In the good times, wine is a cultured pleasure, an intimate exploration of nature's diversity through the prism of agricultural skills.
In times of crisis, by contrast, it’s a salve: the glass that cheers and brings perspective, scattering the shadows for an hour or two.
I’m writing this on a languid Spanish train, ambling its way from cloudy Basque country down to the sunlit haze of Barcelona. Spain is in crisis: one in five workers has no job, a million households have no earned income – and sales of cheap chicken and frozen fish (20% cheaper than fresh) are soaring.
Not only that, but for the first time anyone can remember, take-home wine sales have eclipsed those in Spain’s bars and restaurants.
You might think this would be bad news for Spain’s leading DO, and that consumers would be scrabbling around for bargain bottles of Valdepeñas and Yecla. Not so.
During the crisis, Rioja’s market share in Spain has actually risen – to close to 40%, vastly outpacing its nearest rival, the often ambitiously priced Ribera del Duero (just under 9 per cent).
In times of crisis, it seems, you need a trusted name, and Rioja certainly has that. No one in the region seemed overly perturbed by the fact that Spain has recently had to concede joint rights to the use of the name La Rioja to Argentina (Spain is appealing the decision).
Rioja may not be the most widely recognized name of origin on international markets, but (according to Wine Intelligence data) it performs better at translating recognition into purchase than any other region. In the UK, for example, which is Rioja’s most important export market, half of those who know the name actually buy the wine.
The best that Bordeaux can manage is 30 per cent, Champagne 23 per cent and Chianti 20 per cent.
There’s something more intangible about Rioja which makes it the ideal crisis wine, though. No red wine glows quite like Rioja does, making it the perfect liquid counterpart to the candle in the darkness.
That’s partly a function of its ageing protocols, so well suited to rounding out any hard edges. Indeed Tempranillo grown in this quiet, mild, Northern Spanish valley has fewer edges of any sort than most wines.
The variety’s skin, for example, is thinner when grown here than when grown in Ribera del Duero or Toro.
Its glow is also due to regional blending skills: very much a vibrant Rioja tradition, even if evolution is moving the region slowly in the opposite direction. Blending here means not only using terroir to create style, but sculpting wines in time, too.
And it’s also due to the gentle, low-acid balance to the fruit translating into high-level drinkability.
The average regional pH for vintages from 2000 to 2009 in Rioja varied from 3.61 to 3.72, and total acidity (expressed in tartaric acid) from a languid 4.99 to an unchallenging 5.79.
Ok, they’re only figures, but put that together with everything else and you have the wine-drinking equivalent of the gaze in a labrador’s eyes.
Written by Andrew Jefford