Rioja Should Be Your Official Red Wine Of Summer

Now that every food publication in America has proclaimed its “Perfect Summer Wine!” it’s time to cut through the noise to what really works at boozy bashes all summer long. When hosting a party where wine plays a starring role (AKA all of them) it helps to follow a few simple rules:

  1. Leave confusing names that need explanation alone.
  2. Think outside of pink.
  3. Keep it simple.

Classic, always-available Rioja fits the bill for all three, and has been doing so for hundreds of years. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Beyond the Spanish region’s use of coconut-scented American oak, and pricey Gran Reserva wines, Rioja wines have a history with casual, everyday gatherings and the food that goes with them. From tapas to stews and everything in between, there’s literally a Rioja for that. On both sides of the Atlantic, it’s these easygoing, tasty wines that take the fuss out of party planning and pair seamlessly with dishes from Vegan “burgers” to Branzino or juicy steaks. And while Rioja manages to produce summer-worthy whites and rosés, it’s really the reds that stand out, even in triple-digit heat waves.

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The Spaniards got it right when they started labelling their wines based on aging regimens. This means that any “Reserva” or “Crianza” wine gets similar aging treatment in the winery, and it’s required by law. For drinkers, this translates to easy shopping since all “Crianza” or “Reserva” wines will have similar characteristics, regardless of the brands available at your local wine shop or supermarket. For summer fêtes of all types, Crianza wines are the way to go.

These reds are made predominantly from the Tempranillo grape, and see a mere 12 months of oak aging, followed by 12 months in bottle before release. This relatively short aging period means the wines are lightly tinged with oak flavors like vanilla, coconut, and tobacco, yet they retain their fresh, delicious fruitiness. The wines are on the lighter side for reds, and are closer to Pinot Noir than heavy, full-bodied wines like Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel, so serving them in hot weather isn’t a sin. Overall, it’s this combination of aromatic complexity and easy-drinking flavor that makes these wines extremely versatile with food.

Historically, these qualities have made Crianza every Spaniard’s go-to wine with tapas and pinxtos—the 3-bite appetizers that characterize San Sebastian cuisine, and where Rioja wine is often a cornerstone. In fact, one of Rioja’s iconic estates, Bodegas Beronia was founded there by foodies determined to make a wine that would be delicious as well as flexible with local cuisine. In 1973, members of a regional cooking club (known locally as Txoco clubs) decided to combine their love of food and wine by starting a Rioja estate, and one of Rioja’s best wineries was born.

Alongside the varied flavors that characterize Spanish cuisine, like anchovies, peppers, and roasted meats, Crianza wines are a flexible, happy pairing across the board. Across American menus, these bright wines do the same thing. Thanks to Tempranillo’s natural acid and the aforementioned quick aging process, Crianza wines offer both refreshing acidity and firm tannins in a single sip. With foods, the elements pack a 1-2 punch of delicacy with light dishes (like herbaceous grilled shrimp) and strength with fatty or meat-driven bites (sliders, anyone?).

The aromas and flavors of Crianza wines also help them meld with iconic American sauces and cooking techniques. Tangy and sweet BBQ sauces, for example, mingle well with the berry fruit tones of Crianza wines. Likewise, smokey ribs fresh off the grill play up the oaky tones and aromas of the vino. Even with a classic white-wine summer dish like grilled salmon, these wines have the finesse to match, and not overpower, the fish.

Plus, Rioja Crianza wines aren’t expensive! Every good wine shop will have at least one Rioja on hand, and Crianza wines are easy to sell, meaning a great bottle (or six) is available in the $20 range, and often for even less.

So give the rosé trend a break this season, and bring out a classic at your next gathering, whatever’s on the menu.

Try it:

Bodegas Beronia Crianza, 2011, Rioja

Señorío de P. Peciña Crianza, Bodegas Hermanos Peciña, 2011, Rioja

Rioja Crianza, Vina Real, Cune, 2011, Rioja