Rioja has long been a mainstay on wine lists across the country. The region consistently delivers on its brand promise of high-quality wines at a great price, making the wines of the region a favourite amongst sommeliers and consumers alike.
While it is most often associated with its full-bodied red wines, the region offers a remarkably
diverse mix of wine styles. There are fresh stainless-steel fermented whites, full-bodied complex barrel aged white wines, rosados and reds ranging from fresh and fruity to complex and savoury. We asked some of Canada’s best sommeliers to recommend dishes to pair with the diversity of Rioja wines.
Appellation: Rioja Rosado DOCa
Pairing: Chorizo Stuffed Peppers
Sommelier: Mark DeWolf, CAPS National President, Halifax, Nova Scotia
About the Sommelier: In 2002, Mark passed the International Sommelier Guild's final exam with the second highest mark in Canada. After graduation Mark took a position as an editor of one North America's largest on-line wine publications, Appellation America. Since leaving Appellation America, Mark started his own beverage consultancy company, and became the Publications Editor and Art Director of Occasions Magazine, which is produced for the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation. Mark is the currently Creative Director, Food & Drink of The Saltwire Network - one of Canada's largest privately owned media groups. Mark additionally heads the Tidal Bay Independent Tasting Panel and co-ordinates the Atlantic Canada Wine Awards, Atlantic Canada Beer Awards and soon to be launched Atlantic Canada Spirits Awards. Mark has been a Sommelier instructor with CAPS since 2004. Mark supports key industry organizations including Femmes du Vin and Tasting Climate Change, working as their Director of Sponsorship.
Much like the famous reds of Rioja, the region’s rosados are versatile, offering a range of styles. From 100% Tempranillo to blends with other indigenous varietals (i.e. Garnacha), Rioja rosados offer something for everyone. While historically they tended to be quite pigmented, recent adjustments to regulations have allowed producers to producer paler rosados in-line with consumer trends. The results are some fruit driven wine styles – often in the primary red fruit vein – blessed with a freshness and vitality thanks to the region’s northern location and a general move to higher elevation vineyards.
Coming from Atlantic Canada, which shares an ocean and a love of seafood with Spain, I’ve always found there is a symbiotic connection between the whites and rosados of Rioja and our seafood. We have shared fishing grounds – mostly amicably – for centuries. I also believe Rioja Rosado works wonderfully with tapas. The match should never be complicated or overpowering so as to allow the freshness of wine to come to the fore. Enjoying a glass of Rioja rosado with this recipe for Stuffed Mini Peppers.
Stuffed Mini Peppers
12 sweet mini peppers, halved lengthwise, seeds removed
2 green onions, chopped
1/4 cup dry cured Chorizo, diced
1/4 cup roasted pepper, diced
1/6 cup Spanish green olives, chopped
3/4 cup Manchego cheese, grated
1/4 cup parsley, grated
Directions: Preheat oven to 400 °F. Place peppers on baking sheet cut side up. In a bowl, combine green onions, Chorizo, roasted pepper and olives. Top each with equal amounts of grated Manchego. Place in oven and bake for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and carefully place on platter. Sprinkle peppers with parsley.
Appellation: Rioja Blanco DOCa
Pairing: Seared Scallops
Sommelier: Gabrielle Plastre, Chez Victoire, Montreal, Quebec
About the Sommelier: Gabrielle Plastre worked in the hospitality industry for over a decade. She is a sommelier at Chez Victoire and hosting SAQ’s workshops for the general public. She graduated in 2016 with three distincts diplomas: DEP (Diplôme d’études professionelles) from Institut du tourisme et hôtellerie du Québec (ITHQ), level 3 with distinction - Wine and Spirit Education Trust and certification level - Court of Master Sommeliers. She became the first Canadian Master of Port, a national competition, in June 2019. Her other achievements included winning the following competitions : Wines of Argentina (2016) and German Wine Institute (2018), both of which were organized in collaboration with ITHQ.
