas recently featured in the tastings fall squarely into the "food wine" category. Simple and a bit light or even thin on their own, they wake up when paired with red meat or cheese.

Rioja ("Ree-oh-hah," in English-accented Spanish) is an arid upland region in northeastern Spain where Spanish-speaking land runs into Basque country. It is one of Spain's, and the world's, classic red- wine regions. (Some white is also produced here, but say "Rioja," and any wine lover will immediately think "red.")

Although Rioja is 100 percent Spanish, its wine heritage includes a touch of France, as many vine growers from Bordeaux migrated across the Pyrenees to Rioja in the late 18th century when the plant louse phylloxera devastated the French vineyards long before it reached Spain.

The predominant grape in Rioja is Tempranillo, although it is usually blended with Garnacha (Grenache) and sometimes Carignan; and modern Rioja producers have been known to experiment with such non-traditional varieties as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the blend...a trend that it's not unreasonable to compare to Italian experimentation in Tuscany.

Dark but not heavy, Rioja can be a long-lived wine. The varietal character sometimes shows cherries and often herbaceous qualities ("tobacco leaf" is a common descriptor), but - particularly in young wines - the dominant quality is usually the sweet vanilla of new oak. In Spain, where food and wine go together as natural partners, it's not likely that anyone would consider pouring a glass of Rioja without having something to eat.

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