Grape Expectations

Before this week, if Arizona knew more about Rioja than did, say, South Dakota, that owed less to residents' discernment than to their Spanish-language exposure: at least we know how to pronounce it. Like fajitas and frijoles, Rioja, a Spanish wine region, is pronounced with a soft j. If next week, however, Phoenix liquor stores hear fewer requests for Tequiza and more for Marqués de Arienzo, perhaps even an order for a Gran Reserva, the credit will rest with Wines From Spain, whose promotional Rioja Wine Festival stops in the Valley on Thursday, October 18.

"Rioja is an interesting area in that it has a lot of parallels to Bordeaux, both climatically and historically," says master of wine and master sommelier Doug Frost, the author of the newly released book On Wine and one of just three people in the world to hold the dual master designation. Frost will be at the festival to talk about the wines and their provenance. Not a bad deal, particularly since the festival also showcases great food, from Tarbell's, T. Cook's, Christopher's and Restaurant Hapa.

Rioja, just 200 miles from Bordeaux, is nearer the French wine region than it is to the Mediterranean; although it has been producing wines since Roman times, its modern vintages owe much to Bordeaux's influence. Nineteenth-century wine merchants came to Rioja after their Bordeaux vineyards were devastated by phylloxera. The pestilent aphid came with them, but didn't gain a foothold until new techniques and oak barrels, which also made the cross-Pyrenees trip, had changed the character of Rioja wines and brought the region to prominence.

Rioja, which harbors traditional vintners, too, is still no Bordeaux -- not necessarily a bad thing. Decent Riojas run as low as $10 a bottle: not much more than Tequiza, and a sight better.