The typical white wine from Rioja’s region in Spain is made distinctive by a combination of vivid freshness and complex aromas. Time spent in cask creates richness, enhancing the polenta’s creaminess as well as the scallop’s texture. The aromas developed by the barrel complement both the caramelized flavors of the scallop and nutty brown butter. On the opposite end, the lively brightness of the blood orange highlights the natural acidity of indigenous grape varieties like Viura or Maturana Blanca. Finally, the tarragon rounds up the dish with a touch of herbaceous freshness to contrast the rich maturity of the wine.
Seared Scallop, Browned Butter and Creamy Polenta with Blood Orange and Tarragon
3 3/4 cups vegetable stock
1 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup grated Manchego
24 scallops, muscle removed, dried with paper towel
1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup butter
1 blood orange, peeled, segmented
Fresh tarragon, for garnish
Directions: 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 1-2 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 color. After butter turns brown, 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.
Appellation: Modern-style Rioja Alavesa
Pairing: Patatas a la Riojana
Sommelier: Emily MacLean, Sommelier, Director of Operations, The Sommelier Factory, Toronto, Ontario
About the Sommelier: Emily MacLean is a Certified Sommelier based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She is the Director of Operations at The Sommelier Factory; a wine training facility founded by Bruce Wallner, Master Sommelier. She also assumes the role of General Manager at Toronto’s Academie du Vin. When she is not in a classroom, you can find her selling wine on the floor at some of Toronto’s top restaurants
While often thought of as a classic, traditional wine producing area, Rioja is not immune to change and modernization. Over the past few decades there has been a marked uptick in the number of producers veering away from traditional, oxidative winemaking styles that use extended ageing in American oak barrels.
The modern style increasingly views later harvests, riper fruit, higher alcohol levels, and shorter ageing periods. Often welcoming the use of French oak in lieu of American oak, and employing slower, cooler fermentations and deeper colour extraction, results in wines with fresher fruit profiles and greater concentration.
In an effort to continue its evolution and modernization, in 2017 the Rioja DOCa approved the Viñedos Singulares designation, where producers are able to register their single vineyards and use them on their labels. The assessment process for achieving this is quite rigorous; grapes must be hand-harvested at small yields, vines must be at least 35 years old, the estate must prove that it has been working with the vineyard for at least 10 years, and the wine must pass a tasting panel.
I chose to pair the wine with Patatas a la Riojana (‘Rioja-style potatoes’). The lesser- known sibling to Spain’s iconic Patatas Bravas, the dish is adored locally, even receiving rave reviews from venerated French chef Paul Bocuse on a trip to Rioja in 1979. Potatoes are slowly simmered alongside chorizo and onions in a paprika laden stew, resulting in a rich, smoky, and densely flavoured dish. The wine, much like the dish, is densely flavoured and complex while maintaining enough freshness to cut through the richness of the dish.
Patatas a la Riojana
2 lb yellow fleshed 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
Directions: 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 in 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.
Appellation: Rioja Crianza DOCa
Sommelier: Sean Dolenuck, La Boutique del Vino, Winnipeg, Manitoba
About the Sommelier: Sean Dolenuck is a professional Sommelier and restaurant specialist with La Boutique del Vino. He holds the Professional Sommelier Diploma from CAPS (Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers) as well as a Diploma in Hotel and Restaurant Management from SAIT (Calgary), and has been involved in the hospitality industry for over 20 years, specializing in fine dining. Sean has worked at some of the best restaurants in both Calgary and Winnipeg. His passion for wine and the hospitality industry moved him to Winnipeg for his sommelier studies, and that opened the door to his current position as a Manager of Licensee Sales with La Boutique del Vino.
