Wine expert Victoria Moore explains why Spanish rioja is a taste of comfort, plus gives wine pairings and this month's best drink
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Here’s a random fact: in 1891, Haro became the first town in Spain (though, note, not the world – more on that later) to install electric street lighting. Just over the Ebro river from the Basque Country, Haro is also famous for being the wine capital of Rioja, the region that makes Spain’s best-known and best-loved wine.
We all have comfort zones when it comes to wine – places or grapes that we instinctively reach for – and for many, that zone is rioja. Sometimes referred to as Spain’s answer to bordeaux, rioja produces both red and white wine, but like bordeaux, it’s the red that is much better known. Red rioja is made from a blend of grapes, most notably tempranillo and graciano.
Rioja that is based on tempranillo typically has a soft, smooth, warm taste, with notes of baked strawberries and hay. Graciano is more luscious, spicy and ornate, more like mulberries and black pudding. Either way, the wines begin to taste very mellow (and comforting) as they age. Oak can also be a big part of the style. Depending on how heavily oaked the wine is, you may also find flavours of vanilla, coconut, cloves and old saddle leather. Gran reserva is the oakiest type of rioja, and to a large extent, these wines are all about the wood, which dances around the spice heft.
One piece of good news for those who love rioja is that it is one of the wines that supermarkets do best. You can find excellent examples of own-label rioja just about anywhere you might shop, but I particularly like Tesco Finest Viña del Cura Rioja Gran Reserva 2012 (available from Tesco – £11.50) and Morrisons The Best Rioja Gran Reserva 2012 (available from Morrisons – £12), both of which are made by the Baron de Ley winery.
Another star is Definition Rioja Reserva 2013 (available from Majestic – £13.99 a bottle) while Ramón Bilbao Rioja Single Vineyard 2017 is an excellent wine that benefits from a fresher, more modern style (available from Majestic – £9.99 a bottle).
To be honest, rioja is not usually one of the wines in my own comfort zone, but that changes as soon as someone mentions chorizo or chickpea, tomato, paprika and spinach stew; slow-cooked shoulder of lamb; roast pork with sweet roast parsnips; beetroot and carrots, or any Spanish-style rice dish involving garlic, tomatoes, artichokes, prawns or chicken. All of these aromatic, warming foods play really well with the mellow flavours of rioja.
And just in case you’re wondering, the first place to be fitted with electric street lights was Paris, where lighting was installed on the avenue de l’Opera and the Place d’Etoile around the Arc de Triomphe in 1878. But forward-thinking Godalming in Surrey put them up just three years later, when it also became the first place in the world to have public electricity in people’s houses.
This month I'm drinking...
Vintage Pear Cider 2017 – available in-store from M&S (£2.50 for 500ml)
Pear cider – or perry – is experiencing a comeback, and the big orchard-fruit flavours are perfect for a cool autumn night. This is made for M&S by Westons, based in Much Marcle in Herefordshire.
Vinalba Finca La 70 Malbec Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Argentina – available in-store from Co-Op (£9)
A juicy blend of grape and blackcurrant notes. Try it with our stuffed pasta bolognese bake from the October 2019 issue of BBC Good Food magazine.
Read more articles by Victoria...
How wine has changed in 30 years
Why you should be drinking verdejo this summer
Swap your bottle for wine in a can
Why you should be drinking French malbec
Why rosé wine is the perfect drink for summer
My pick of the best bank holiday wines
Victoria Moore is an award-winning wine columnist and author. Her most recent book is the The Wine Dine Dictionary (£20, Granta).
All prices correct as of September 2019.