Feliz Navidad: Rioja’s Christmas credentials


In the cellar at Bodegas López de Heredia, Rioja, Spain. Photograph: Jason Lowe
As 25th December approaches and planning begins for feasting galore, our Buyer Catriona Felstead MW argues that one region might just have the answer to any and all of the season’s food-pairing conundrums

It’s easy to get tied up in knots when planning what to drink for Christmas – which different grape varieties are best, Old World or New World, oaked or unoaked… Some take pleasure in the choosing, but if Christmas is starting to creep up on you unawares then let me give you the quick-fix, an 100% reliable, one-stop-shop for all your Christmas needs: Rioja.

Rioja might initially lead to thoughts of rich, fruit-forward, oaky red wines but there is so much more to this region. In fact, I will go as far as to suggest that Rioja would be the perfect choice to match each stage of your entire three-course meal.

Let’s raise our forks and think about the starter. If you have never tried white Rioja, now is the time for you to dive on in. These white wines have, as a general rule, spent some time in oak. A Rioja Blanco Crianza must, for example, have spent a minimum of six months in oak barrels out of its two-year ageing process before release. As such, these wines have a golden colour to them that might make you think they are rich and heavy – but think again. There is nothing more exquisite than the balance of the elegance and freshness in a well-judged white Rioja, such as 2015 Allende Blanco or Palacios Remondo’s Placet, with the gentle harmony that oak can bring. Expect notes of citrus and peach alongside a mouth-watering savoury character, all leading to a long, complex finish. These are the perfect food wines and would be ideal with starters with a richness to them, such as smoked salmon pâté or, quite frankly, anything with garlic (white Rioja sings alongside garlic).

Then there’s the main course. This is probably a little bit more in your comfort zone, but classic red Rioja makes for a fine match with roast meats. Depending on your preference, choose a Crianza such as our own-label Rioja or 2016 Amézola Crianza for a medium-weight style to go with simple roast turkey and duck. A red Rioja Crianza has spent a minimum of one year in oak out of a two-year ageing process so has evident vanilla character but also forward, juicy red fruit. If you are settling for a richer gravy or the classic match of roast lamb, then a Reserva level such as 2011 Allende Tinto will be even more rewarding. Reservas have spent a minimum of one year out of three years’ ageing in cask and tend to have deeper, darker fruit alongside more structure and power.

And finally, I have two curveballs for you. Firstly, if you are reading this and thinking “Yes, but I still prefer a lighter style of red wine with my turkey,” then Rioja can also provide: let me introducing Palacios Remondo’s beautiful La Montesa – a fascinating Rioja Crianza made with over 90% Garnacha. This is beautifully pure and refreshing and will appeal to the Pinot Noir lovers amongst you.

Secondly – and bringing us perfectly on to the cheese – there is the anomaly of the ridiculously long-aged wines of celebrated Rioja producer Bodegas López de Heredia. Not only would their current releases of 2010 Viña Cubillo or 2006 Viña Tondonia Tinto Reserva go well with richer meats but the additional notes of leather and cured meats, stemming from such a long ageing process, would make them a to-die-for match with Montgomery cheddar, as well as being surprisingly reliable with the rest of the cheeseboard too.

Food for thought? To my mind, Rioja is a much more varied and stylistic wine than you might think – and the great news is that it is also generally very good value. All that remains is a toast to a wonderful Christmas lunch for all – ¡salud!

Shop three of our favourite red Riojas here; or explore our full range from the region.