It’s time for Endless Summer. Get the most out of the season while it’s still here.
The color most associated with the wines of Spain’s Rioja region? Deep red—the hue that represents the region’s defining style and dominant grape—Tempranillo.
While northern Spain’s exceptional reds have long been known for their quality and affordability, considerably less attention is paid to its whites, rosés and sparkling wines. In total, Rioja’s annual wine production is overwhelmingly red—a staggering 90 percent. But that remaining 10 percent of lighter styles is ripe for exploring, especially during the summer months.
How to dive in? Seek out an expert. Ana Fabiano is the U.S. Brand Ambassador for Rioja’s Designation of Origin council, the control board that guarantees the quality and authenticity of the wine produced in the region. She’s also written a book on Rioja and has observed a small but meaningful growth in the region’s experimentation beyond its red roots.
The result of that growth is the emergence of Rioja wines that arguably rival young Chardonnay and Provençal rosés. Strong competitors for both integrity and price point, Rioja’s modern offerings represent an exciting opportunity for Spanish wine. As Fabiano notes, anyone looking for fresh, alternative wines for summer entertaining can turn to Rioja whites and rosés and be confident that the region’s high standards will be reflected in the same way as its reds. And with many Rioja wines averaging around $12, quality wine has never been so affordable.
But where to find these lesser-known bottles? Let Fabiano and Rioja’s Designation of Origin council lead the way to six surprising Rioja wines that will reinvent your summer.
Traditionally, Rioja whites were fermented in American oak and aged for up to ten years before being released. Today, modern French oak barrel–fermented and stainless steel–fermented styles are stepping to the forefront to offer light, crisp alternatives to the oak-heavy older style.
The primary white grape of Rioja is Viura, which delivers fruity wines with floral aromas and high acidity—characteristics that Fabiano points to as natural complements for grilled meats and seafood. But perhaps most interesting is Tempranillo Blanco, a genetic mutation of the red Tempranillo vine that was first discovered in 1988. With intense aromas of tropical fruit, high acidity and velvety texture, this grape was only recently added to the Rioja regulatory council’s register in 2009.
The three bottles below highlight a range of Rioja’s more modern stainless steel– and barrel-fermented whites and its prominent grapes at a reasonable price of $15 or less.
Grape: 100% Viura
Taste: Made with 100 percent un-oaked Viura that lends bright floral flavors of bitter lemon and pear and finishes with a faint herbal note.
Drink It With: Brick-oven pizza, grilled chicken salads and summer seafood dishes.
Grape: 60% Viura, 20% Malvasía, 20% Tempranillo Blanco
Taste: Clean yet complex with intense notes of citrus, green apple and peaches, plus a hint of pineapple.
Drink It With: Summery rice dishes, white meat and shellfish.
Grape: 90% Viura, 10% Malvasía
Taste: Slow fermentation in new French oak and three months on fine lees give this modern white freshness and acidity with hints of pineapple and citrus, ending with a subtle oakiness.
Drink It With: Grilled salmon, savory fruit dishes, roast chicken.
Fabiano recalls having a pleasantly “explosive experience” with Rioja rosés, which she attributes to the singular quality of the region’s Tempranillo grapes. Often a blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha, Rioja rosés range in style from a bright cherry to a delicate rose petal color and display elegant texture and well-balanced acidity. Usually unoaked, they’re pleasantly dry and versatile, skirting the line of seasonality with ease.
Rioja rosés boast a wide diversity of styles that gracefully inhabit the space between whites and reds—at a shockingly low price.
Grape: 96% Tempranillo, 4% Garnacha
Taste: Luscious flavors of raspberry, cherry and currant. Lively floral notes that finish long and warm with a hint of white pepper.
Drink It With: Lightly spiced dishes, paella, Mediterranean cuisine.
Grape: 50% Tempranillo, 50% Garnacha
Taste: Ripe, juicy flavors of watermelon and berry with balanced acidity and light herbal finish.
Drink It With: Rich fish, like salmon and tuna, plus pork and beef.
Grape: 80% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha
Taste: Strawberry and raspberry aromas lead into well-balanced red fruit flavors with hints of licorice, roses and violets.
Drink It With: Summer vegetables, pasta, charcuterie and barbecue.
Though not technically included on Rioja’s regulatory council register, the region’s Cavas are also ideal for summertime drinking. There are only a handful of authorized regions where Cava can be produced, including Rioja, and the sparkler’s rustic charm makes it a reasonably priced alternative to Champagne. Fabiano notes that most Rioja Cavas are produced for a family’s personal enjoyment, and there’s likely only one winery that actually exports its Cavas to the U.S.
The Rioja winery Campo Viejo offers a Cava Brut Reserva that perfectly suits your summer needs, priced at an enticing $13.
Grape: Parellada, Xarello, Viura
Taste: Bright and buoyant with a crisp, clean freshness. Steady bubbles with notes of white fruits and a hint of wood.
Drink It With: Mediterranean dishes, grilled vegetables, mild cheeses.