If you know Spanish wine, you've likely heard of Rioja. The Rioja region is situated in the far north of the country, and it produces some of Spain's finest wines. With over 150,000 acres (60,700ha) of vines across the varied landscape, there is a lot to explore when getting to know the Rioja wine region.
Rioja Wine Region's Terroir
The region of Rioja is situated in North Central Spain and consists of high-altitude sites, cooler continental climates in the west, and warmer sites closer to the Mediterranean. Because of the variation, Rioja is divided into three subregions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Oriental, and Rioja Alavesa. Rioja Alta is covered with terraced bush vines, sees significant rainfall with a heavy Atlantic influence, and has the largest number of top producers. It has varied soil rich in calcareous clay, known to produce wines with great aging potential. Rioja Oriental is situated on an alluvial plain, sees less rain, and has a significantly warmer climate with lower elevation vineyards. Rioja Alavesa is primarily high-elevation vineyards with chalky clay-limestone stone soils that also produce wines with greater aging potential.
Wines of the Rioja Region
The vast majority of red grapes in Rioja are tempranillo with additional plantings of garnacha. The two complement each other well in a blend with the garnacha bringing lighter, brighter fruit notes to the robust tempranillo. The powerful reds are fuller-bodied with medium-high acidity and dusty tannins with a mix of red and black fruit notes from cherry to blackberry and black plum. Many Rioja red blends are matured in new oak barrels, which impart complex secondary flavors of vanilla and smoke. During this maturation period, the tannins also become less aggressive. High quality, well-aged Rioja reds can have flavors of mushroom, dried fruit, and leather.
While the region is renowned for its tempranillo-forward reds, there are plantings of white grapes scattered throughout the hills as well. Viura (macabeo) is the primary white grape here and can be blended with malvasia, garnacha blanca, or verdejo. The white wines of Rioja can be surprisingly complex, yet they are often overlooked. Similar to the reds, when aged in barrel and bottle, they can express an array of rich aromas and flavors.
Understanding Labeling Classifications
The wine-producing region is classified as a DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada) within Spain. Rioja is one of only two wine regions to hold Spain's top quality designation, DOCa. Spain classifies its wines in four ways that are indicated on the label. These labeling terms indicate the style and quality of the wine, and each has specific aging criteria they must adhere to in order to be labeled as such. This is particularly important when choosing a wine from Rioja because the high percentage of tempranillo really transforms in the right conditions.
Wines labled Joven are the youngest wines and typically express the most fresh fruit characteristics. They are released shortly after the production, usually within a year, and have obvious primary fruit characteristics of red cherry, strawberry, and plum.
A wine labeled Crianza must be aged for at least two years, with at least one of the years in oak barrels. During the maturation in oak, the wine develops notes of vanilla, cedar, and smoke.
Reserva wines must be aged a minimum of three years, one of which must be in oak barrels with a minimum of six months in bottle prior to release. During this time, the tannins soften and fresh fruit flavors transform into concentrated and dusty dried fruit notes. These Reserva wines really reflect what Rioja reds have to offer in complexity when given the time.
Gran Reserva wines have the longest minimum aging requirements of five years total, with a minimum of two in barrel and two in bottle. Therefore, they have the most pronounced secondary and tertiary aromas of cedar, dried dark plum, leather, and mushroom.
A Wine for an Occasion
The small wine region of Rioja has outstanding conditions to grow high-quality fruit with huge aging potential. The result is a compelling red wine with a big personality. Start tasting through a few producers to get to know the region and understand how truly special it is.