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Food-friendly Riojas can be everyday pours

Posted by Ellen Bhang  March 3, 2014 06:53 AM

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We are always on the hunt for bottles that capture the spirit of a wine region but make only modest demands on the budget. We were reminded recently why a style of Spanish reds from Rioja fit the bill.

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Mid-tier reds, made primarily from tempranillo, the flagship Rioja grape, are categorized as Crianza, easily identified by a bright red label with the date of bottling on the back. They age for at least two years before wineries release them to market, and at least one of those years is spent in oak. (Wines aged for less time are coded on the label with a green block; longer aged Reservas earn a burgundy label.) Most are priced around $15 a bottle, so they represent terrific value for everyday pours. Unlike wines that have been rushed to market, Rioja Crianzas taste like they have some age on them, but none we tried fit the stereotype of aged Rioja reds that have been in oak for so long, they're off-putting to modern palates.

Ana Fabiano is on a mission to educate wine drinkers about these bottles from north-central Spain. As US trade director at Vibrant Rioja, the marketing arm of the wine region's regulatory board, she conducts tastings around the country. "People always say, 'I love Rioja.' But when I ask them 'Which producer?' or 'What style did you try?' they say they don't know." She has seen this gap in knowledge for years. To remedy that, Fabiano wrote "The Wine Region of Rioja" in 2012, a handsome tome that provides a comprehensive look at the history, geography, wine styles, and notable producers.

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We caught up with Fabiano last month at the Boston Wine Expo. One of the wines she was pouring was Ramon Bilbao Rioja Crianza 2010. This 100 percent tempranillo offers aromas of cherry, plum, and fennel frond, with a palate of vivid red fruit, smooth tannins for texture, and a spicy finish. Named for Ramon Bilbao Murga, an early 20th-century pioneer known for his expertise in aging Riojan wines, this Crianza is food-friendly. Fabiano herself emphasizes how these wines pair with a variety of fare. "People get so anxious about how to pair food and wine," she says, "but these wines make it easy."

The final chapter of her book offers recipes and suggested Rioja pairings. We plan to whip up a batch of potatoes and chorizo, or stuffed peppers, or creamy mushroom rice, and settle in with this appetizing bottle.

Bodegas Ramon Bilbao Rioja Crianza 2010 (around $14) is available at Atlas Liquors, Medford, 781-395-4400; and Blanchards Wines & Spirits, West Roxbury, 617-327-1400.

Ellen Bhang

About By the Glass

Ellen Bhang writes about food and wine and reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe. Wine is the focus of her degree in the Gastronomy master's program at Boston University. She can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com.

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