Rioja is Spain’s Most Recognized Wine Region
Rioja is arguably the most important wine region is Spain, but certainly the most recognized. Like many countries where wine is deeply entrenched in culture, Spain is deeply loyal to its regional wines. Pride and passion are shown for the wines created in and around any given area of Spain. So it is curious that almost anywhere you venture in this beautiful Mediterranean country you are likely to find Rioja on the wine list of a restaurant or on the shelf at the local bottle shop.
Rioja is the economic driver of Spain’s wine industry and the wines of Rioja are exported around the globe and back again. To put it into perspective, Rioja is planted to the tune of 155,676 acres of vineyards. That is precisely 18 times the acreage of the Okanagan Valley in Canada! 400 million kilograms of grapes are harvested annually producing 380 million bottles of wine, of which 90% is red.
The 3 Sub Regions Within Rioja
The Rioja wine region is broken into three sub regions each producing distinctly styled wines due to climatic influence and vineyard exposures.
This is the northern-most sub region above the River Ebro, heavily influenced by the Atlantic Ocean and sheltered by the Sistema Iberico Mountains that flank the north and western edges. The south facing vineyards optimize growing conditions and allow for peak ripeness. The wines are subtle in aromatics, and complex and deeper in concentration than any other sub region.
Just a jump over the River Ebro (more like a small stream!) to the south. The Rioja Alta sub region is characterized by higher acidity, lower alcohol content and slightly higher aromatics. This is due to north facing vineyards and a cooling influence from the Mediterranean. The Alta region is surprisingly quite cool in relation to Alavesa and this shows in the wines that offer a leaner mouthfeel, fresher aromatics and a more subtle flavour profile.
The warmest of the three sub regions, Rioja Baja typically provides for slightly lower quality wines. It has typically flat vineyards, planted in fertile soils and very little mountain or Atlantic influence. The wines tend to be higher in alcohol and lower in acidity.
The Grape Varieties of Rioja
Rioja is almost always a blend of grape varieties. There are five regional grape varieties that have heavy plantation but international grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and even Syrah are starting find their way into the blend.
Tempranillo is the most important grape providing 75% of acreage in the region. It is capable of producing wines that can withstand long ageing periods, with a good balance of alcohol content, colour and acidity, and an honest, smooth, fruity mouthfeel that turns velvety as it ages.
Garnacha Tinta is a perfect complement to Tempranillo. It offers body, alcohol content, which means glycerin, mouthfeel and bright red fruit aromas and flavours. It is also tremendously hardy in the vineyard and very drought hardy.
Graciano is native to Rioja and incredibly rare elsewhere in the world. There are less than 5,000 acres planted here. Shown to be an excellent complement to Tempranillo in the ageing process, this grape has a promising future in Rioja, where its planted surface area has increased significantly in the last few years, although it has yet to reach pre-phylloxera figures. High acidity and good phenolic components are key characteristics.
There is evidence that the Mazuelo grape variety has been grown in Rioja for several centuries, but today it barely covers 3% of the wine region’s vineyards. It is more productive than other red varieties. It produces wines with abundant tannins, high acidity and stable colour, all of which makes it a good complement to Tempranillo for wines to be aged for long periods. In the rest of the world Mazuelo is mainly known as Carignan.
The Quality Tiers of the Rioja Wine Region
Rioja Joven Wines
Wines in their first or second year, which keep their primary freshness and fruitiness. These are drink now and gulpable styled wines. Often, the younger residents of Spain will pour a Rioja Joven on ice and top it up with coke or use these wines to create fresh Sangria.
Rioja Crianza Wines
Wines which are at least in their third year, having spent a minimum of one year in casks. Crianza’s will have a much richer mouthfeel and added savoury notes to compliment the great fruit expression of Tempranillo. Expect loads of coconut and toast on these great value wines.
Rioja Reserva Wines
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 casks. Many wineries will exceed the minimum requirements here and release tremendously complex, layered and interesting wines best served with a meal.
Rioja Gran Reserva Wines
Selected wines from exceptional vintages which have spent at least 2 years in oak casks and 3 years in the bottle. Like with Rioja Reserva, most wineries will far exceed the minimum requirement for Rioja Gran Reserva wines. Gran Reservas are built to last in the cellar for decades and will truly reward the patient cellar master. The best part is Gran Reservas are nowhere near the prices of Bordeaux, Burgundy and others. Truly great wines!
Our Top Recommended Rioja Wines