Chicago is home to many food festivals, but the Rioja Wine and Tapas Festival might be the most specific. This one day festival, benefiting the James Beard Foundation, celebrates Spanish wine, cuisine, and culture. It’s a chance to taste Rioja wine along with Spanish style cuisine from top restaurants from across the country.
At the festival, I had the opportunity to speak with Jose Maria Ryan Murua, the winemaker at Bodegas Muriel. We chatted about what makes Rioja special, how to pair it, and the life of a winemaker.
Can you tell me about your wine and what makes it a great example of a Rioja?
We are based in the Rioja area, and we grow the tempranillo grape. We produce a wide variety of wines in different styles, from the vibrant more full bodied young wine up to the classic very smooth very velvety type wines. The tempranillo grape that we works with is very kind to the palate.
How would you pair your wine?
Tempranillo is a very easy pairing wine. It is a medium bodied variety it doesn’t have a big big structure, that a cabernet would have for example. It goes well with practically any type of food. Even the reds, you can pair them with fish. The traditional idea is that fish always goes with white, but I would say a Gran Reserva you can have with hake, sea bass, monkfish. Of course it would pair well with lamb and beef and pork too.
Do you have an ideal cheese pairing for your wine?
In Spain we have an ample varieties of cheese. The traditional cheeses are quite aged, so they are quite dry. Pairing them with wine is perfect. Wine gives the cheese a freshness that the cheese lacks, but the cheese gives the flavor sensation, the milky sensation that makes the wine a little sweeter. They always pair very well. My favorite is a sheep milk cheese from Navarra in basque region and it is very cured and it goes very well. Manchego and any kind of red will pair well.
This is your family owned business. Did you grow up surrounded by wine and learning to love wine?
I went to university to study wine chemistry and wine making in Spain. Where you really learn is at the winery because the thing about this business is that every year is different.
I wasn’t told go to the vineyard, I wanted to. They were happy that I did it, but they never told me to. I went by myself and I feel in love with it.
I know that winemaking is different depending on the season, but what is it like to be a winemaker?
The winemaker has the image of just tasting wine, and that is not true. It is just one part of the business. Throughout the year, your work is organizing the bottling, preparing the wines, buying the bottles, buying the corks, preparing everything. Organizing the racking of the barrels. Visiting suppliers. You do many things. Everything is focused on producing the wine. Our role is to do everything, not just one specific thing.
Can you tell me about the different types of wines the Bodegas Muriel produces?
Rioja is known mainly for reds, but we also have white. We made it from virua (a white grape). Virua grapes are very light and dry easy drinking, fruity. They are very good with food because you can practically drink it with everything. They are very good as appetizer wines in terms of before dinner while you finish your cooking. It opens your palette up, and then during your meal you have a red.
Do you think that because Rioja is such an easy drinking wine, is it a good wine for people who usually drink white who want to try red?
Yes, the strong point of Rioja wines is that everyone likes them. You don’t have to be a wine connoisseur to like our wines. They are very friendly.
There are four types of Rioja. What would your go-to wine be if you were bringing it to someone as a gift?
The most distinct Rioja that you can go with is a Gran Reserva. It is a wine that you cannot compare to any wine, worldwide. It is unique to Rioja. Gran Reserva is our older type of wine. Our Gran Reserva is usually launched at 9-10 years old.
Gran Reserva is not alway made. It is only made during good harvest years, right?
Yes, you have to be careful with the Gran Reserva. It has to be the best fruit, the best selection. It is not a wine that you can do all vintages. There are some years where the weather does not cooperate. We need hot days and cool nights to get perfect ripeness.
What would you tell someone who has never tried Rioja, to convince them to try it?
They are very complex wines, and while you drink them they change, you notice something different. It is a safe buy, everyone loves these wines, they are friendly easygoing wines. Rioja wines are recommended for people who want to start learning about wine, it is rare that someone doesn’t like them.
You can find Bodegas Muriel wine at Binny’s in Chicago.
Second and third photos courtesy of Huge Galdones
This post was sponsored by Rioja Wines.