An introduction to Rioja


The River Ebro rises in the Sierra Cantabria Mountains and flows six hundred miles across the breadth of Spain through La Rioja to Zaragoza and empties into the Mediterranean south of Tarragona. In Roman times it was the border between the parts of the Iberian peninsula controlled by Roman and Carthage. Roman soldiers crossing it ignited the Second Punic War. It is the most important river in Spain, which is apt because Rioja is the most important wine of Spain.

So yes, a river runs through Rioja, but rivers run through many wine regions. Just to name a few: Bordeaux sits astride the Gironde, the multiple Loire appellations follow the long Loire River, and both Burgundy and Rhone surround the Rhone River. In fact the rivers may be the reason the wine regions are there, given that they tend to attract both commerce and people.

Two hundred and fifty miles north of Madrid, Rioja is divided into three sub-regions. By far the most important of which is the Rioja Alta (which is also the name of one of the top estates). It is the heart of Rioja. Slightly to the east and north in Basque country is Rioja Alavesa. Rioja Baja lies south and east in Navarra. landscapes of Rioja are beautiful and impressively diverse with ancient, hilltop fortress towns rising from the blanket of vineyards, overlooked by a panorama of the imposing Sierra Cantabrias and the de la Demanda ranges in the west, and those of Peñalosa and Yerga to the east.

The grape that gives Rioja its heart and soul is Tempranillo, although other grapes are also used. In that respect, it is similar to Chianti of Tuscany which is dominated by Sangiovese. They include Garnacha Tinta (aka Grenache), Graciano, and Mazuelo (aka Carignane). A typical Rioja consists of either 100% Tempranillo or a blend of 70% Tempranillo and up to 20% Garnacha, with much smaller proportions of Mazuelo and Graciano. Strangely, the DO allows wines with no Tempranillo to be labeled Rioja. Could you imagine a Chianti with no Sangiovese or a Medoc with no Cabernet? I cannot. This is unsettling, but the Rioja producers all seem unconcerned. It feels like one is staging Hamlet without the prince. Well, maybe I’ll open a bottle of Rioja and see if there really is in vino veritas.

Although Rioja is ninety percent red wine, white Rioja is also highly regarded, and rosés (rosados) are more and more common. Rioja Blanco is dominated by Viura, with small amounts of Malvasía, and Garnacha Blanca (Grenache Blanc). There are two distinct styles, one fresh and unoaked, and the other aged and oxidized. To some extent, this is also the case in the red wines. The older style was for extended oxidative aging in oak. The modern style is not to oxidize the wine. Interestingly, Rioja is one of only three regions in Europe, along with Champagne and Tavel, where it is legal to make Rose from red and white grapes blended together.

There are a number of quality levels, ranging from easy drinking Crianzas and some Reservas, to the Reservas and Gran Reservas of the top estates which may cellar and improve for decades. Much of the style of Rioja depends upon the prolonged aging in American oak to which the Gran Reservas and, to a lesser extent the Reservas, are exposed.

  • Joven: Young wines in their first or second year, which keep their primary freshness and fruitiness. May have spent a short time in oak. Ninety percent of white and rosé Riojas fall into this category.
  • Corta-Crianza, Semi-Crianza, Roble, Fermentada en Barrica, ‘X’ Meses en Barrica: Wines aged in oak for less than the twelve months required for Crianza.
  • Crianza: Wines which are at least in their third year, having spent a minimum of one year in oak barrels and a few months in the bottle. For white wines, the minimum cask aging period is 6 months.
  • Reserva: Selected wines of the best vintages with an excellent potential that have been aged for a minimum of 3 years, with at least one year in oak barrels. For white wines, the minimum aging period is 2 years, with at least 6 months in casks.
  • Gran Reserva: Selected wines from exceptional vintages which have spent at least 2 years in oak barrels and 3 years in the bottle. For white wines, the minimum aging period is 4 years, with at least one year in casks.

(For more on this, and a glossary of Spanish wine label terms see How to Read a Rioja Wine Label.)


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