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The local wine industry has carved a strong niche with Tidal Bay and sparkling wines, but there are times we want to savour wines from further afield.
Rioja is Spain’s premier food and wine region and home to the country’s most exclusive wines. Located in North Central Spain, along the Ebro River, in the shadow of the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range, Rioja is 545-square-kilometres in size with a total vineyard area of over 65,000 hectares. While the regions boasts a broadly similar climate, with vines planted at a range of elevations (300 to 800 metres) and in various soils, a new sense of terroir is emerging in Rioja.
With hot August days behind us and cool September evenings here, Rioja is one of those wine regions I turn to during this time of year.
How do you say Rioja? Say “RIO + HA”
Rioja’s climate can be defined as being ‘warm temperate,’ and benefits from the confluence two widely opposing climates (Atlantic and Mediterranean) with temperatures averaging 12-14°C year round, cold and wet winter and spring seasons, and hot and dry weather in the summer and fall. Precipitation ranges from 400 to 540 millimetres per year.
There are close to 600 wineries in Rioja, offering a style for every wine lover – from fresh and juicy whites, to crisp rosés, to complex, barrel-aged red wines.
These wines are famous throughout the world for their quality, complexity, elegance, and particularly for their excellent aging potential
Although the most famous of Rioja’s wines are undoubtedly the elegant and classic reds of Tempranillo—often blended with smaller amounts of Garnacha, Graciano, Mazuelo—this region is also known for its outstanding whites, of which the most classic are made with Viura grapes (also known as Macabeo in other regions of Spain). Rosé and sparkling wines are made here as well.
Rioja wine and local food pairings
Rioja wines are elegantly fruity, well-balanced, and structured wines with moderate alcohol. The wines possess the right levels of acidity and subtle flavour to enhance food, but never overpower it.
While they are renowned companions to the famous dishes of Spain, including tapas, Riojas are extremely versatile dining companions and can pair with Spanish-inspired dishes featuring local ingredients, such as Digby scallops, P.E.I. potatoes, and Northumberland lamb.
Seared Scallop, Browned Butter and Creamy Polenta with Blood Orange and Tarragon
Recipe by Mark DeWolf
Pair with Montecillo Blanco (available at select NSLC)
3 3/4 cups vegetable stock
1 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup grated Manchego
24 Digby scallops, muscle removed, dried with paper towel
1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup butter
1 blood orange, peeled, segmented
Fresh tarragon, for garnish
Bring the stock to a boil in a large pot set over medium-high heat. Add the cornmeal in a thin stream while whisking. Reduce heat to medium.
Continue stirring with a wooden spoon for 40 minutes. Just before it is complete, add the grated Manchego and continue to stir. Meanwhile, set a cast iron pan over medium-high heat. Season scallops with salt. When the pan is hot, add the oil.
When the oil begins to smoke, lay in the scallops. Sear scallops for one to two minutes per side. Remove from pan and set aside.
Finally, make the browned butter. In a steep-sided saucepan, cook 1 cup butter over medium heat until it foams and begins to turn a nutty brown colour. Immediately pour it into a side dish off the heat, as it will continue to brown if left in the hot pot.
To plate, place a spoonful of polenta in the center of a plate. Top with scallops. Drizzle scallops with browned butter. Top with blood orange segments and finish with fresh tarragon.
Patatas a la Riojana
Recipe by Mark DeWolf
Pair with Torres Ibericos Rioja Crianza (available at select NSLC)
2 lb yellow-fleshed PEI potatoes, peeled, roughly chopped
1 tbsp each salt, pepper, smoked paprika
1 Serrano pepper, seeds removed, minced
6 tbsp olive oil
3 Spanish-style chorizo sausages, sliced
2 cups spicy tomato sauce
Boil potatoes in salted water for 10 to 12 minutes, until tender. Drain, cool, and pat dry. Transfer to a bowl and season with salt, pepper, and paprika.
Place a deep-sided pan over medium-high heat. Add enough oil to cover the bottom. Working in batches, fry potatoes until golden brown. Add more oil as needed.
Add the olive oil to the pan. Reduce heat to medium-low and sauté pepper for 30 seconds. Add the potatoes and chorizo to the pan and sauté until warm. Add the tomato sauce and warm through. Serve warm.
Rioja-Inspired Lamb Chops with Roasted Garlic Ajo
Recipe by Mark DeWolf
Pair with Lan Reserva (available at select NSLC)
1 tbsp rosemary, finely chopped
1/2 tbsp pimenton (smoked paprika)
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper, finely cracked
12 small Northumberland lamb rib chops
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, roasted, finely chopped
1 egg yolk
2 tsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp Dijon mustard
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Patatas Fritas, to serve
In a bowl, combine rosemary, pimenton, sugar, salt and pepper. Rub olive oil over lamb chops. Dredge chops in spice mixture.
Set a cast-iron pan over medium-high heat. Sear chops for four minutes per side or until desired doneness is achieved. Transfer to a plate to rest before serving.
To make the roasted garlic ajo, place garlic, pinch salt, egg yolk, lemon juice, and Dijon mustard in a bowl. Drop by drop, whisk in extra virgin olive oil. Be careful not to add the oil too quickly as it won’t emulsify. The ajo should be rich and creamy.
Serve lamb with roasted garlic ajo and patatas fritas (French fries).
Mark DeWolf is a connoisseur of all things food and drink. He's a creative director with SaltWire and local fare is his specialty. You can subscribe to his Follow a Foodie newsletter here.