European wine labels can seem like they're encrypted — packed with unfamiliar jumbles of letters. Most of these are brand names and place names, but some are even more useful — regulated label terms that designate a specific style or quality rank, foreshadowing how the wine will taste. The Crianza designation on Spanish wines is a perfect example of how translating a single word can crack the wine code. Because red wines usually benefit from patient maturation, and most Spanish wines are red, Spain's wine laws recognize time spent in barrel and bottle aging as key quality factors. In their regulated hierarchy, the designations Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva on red wines certify age-worthy wines that have matured for at least two years, three years, or five years, respectively. The wines in the top two tiers can get pricey, but Crianza wines tend to be affordable, typically costing only a dollar or two more than standard wines. Thanks to their guaranteed barrel and bottle maturation, they reliably deliver more flavor depth and more aromatic complexity than standard wines from the same region, as is the case with this lovely Rioja Crianza. It is a dry, midweight red made with 100 percent tempranillo that tastes of cherries and plums, with the distinctive cedar and vanilla accents that result from spending at least one year in oak barrels.
El Coto Rioja Crianza, Rioja, Spain, $11.99. (Regularly $14.99; sale price through Jan. 28.) PLCB Item #5634