The Wines of Rioja Spain

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.

Aging Categories

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

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

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

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

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.

Site-Based Classifications

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.

White Wines

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.

Other Styles

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.

Sláinte mhaith

The Wines of Spain

Spain seems to fly under the radar compared to neighbouring France when it comes to wine notoriety. Spain is actually the third largest wine producer in the world and has the most land dedicated to vineyards, having over a million acres. Spanish wines range from great value to the highly prestigious.

There are over 60 different regional districts producing everything from light and zesty Albariño to inky black Monastrell.

Spain consists of 7 distinct climate regions which are described as follows:

Northwest “Green” Spain

Galicia is the only sub-region where lush green valleys are plentiful and the common cuisine includes lots of fresh fish. Albariño is the champion grape of the sub-region called Rias Baixas (REE-us BYE-shus), which skirts the coast. The area specializes in zesty white wines and a few aromatic red wines made with Mencía (men-THI-yah) grapes.

Mediterranean Coast

The coast is a very diverse macro-region that contains the sub-regions of Valencia, Catalonia and Murcia. Catalonia is known for Cava (Spanish sparkling wine) and a highly acclaimed red wine sub-zone, Priorat. Valencia and Murcia are warmer growing regions that produce a bulk of value wines from deep red Monastrell to aromatic white Malvasia and the widely planted Airén.

Ebro River Valley

The sub regions of La Rioja and Navarra are found in the Ebro River Valley. Here, Tempranillo is king and long-standing bodegas such as Lopez de Heredia and Marques de Murrieta make age-worthy wines. Navarra is known mostly for rosado (rosé) wine made with the Garnacha (aka Grenache) grape. The region also produces oak-aged white wines of Viura (Macabeo). In Basque country, zesty white wines called Txakoli (pronounced “CHAK-o-li”) are common.

Duero River Valley

The Duero River is the same river as the Douro in Portugal. This region is notable for the minerally white wine, Verdejo, of Rueda and the bold red wines of Toro, Ribera del Duero and Leon. The wine grape of this region is Tempranillo and in Toro it’s called Tinta de Toro, where it is considered to be a slight mutation of the Tempranillo grape.

Central Plateau

The central plateau or Meseta Central is the inner plateau of Spain which is home to the capital city, Madrid. Some of the best value red wines of Spain can be found here made of Garnacha, Tempranillo and even the rare, Petit Verdot.

Andalucía

Andalucía is a very hot and dry region famous for Sherry.  The even hotter, Montilla-Moriles produces fortified dessert wines that are called PX. An aged PX, such as those from Bodegas Toro Abala, have similar nutty-date flavors like Tawny Port.

The Islands (includes The Canary Islands)

The Islands of Spain offer a wide range of wines from Listan Negro-based reds to dessert wines made with Moscatel. The volcanic soils of the Canary Islands add a gritty taste of rustic minerality. Currently, there are very few exporters of the limited wines of the Islands of Spain although you can find a few from places like Tenerife.

My personal favourite Spanish wines include the red wines of Rioja, which are typically developed from the Tempranillo grape and primarily blended with the Garnacha grape.

Rioja wines are classified by the amount of time spent aging in barrels and bottles before they are offered for sale.  The classifications are legal terms that indicate the quality level and aging requirements.

Crianza wines are aged in oak barrels for a minimum of one year.  They then must be bottled a few months before being available for sale.

A Reserva wine must be oaked for a minimum of a year followed by at least 2 years in the bottle before being sold.

Lastly, Gran Reserva wines are made only with the best grapes, which have been hand-picked.  These wines must spend a minimum of 2 years in an oak barrel with an additional 3 years in the bottle before being sold.

Generally speaking, Rioja wines have a much better price point than similar quality wines from other countries.  Spain produces excellent wines at an affordable price and are well worth considering the next time you are shopping for wine.

Sláinte mhaith