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Classification system of Rioja wines

We have to answer to this question very often during our winery tours in Rioja region. Wine is a highly regulated sector in the European Union and in the case of Spain the regulations are established at regional level by the “Consejos reguladores” or regulatory bodies. In the case of Rioja this is the Cnsejor Regulador del vino de Rioja, which establishes the regulation for Rioja wines on things like which varieties can be planted, maximum yield per acre permitted and so forth.

The Consejo establishes  a classification system for Rioja wines which is based on the criteria of aging.

The first level of wines in Rioja according to the aging criteria is the Guarantee of origin (we will not speak about quality since at any of the levels we will describe the quality of the wines can be excellent, very good, etc.).

The guarantee of origin in a label of Rioja wine indicates that the grapes come from Rioja region and the wines have been produced here. These wines do normally spend small or no time in oak barrels. They are also normally very fruity. These wines, in the Rioja Alavesa sub-region have been traditionally produced following the carbonic maceration process.

There are exceptions to this idea of small or no aging time for these wines. This would apply to the cases in which the oenologist may decide to be creative and make a wine which does not fall into any of the categories we will describe. In these circumstances the wines are included in the guarantee of origin label.

When these wines are actually young and with no oak aging, the recommended drinking time is no later than the second year after harvesting.

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Crianza

Crianza means literally oak-aged wines. In Spain a “vino con crianza” refers to a wine that has been matured in oak barrels. However, in most Spanish wine regions crianza also refers to a specific type of wine. In the case of the Rioja wine producing region Crianza is applied to wines which mature for at least 2 years at the winery before being released to the market. Part of this time is to be spent in oak barrels, part in the bottle.

A different label applies to this wines (different colour and with the Crianza word written on them). Crianza wines are very interesting in the sense that they retain freshness but they have also evolved and have developed more complex aromas and flavors derived from the oak aging process.

A third level of wines within the Rioja regulation for wines is the Reserva wine. In the case of these “labels” the wines have to spend a minimum of 3 years before they are launched to the market. A minimum of 1 full year is to be spent in oak barrel. This would apply to red wines. In the case of white wines the time before being released to the market is 2 years, of which at least 6 months are to be spent in oak.

A final category is Gran Reserva. These wines need to spend at least 5 years before they reach the market. Out of these 5 years, 2 at least are to be spent in oak barrel. In the case of white wines, the time before they can be released to the market is 4 years, of which 6 months would apply to oak barrel aging.

A good Gran Reserva from Rioja should be a wine where there is a perfect balance between oak and fruit. A wine that would persist and stay in your mouth for a long time. Full character and the longest aging potential amongst all the wines described.

The price of the wines described above varies considerably. The price is a price that depends on many items: yield at the vineyard, the type of oak being used, the brand itself, when the winery was built, market demand for a given wine, etc. It is also normal that wines in Gran Reserva or Reserva level are more expensive than Crianza for instance. The longer a wine is kept in the winery the more expensive it should be as a general rule. We say this because time implies more cost of capital, more work performed, a barrel that would not be used normally for any other wines, etc.

As we have mentioned, this regulation is part of the Control Board of the Rioja denomination. There are however many wineries which decide to follow for certain wines their own aging process.

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