Rioja is landlocked and located in North Central Spain. It has long been thought of as one of Spain's best wine regions, being one of only two regions in Spain to be elevated to the DOCa classification. This region is particularly famous for it's oak aged reds and has earnt itself a strong following of Rioja fans. So what does Rioja have up its sleeve to make it so good?
Located in a valley along the Ebro River, Rioja is protected by the Sierra Cantabria - a small but very effective mountain range that stops the clouds in their tracks. This mountainous geography gives Rioja the perfect climate for excellent grape growing, but within this there are important distinctions and due to these distinctions, the region has been split into 3 areas:
Rioja Oriental: The eastern most area (hence the name) has over 24,000 hectares under vine and is generally cultivated under smaller, family-owned wineries and co-operatives. The terrain is largely flat and expansive and it has a semi-arid Mediterranean climate. This sub-region has flip-flopped on it's choice of grape variety. Originally planting mostly Garnacha, in the 1980s Tempranillo was the grape of choice as it was considered easier to sell. but in most recent years there has been a strong movement to protect Garnacha and prove that the grape can produce wines of incredible concentration and potency. Wines from this region tend to be more fruit-forward and the wines are generally designed to be drunk younger.
Rioja Alta: This is the most western portion of Rioja, with most of the vineyards lying south of the Ebro River. The vineyards in this area are planted at a higher altitude than that in Rioja Oriental which means that the wines have well balanced acidity and moderate alcohol levels. Tempranillo has thrived in these conditions and the wines have an emphasis on elegance. These wines tend to age very well, firstly in oak barrels and then in the bottle.
Rioja Alavesa: This area is the smallest and the furthest north of the three sub-regions of Rioja. It is also the closest to the Atlantic Ocean and therefore the one most influenced by its cooling effects. As in Rioja Alta, many of the vineyards sit at higher altitudes (400-1,200m) and the soil on the slopes is rich in chalky clay and limestone. This results in wines that are characterful and rich with moderate acid levels. These wines are also celebrated for their aging potential.
Wine from Rioja is often, but not always, a blend. But, when it comes to red Riojas there is one king - Tempranillo. It makes up over 87% of all plantings in the region, Tempranillo is the backbone that the Rioja name and identity has been built on.
'Temprano' is Spanish for 'early' and this is where the name Tempranillo comes from. Ripening earlier than other native grapes in Spain, Tempranillo is also one of the easiest to identify by its jagged, deep-lobbed leaves. To top it off, if you are a fan of autumn colours, the leaves turn a beautiful bright red in the later months which is unusual with grape vines.
Tempranillo tends to produce well balanced wines with a smooth mouthfeel, lifting acidity and persistent fruit flavours. In it's youth it can be very easy drinking, whilst with age (particularly in oak) it can become complex.
The other grape varieties that are authorised for red wine in this area are Garnacha Tinta, Graciano, Mazuelo and Maturana Tinta. These are all used to add to the Rioja blend which will vary from wine to wine.
The red wines of Rioja follow a classification system that has four levels. Knowing what these mean can
be helpful in picking a bottle as they are always on the label and directly correlate to some of the processes used in wine making.
Genérico: This is your basic level which only guarantees the wine's vintage and origin. Usually sold the first or second year after harvest, around 40% of Rioja wines fall under this category and tend to be fruity with fresh acidity. A perfect easy drinking style of wine.
Crianza: The rules get a bit tighter if you want to put Crianza on the label. Your wine must spend a minimum of one year in oak and then another few months in the bottle, prior to release. Because of this, it tends to be fuller bodied and shows notes of red and black fruit.
Reserva: For these wines, the best grapes are picked from the harvest and it can only be allocated to wines that are made in what are deemed years with a good growing season. They also must age for a minimum of three years, with at least one in oak. Therefore, these wines will show significant signs of aging, having more subtle fresh fruit flavours and more dominant notes of dried fruit.
Gran Reserva: The creme de la creme of Rioja wines - these are only produced in years with an exceptional growing season and using the top notch grapes from the harvest. They must age in oak for 2 years and then spend at least 3 years in their bottle before release. This gives these wines a great tannic structure and ageing potential.
We have a lot to thank Rioja for: their amazing wines, the beautiful landscape and the fairly straightforward classification system! Knowing what you fancy will definitely help with deciphering the label, just look out for the above words (if you can't see it then it will be Genérico).
There is so much more to Rioja that we will explore throughout the month! Keep an eye on our newsletter and social media to find out more.