Rioja, situated in Northern Spain, is best known for berry-scented, barrel-aged red wines made from Tempranillo and Garnacha grapes. It is arguably Spain’s top wine region and the most famous. The vineyards follow the shores of the Ebro River for roughly 100 kilometers between the towns of Haro and Alfaro.
In addition to Tempranillo and Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo (Carignan) are also used in red Rioja wines. A few wineries also use small quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon. White grapes on the other hand are not widely planted.
By 2017 the vineyard area was recorded at 64,215 hectares, 91 percent of which was planted with red grape varieties. Certified production of wine exceeded 250 million liters.
Rioja’s traditional classification system for aging has influenced other Spanish regions. For example the words Crianza and Reserva occasionally appear on South American wine.
All top-end red Rioja is matured in new oak barrels. With French oak being difficult to obtain, winemakers in Rioja used American oak, which was both plentiful and inexpensive. More wineries are now using a mix of American and French oak. American oak maturation is what gives more traditional Rioja red wines their distinctive notes of coconut, vanilla and sweet spice.
The amount of time that a Rioja wine spends in barrel dictates which of the official Rioja aging categories goes on the label: Joven, Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva.
Joven is Spanish for “young”, indicating that these wines should be consumed within a short period of being released; generally within two years. Joven wine spends little or no time in oak barrels so they are low in tannin and are not suited for retention. This category may also include wines which have undergone aging, but for one reason or another do not gain certifications for the higher categories.
Crianza red wines are aged for at least one year in oak, and another year in the bottle. They are released in the third year. White Crianza wines must also be aged for two years but only six months needs to be in barrels.
Reserva red wines spend a minimum of one year in oak. They cannot be sent to market until a full three years after the vintage. The white Reserva wines need only spend six months of the three years in oak.
Gran Reserva red wines must undergo a total of five years of aging with at least two of those years being spent in barrels. The white counterparts must age for at least four years, with a minimum of 12 months in casks.
In order to be more competitive internationally, many wineries now produce a premium wine that is aged entirely in French oak barrels. Because these wines are often the most expensive in the winery’s portfolio, but may only qualify as Crianza or Reserva, they are not often marketed with any emphasis on the aging classification.
In 2018, the governing body Consejo Regulador introduced three geographic categories. These can be implemented from the 2017 vintage onwards.
If producers adhere to strict guidelines they may now produce single-vineyard wines under the Viñedo Singular banner. Vines must be hand-picked and be at least 35 years old. Yields are set low and a tasting evaluation must be passed. If the fruit is not from an estate-owned site, then the winery has to have a ten-year history of buying grapes from the vineyard.
Wine labels may now also be labeled with the name of a village but the winery must be located within the village boundaries, as well as the vines.
Rioja Blanco consists of 7 to 8 percent of Rioja’s annual wine production. The region’s top white-wine grape was once Malvasia, which was used to create flavourful, oak influenced high-alcohol wines. Today, the emphasis has shifted to Viura (Macabeo) and Chardonnay, to give a slightly lighter, fresher and more international white-wine style. Other varietals that are now included in white Rioja are Garnacha Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Blanca, Verdejo and Sauvignon Blanc.
Rioja also produces some other styles of wine, the most notable of which are sparkling wines referred to as Cava. Certain parts of the region are authorized to produce Cava. A few dessert wines are also produced on a commercial scale from both red and white grape varieties.
The wines of Rioja are well worth a look. They are competitively priced and of equal quality to the better known Italian and French wines.