Rioja wines - A complete guide
Rioja is today Spain´s most famous wine region. Rioja (or “Rioha”, the way Rioja would be pronounced in English) is the first name that will come up to any wine lover´s name when they think about Spain. Why is this the case? Well, Rioja wines offer excellent value for money and consistent quality.
What we have said about foreigners would also apply to Spaniards if they are asked to name one wine region. They may prefer wine from another wine region in Spain (there are over 60 wine regions in Spain!) but most people asked would still refer to Rioja as their first option.
What is Rioja wine?
Rioja wine is the wine produced within the limits of the wine region with the same name in Northern Spain. The wine produced outside this region cannot be named nor label as Rioja. Regulations are in place to define not just the are where Rioja wines are produced, but also from which grapes, the yield per vine, viticulture practices, as well as winemaking practices. We cover all these in a second. If you would like to learn more about the specific Terroir of Rioja wines go to this article.
Where is Rioja wine produced?
The wine producing region is divided into 3 sub-regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental (this name was recently changed from the name Rioja Baja) . Rioja Alavesa is located North of the Ebro river and coincides with the part of Rioja which belongs to the Spanish Basque Country. Rioja Baja is located southeast of Logrono, whilst Rija Alta is located from Logroño to Haro, South of the Ebro river.
In order to add to this complex reality, the wine producing region of Rioja is spread in 3 administrative regions of Spain: Navarre, Rioja and Basque country
Are all Rioja wines tempranillo?
Well, despite this is sometimes this is not the case. Tempranillo is the most commonly planted grape in Rioja (somewhere around 75%) but it gets blended in nearly all cases with other grapes and it is rare to find a pure 100% tempranillo.
We have heard sometimes wine lovers saying, “The thing about Spanish wines is that it is all about Tempranillo”. This is very far from the truth, in the same way as not all wine from France is Cabernet. But since lots of Tempranillo is planted in Rioja and Rioja is Spain´s most famous region, the association is made. But, believe it or not, not all people from Spain sleep siesta either!
Types of wines in Rioja
Rioja is not just about red wines. White wines, rosé wines, sweet wines, and also sparkling wines are produced in this region. This does not however prevent the type of wine that Rioja is famous for is red wine. And, as a matter of fact, red wines made from Tempranillo grape.
As we have mentioned above, most of the wine in the Rioja wine region is red (around 90% of all wine produced) The production of Rosé is minimal, whilst white wines cover for almost the remaining amount..
Grapes used in Rioja wines
The region is mainly known for Tempranillo. This association is so strong that sometimes Rioja equals to Tempranillo in the minds of many wine consumers.
Tempranillo is Rioja´s main grape and most wines are blended with smaller amounts of Garnache, Graciano and Mazuelo grape. If you are interested in this topic we recommend this article on Spanish grape varieties.
Most white wines are produced with Viura Macabeo) though other grape varietals can be used such as verdejo or malvasia (normally blended in very small amounts). Viura can produce complex white wines
Rioja has improved a lot in recent years in everything connected to grape selection and the attention and care put on the vineyard. Wines follow today longer maceration periods to extract more tannins. The result is wines with deeper aromas and more concentrated flavors.
Regulation and wine classification in Rioja
Rioja is mainly known for its red wines. Rioja is also well-known for having wines that age for a long time. Tempranillo is Rioja´s main grape and most wines are blended with smaller amounts of Garnache, Graciano and Mazuelo grape. More information on the classification system of wine in Rioja can be found here.
Wines in Rioja are controlled by the local DOC Rioja. (Denominación de Origen controlada Rioja) Most wine regions in Spain are Dos. Rioja is a DOC. The extra “C” implies that if a winery wants to label its wines as Rioja it can only do that. No wine from that winery could be old without the label.
The DOC permits 4 different types or categories of wine: young or Joven (we will comment in a second about this category), Crianza, Reserva and gran reserva. Each of these categories needs to comply with specific times they need to stay at the winery before they can be released to the market.
Crianza Rioja wine. These wines need to stay at least 2 years before they are released to the market. They must stay at least one year aging in an oak barrel (the remaining year would be in the bottle)
Reserva Rioja wines. They must stay at least 3 years in the winery and one of these must be aging in oak barrel.
Gran Reserva: at least 24 months in oak barrel and at least 48 months in the winery before they are released to the market.
The category of young rioja wine is not only for young wines. Many winemakers decide to produce wines that may not comply with any of the other categories of Crianza, Reserva or gran reserva. The winery may even not want to put some of the wines under any of the categories. This normally applies to “Author wines” They are wines in which the winemaker does not want to be constrained by the regulation and to do so the winery has to use the label traditionally used in the past for young wines.
History of the wines in Rioja
Wine production in this wine region dates back to the Roman times. This is no surprise as it is the same case in many other wine producing regions in Europe. There is however more evidence about the role of Rioja in wine from the Middle ages. The wine from Rioja we know today has very little in common with the wines produced those days. Big changes started during the XIX century. The philloxera had impacted the vineyards in France and a few members of the local Riojan Aristocracy started to incorporate wine production methods from Bordeaux in France. France had a very important wine deficit due to the plague and French wine makers found in Rioja, its soils and wines a perfect suit to produce the elegant wines they needed in Bordeaux. Those were years of change in Rioja. New production techniques were applied and the region´s economy expanded… but then the philloxera plague landed in Rioja and most of what was achieved in terms of economic development stopped.
During most of the 20th century Rioja went through ups and downs (that would not only apply to Rioja but to Spain in general terms). The last 20 or 25 years of the XX Century witnessed an extraordinary development in the region. New wineries were established, important efforts were made with investments in both the vineyards and the wineries. A new generation of young managers and wine makers brought new energies to the region and the outcome of all this is Rioja´s current reputation. You can find more information on the history of wine in Rioja in this post.
Rioja wine food pairing
Rioja reds are an excellent match with roasted meat (mainly with lamb). Rioja can also be a perfect match for pork and the young Rioja go hand in hand with tapas dishes that include iberico ham or chorizo (younger Rioja can take on some spicy dishes (if not too spicy!)
Price of Rioja wines
A conversation about price of wine is not an easy task. Ever! The price of wine varies from country to country due to local taxes or actual market reality.
The price for wines in the Rioja wine region vary a lot from wine to wine. Young wines and crianza wines can be found at very reasonable prices. The prices for Reservas and Gran Reservas increase considerably, whilst the most fancy, “author wines” can reach stratospheric prices altogether.