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WINE SAVVY: Spain's Rioja wines taste of strawberry, leather

Strawberry and leather make an odd flavor combination. Nobody eats strawberry leather pie. While we don't eat leather, the aroma of a fine leather coat or supple leather bag can be quite pleasing and strawberries, with their slightly sweet smell and tart flavor are universally popular. So it should come as no surprise that Spain's signature red wine, a Rioja, made from the tempranillo grape, is often described as strawberries with leather.

Tempranillo is grown throughout Spain but in Navarre, a province in the north central part of the country, it is the main ingredient in a red blend called Rioja. While some white wine is grown here, it is best known for its bold red wine from the tempranillo grape. With some certainty, owing to DNA profiling, we know that tempranillo is not a transplant to Navarre but an indigenous varietal. First written about in the 1870s and planted and harvested continuously since then, recent archaeological evidence points to winemaking in the region dating as far back as 2,000 years.

Phoenicians, Romans, Celtiberians and finally the Christian Dukes of Navarre all enjoyed these wines, but they didn't gain worldwide regard until unemployed French winemakers from just across the border in Bordeaux taught the Spanish how to age their wine in oak barrels.

The struggle with tempranillo is that when it is young it can have very harsh tannins (this is that drying sensation some red wine makes in your mouth) and the fruit flavors of strawberry and cherry are overwhelmed, making the wine taste sour and bitter. This is OK if you're doing shots of bulk wine in anticipation of running with the bulls in the streets of Pamplona — the capital city of Navarre and home to the famous running of the bulls — but it isn't OK if you're trying to enjoy the wine with dinner.

The magic ingredient to turn average, or maybe even less than average, tempranillo into stunningly delicious leather and strawberry wine is to age it in oak. The French winemakers in Bordeaux learned this long ago and in the 1850s they shared their secret with the Spanish. Now every Rioja is aged in an oak barrel, and the amount of time is prescribed in a carefully followed law.

When you go to the Spanish section at a liquor store, you'll see some bottles labeled as: Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. These labels will also have the word Rioja on them.

• A Crianza is a wine from Rioja has been aged at least two years of which 12 months must be in an oak barrel.

• A Reserva has been aged for at least three years of which 12 months must be in oak.

• A Gran Reserva is aged at least five years with at least 18 months in oak.

All this aging mellows the wine. The tannins fall out of the wine and form sediment at the bottom of the bottle. The aged wines take on varying degrees of mature aromas like coffee, caramel, nuts and leather. The aging changes the wine from rough and tart to smooth and rich.

A good Rioja will have a combination of flavors such as strawberry, cherry, plum, tomato, leather, tobacco, vanilla and cloves. While not every flavor will be present in every wine, well-made examples should exhibit some, and in my memory Rioja is often leather and strawberries.


• A well-made Crianza should cost $15-$20.

• Gran Reservas command a price worthy of their age and start at about $50.

• Pair Rioja wines with roasted pork or beef or dishes that feature tomato based sauces such as lasagna.