Smooth Armada: the amazing variety of wines from Spain's Rioja region

Ondarre Graciano 2006

The Ondarre Graciano 2006 is worth hunting if you're a fan of freshness in your glass of red

What do you think of whenever you hear the word Rioja? A mellow, easy- drinking red wine which matches roast lamb superbly? Bang on. But what else? Well, the Rioja region in northern Spain in fact produces an astonishing range of wines from an amazing array of grapes, soils and climates.

There are three distinct parts: Rioja Alavesa, high up and the coolest, its wines full of zing and freshness; Rioja Alta, slightly warmer, a rich source of bottled finesse; and Rioja Baja, hotter still and lower down - the engine room of the region. These three localities enable Rioja to produce a wealth of styles through blending grape varieties.

And if you think that Rioja just means reds, you're missing out on a huge chunk of the region's riches. You can find whites made from local Viura, Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca grapes that are crisp and zingy, or if you prefer them creamy and rich there's lots to choose from, too.

Rosé, or Rosado as its called locally, is also on the up. The red wines of Rioja are founded on the Tempranillo grape, which means 'ripens early'. This versatile variety can become young, fruity, glugging wine, or something more structured for ageing to bring out a more savoury character. Tempranillo is blended with other grapes such as Garnacha (for warmth and spice), Mazuelo (colour and structure) and Graciano, which adds finesse.

With all these varieties at their fingertips, the winemakers of Rioja also decide what style to brew their reds into - and how much to charge. Crianza is a younger style, with one year kept in oak barrels and one year at the winery - they're great for a barbecue or with lamb chops. Reserva wines are the most intensely flavoured, spending three years ageing between barrel and bottle, and with at least one of those in barrel. They are a bit pricier but are cracking with a roast.

Gran Reserva is the daddy, only made in the best years and ageing at least two years in oak barrels and three years in the bottle: awesome with a dose of lamb. You pay quite a price for a decent one, but it's an aged wine that comes to you ready to drink. Unlike some other classic winemaking regions, where you spend a packet on a bottle and then have to lay it down for 20 years, you can crack your Gran Reserva Rioja open straight away when you get home. Campillo Gran Reserva 1995 (£25, is an award-winning stonker layered with complex savoury flavours.

The variety of wines in the region mimics the range of food on offer down the famous Callé Laurel in the local town of Logrono, which serves tapas in a myriad of styles, from local salt cod, piquillo peppers and lamb, to chorizo, jamon and the local cauliflower that's so prized it even has its own appellation.

It's a fab region to visit, but if you can't get out there, Rioja also brings its food and wine to the UK at the annual Tapas Fantasticas festival, which I'm taking part in this summer. Entry is free to this year's event at Potters Fields by London's Tower Bridge, where you can taste a range of wines and tapas over three days in June, Friday 25 to Sunday 27. Put it in the diary and come say hello - and the next time you think of sampling a Rioja, break out from your normal choice and taste something more unusual. 

Cune Reserva 2005

Ondarre Graciano 2006

Vina Ijalba 'Genoli' Rioja Blanco

Dinastia Vivanco Rosado 2008

Single Vineyard 2007 Ramon Bilbao

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