For many, no wine region dominates the world of Spanish wine more than the Rioja wine region. However, it is not one big homogeneous area. The vineyards cover around 157000 acres over a 75 mile area, along the banks of the Ebro River, (MacNeil 433). Rioja is one of the most popular European wine regions to visit.
The wine is also not one note. Rich and enticing white and rosé wine can be found across the Rioja wine region, but it is unquestionably dominated by red wine. More specifically, red wine made primarily, or entirely, of Tempranillo grapes. These really are a near ubiquitous feature in not just Rioja wine but Spanish wine in general.
This article will introduce you to the history of this world-famous Rioja wine region, as well as the distinct areas, grapes and ageing processes for the wines found within.
Rioja Wine – The History
You will sometimes see Rioja dubbed ‘Spain’s Bordeaux’, (MacNeil 433). Indeed, this is due to the Tempranillo led red wines and the wine-making practices that go into them. They began by ageing these grapes in large French oak casks. A costly process, but one in which the results were fantastic. As time went on they looked to put their own stamp on things though, utilising smaller oak casks from the Americas.
Rioja wine boomed as the French market was hit by phylloxera, but tough times were ahead for the Spanish. Phylloxera, World War 1, the Spanish Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II each took their toll on Spanish winemakers. A non-stop barrage of bad times caused widespread hunger throughout Spain, which led to the government forcing winemakers in Rioja to rip up their vines to plant wheat instead. Rioja wine was certainly hitting a low-point in its history.
However, this gave way to a new dawn for Rioja wine. The 1970s saw some fabled vintages in Rioja. Then, with financial stability coming back in the 1980s more investment flooded into Spanish wine. Rioja was one of the regions to benefit.
Rioja Wine – Obsessed with Oak
Bodegas modernised and grew. Yet, the penchant for ageing in oak never left. Small oak barrels are the region’s trademark and are still used today. Though there are differences in opinions on exactly how it should be utilised, (MacNeil 435).
The first are an ever shrinking number of traditionalists. These opt for large older American oak barrels. This imparts softer aromas from the oak. However, they counteract this by ageing it for a far greater amount of time. They are mellow, earthy wines with faint aromas of vanilla.
Modernists do the exact opposite. They want brand new French oak barrels. These instil strong oak aromas on the wine, but are aged for a significantly shorter time, (on the whole). These are stronger on the fruit, with a more dramatically oaked style.
Whether it is the traditional or the modern approach the use of oak will never leave. It is truly an integral part of Spanish winemaking. The fact that there are over 1.3 million barrels in the Rioja region is a testament to that fact.
Not only this, but the sheer time of ageing is greater in Rioja than in many other regions. California and Bordeaux look to age reds for up to 2 years, but Rioja commonly age for 3 to 6 years. Marqués de Murrieta showcases an extreme example, but one that illustrates that emphasis on oak to Rioja. The Marqués de Murrieta Gran Reserva 1942 was only made available to the public in 1983, (MacNeil 436). Good things come to those who wait I suppose!
Rioja Wine – The Regions
Rioja as a region has found DOCa status. The highest status you can have in Spanish wine. It is isolated from much of the moderating weather influences of the rest of the area.
Small mountain ranges and the outlying Cantabrian Mountains manage to protect from the harsh Northern minds and cooling influence of the sea, (as Rioja is only around 60 miles inland). This could cause the grapes to overheat, but thankfully Rioja sits on a vast plateau around 1500m above sea level to help mitigate against the often hot Mediterranean climate of Northern Spain.
Now, let’s look at the 3 distinct regions within Rioja. Each is unique in climate and the style of wines that they produce. Logroño is the main city of the Rioja region and it is by this city that you will find the Rioja Alavesa region, the coolest of Rioja’s three regions. The vines here are in the foothills of the Cantabrian Mountains and are often the lightest and most finessed wines in the whole of Rioja.
Next is Rioja Alta. This is the largest of the three regions and lies to the south of the Ebro River, generally between 500 and 800 metres above sea level. Alta is not dissimilar to Alavesa. The climate is moderated by altitude and partially by coastal breezes and the grapes produce wines on the lighter side of Rioja.
The most distinct region is Baja. This area has more of a typical Mediterranean climate. It is hotter, dryer and this leads to wines that are generally less acidic and higher in alcohol.
Rioja Wine – The Grapes
It is impossible not to mention Tempranillo. It is an early ripening grape, ‘temprano’ meaning ‘early’ in Spanish. It is also incredibly versatile which is why it is harnessed so excellently in Rioja. Depending on terroir, climatic influences and winemaking practices, Tempranillo could either be powerful, dark and earthy, or surprisingly light and fruit forward. Now, while Tempranillo often makes up most, or all, of a Rioja it is not the only grape which has found success here.
Garnacha, (known as Grenache outside of Spain), is also a vital part of the world of Rioja wine. It is often used to instil a juicy quality in blends and add further body to red wines. It has also found great success making light rosé wines.
Graciano is another important red grape variety, although it is often simply a tiny fraction, (approximately 1%), of Rioja red wine blends. This is because it is hard to grow. Graciano is deeply intense in colour, flavour and tannin which can add great power and ageing potential to wines.
It could be easy to view Rioja as a red wine region, but this is not the case. White Rioja wines are deeply versatile and account for around 10% of all Rioja wines. They lean towards a fresh and crisp style, but you’re never too far from oak and you can find more traditional white Rioja which has spent a long time in oak.
Expect to find Chardonnay, Grenache Blanc and Tempranillo Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo as blending partners throughout white Rioja. Yet, Viura is the white grape that dominates white Rioja. Elsewhere, you’ll see it referred to as Macabeo. It has notes of citrus fruits and often melon, which transform into notes of honey and nuts when they’ve spent time in oak.
Rioja Wine – The Ageing Process
You will often see four key terms applied to wines in Rioja. They are Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. Each denotes a specific amount of time which the wine must be aged for in order to be classified as one of these four terms. However, these terms vary for both red and white wine. It is also worth mentioning that these are simply minimum requirements. Often, as we’ve seen, Rioja winemakers will opt to age the wine for a far greater period of time.
Let’s start with Crianza. These are the second youngest of the four, They’re easy drinking and full of earth, vanilla and red fruit flavours, especially cherry. They’re made from good grapes, but a vineyard would not use their best grapes for Crianza wines. For red wines they require a minimum 24 months ageing, with 6 months in oak. For white this goes down to 18 and 6 months respectively.
The next is Reserva. These will be superior grapes on premium sites in the best years, with flavours that are more concentrated. All Reservas aren’t intensely flavoured, the oak can lend a subtlety and suppleness with hints of leather and dried leavers. For red wines Reservas are aged for at least 36 months, with 12 in oak. This goes down to 24 months ageing and 6 in oak for white Reserva wines.
Finally, is Gran Reserva. They’re rare and only come from the very best vineyards on a perfect year. Gran Reserva wines are only about 1-10% of all wines produced. They’re elegant and complex creations with rich and nuanced flavours that stem from a really extended ageing period. Red Gran Reserva will be aged for 60 months, with 18 months in oak. Then, 48 months ageing and 6 in oak for white wine.
That’s the ins and outs of Rioja. Next time you’re out for tapas you’ll be able to pick the perfect Rioja for you! From the fresh and fruit forward wines of Alvesa to the strong alcoholic wines of Alta. From the lighter fruity Crianza, to the rarified Gran Reserva.
Be sure to take a look at our collection of Spanish wines, (don’t worry there are some Rioja wines in there)! We’re sure with the guidance above, you’re sure to find a wine to fit your needs.
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MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. Workman Publishing Company, 2015.
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