Regional focus: Rioja

Posted by Christopher Gifford on

An Introduction to Rioja

Rioja's climate can be quite different to the rest of Spain. The Sierra de Cantabria mountain range provides shelter from the cold winds coming in off. This gives the region extended periods of warm sunshine during the summer, while Rioja also manages to avoid bad frosts which can be common in the more central and southern parts of Spain.

Grapes from the three main sub-regions, Rioja Alta, Rioja Oriental, and Rioja Alavesa are often blended together, but you'll often see Rioja Alta or Alavesa on the bottle where wines are made from that region alone.

Rioja Alta

Rioja Alta is on the west of the region and is higher up than the other sub-regions. Best known for its classic, old-world style. In this case, the higher altitude means a slightly shorter grape-growing season, which produces brighter and lighter wines.

Rioja Alavesa

Rioja Alavesa is in Basque Country, on the northern bank of the River Ebro. While the climate is similar to Rioja Alavesa, the wines tend to have more body and a greater level of acidity. 

The history 

Wine in Rioja dates back to the Romans (and perhaps before to the Phoenicians). However, winemaking traditions remained unchanged, largely, until the mid-19th century when the Bordelais influence began to filter in, examples being oak barrels used to store and age the wine.

Grapes grown in Rioja

Red grapes account for about 90% of plantings, with white grapes making up the remaining 10%. That said, whites from Rioja are really gaining in popularity.

Since 1925, the traditional varieties allowed by Rioja regulations are as follows. 

The reds

  • Tempranillo
  • Garnacha tinta (Grenache)
  • Mazuelo (or Carignan/Cariñena)
  • Graciano

The whites

  • Viura (Macabeo)
  • Malvasia 
  • Garnacha blanca.

However, since 2007, other native and 'foreign' grapes varieties have been allowed, including Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Verdejo. 

Wine styles from Rioja

Rioja reds are typically ripe with bright red fruit which comes from the most commonly planted Tempranillo, and underpinned with smooth tannin, spice and oak. In fact, the vanilla profile from oak ageing inn 225 litre barriques has really become a distinct and defining characteristic of many Rioja wines. 

When it comes to oak and bottle ageing, there are some specific (and non specific classifications) and rules about how long the wine must spend in oak barrels and in bottle before being released to the market.

  • Joven - or ‘young’ wine means there's little, if any ageing and they may or may not have spent some time in oak. They're destined for shop shelves within a year of bottling. Many producers won't even bother putting 'Joven' on the label. Drink these young while they're fresh and bright.
  • Crianza - must be aged for two years in oak and bottle, with a minimum of one year in oak barrels. 
  • Reserva By law, these must be aged for at least three years; with a  minimum of one year in oak and the rest in the bottle. Because the Bodegas need to keep the wine ageing for three years, it needs to sufficiently well made that it will improve in that time and it's a long time to wait before they can be paid! Now, 'reserva' isn't actually synonymous with quality, though with good producers, it often is.
  • Gran Reserva These are made from only in the best years (though they're becoming more commonplace). To label a wine a "Gran Reserva', they have to be aged for at least five years, which should include at least two years in oak barriques. 

There are similar rules for whites, and over the last few years it has been the white and rosé wines which are really making names for themselves, as winemakers look to set new trends and styles in what is a very classic region.

Furthermore, winemakers like Gonzalo Gonzalo are eschewing these strict rules and going back to basics with wines like Gran Cerdo, which sees no oak at all. Browse this and other wines from Rioja.


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