He offers sommelier service including developing wine lists, marketing, training staff and management, cost controls and implementing sales strategies. Sean was awarded the Best Sommelier of Manitoba title for 2015 and 2016 and competed at the Best Sommelier of Canada competition in Toronto, in March 2015. In January Sean joined the CAPS Manitoba Executive Board as Vice President and looks forward to assisting and educating both current and future Sommeliers.
About the Pairing: Rioja is home to the Tempranillo grape known for its upfront easy drinking and juicy red fruit profile. Crianza is the designation taking Tempranillo to the next level with the addition of 12 months spent rest in oak barrels and some bottle aging to soften the tannin structure.
Classic Crianza from producers such as Ontanon and Lopez de Haro is a perfect pairing for Lechazo (young lamb), which is traditionally roasted over vine cuttings. The wines provide an excellent framework of bright strawberry, preserved cherry, and licorice flavours to match the crisp golden skin and delicate light gamey notes. There is a balance to the refreshing acidity which complements the delicate creamy meat. The addition of Garnacha in the blend assists with the cinnamon and pepper spice and the 12 months in oak bring a smooth vanilla profile balanced with cedar and sweet tobacco which completes the smoky sensory experience of the lamb cooked over the vine cuttings.
Rioja Inspired Lamb Chops with Roasted Garlic Ajo
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 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
Directions: 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 for 4 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).
Appellation: Rioja Gran Reserva DOCa
Pairing: Presa Iberica (pork shoulder)
Sommelier: Mya Brown, Wine Director, The Fairmount Pacific Rim, Vancouver
About the Sommelier: Mya Brown is a sommelier who has dedicated the past decade to a variety of perspectives of hospitality and the wine trade across Canada, including retail, import and sales. She spent 5 years managing wine bars and Michelin Star wine programs in London, England while completing her WSET Diploma and is currently based in Vancouver as an independent wine educator and Director of Wine at The Fairmont Pacific Rim
Gran Reserva Rioja is a representation of the highest quality expression of red wines in the region, typified by a savoury depth of character that can present as equally muscular and elegant. The wine is typically Tempranillo dominant, often with portions of Garnacha and Graciano in supporting roles. Traditional growers still occasionally include a small portion of indigenous white varietals such as Viura, with parcels selected from old vines for intensity of flavour, structure and finesse. (may delete Viura for HQ sponsorship..)
The result is plush red fruit, further developed by extended aging in usually American or French oak barrels (a minimum of 2 years but as many as 3-5 years for some centenary producers), followed by another minimum of 2 years in bottle before release. It is not unheard of for a current vintage to be a decade old before it reaches the shelves.
The Gran Reserva is mature, often heady and savoury in the glass with a moreish acidity ready to slice through rich, meaty fare like a smoky grilled cut of Spain’s iconic Iberico Pork, (a marbled portion of neck/Pluma or shoulder/Presa is ideal) alongside indulgent confit potatoes and the bright sweet spice of Basque peppers. (basque peppers?
Smoky Pork Shoulder (Presa)
4 to 6 Servings
3 lb boneless pork shoulder, skin on
Sea salt, freshly cracked
1 1/2 – 2 tbsp Pimenton (smoked paprika)
1 lb new potato, halved
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 tbsp garlic, minced
2 tbsp fresh rosemary, minced
Basque peppers, to serve
Directions: Place pork shoulder on a work surface and score the fat cap with a knife. Season generously all over with salt and pimenton. Place in oven preheated to 425 ̊F skin-side facing up. After 30 minutes and skin is crackling, lower heat to 350 ̊F, cover with foil and roast for another 4 hours; basting periodically. With an 1 hour and 15 minutes left to go place potatoes in a bowl with olive oil, garlic and rosemary. Toss to combine and season with salt and pepper. Add the potatoes to the roasting pan and roast in the pork juices. Remove pork from oven and let rest for 30 minutes before slicing. Serve with the confit (roasted) potatoes and Basque peppers.
*Cru by CAPS & the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers would like to thank and acknowledge the Rioja DOCs and other funding partners for supporting the production of this content.