Rioja Wine - All You Need To Know!
La Rioja is probably the most important and famous wine region of Spain. Although most noted for its red wines, it also produces some important white and rose wines. As an area, it is subdivided into 3 smaller regions – Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental, formerly known as Rioja Baja. For the first two areas, the main red grape variety is Tempranillo which flourishes there, whereas the Rioja Oriental still produces Tempranillo grapes but they will often be blended with other grape varieties such as Garnacha, Graciano, Mazuelo (the local name for Carignan) in addition to Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Rioja Alta is the largest of the three regions in terms of area under vine. Sheltered from the Atlantic Ocean by the Cantabrian Mountains, the cooler climate makes for the production of top quality fruit. Neighbouring Rioja Alavesa has similar benefits while the more easterly and southerly Rioja Oriental is both hotter and flatter and although the wines tend to be fuller flavoured and tannic, they often lack the finesse of their more northerly cousins.
For red wines, the simple versions tend to be fruity and very easy drinking, often labelled as Joven (young) or sin Crianza (without barrel ageing). The next stage for the classical wines is Crianza when the wines have spent a year in barrel and a year in bottle. Reserva wines are more serious and generally used to be made in the better vintages. In order to keep up with demand, some of the bigger wineries tend to make these every year and not always offer the finest quality. Like Crianza they must spend 3 years between barrel and bottle before sale of which 12 months must be in barrel. Lastly, Gran Reserva is for wines from the best vintages and they will stay 2 years in barrel and 3 in bottle. Often they have more bottle ageing than this. Again, the more commercial producers will make them on an annual basis.
Moving away from this classification system, there has been a move to a more modern style of winemaking where time in barrel is not decided by old laws but rather than when the winemaker decides that time in barrel or bottle is sufficient. This way wines that have a greater fruit flavour can be obtained that have more freshness in both the bouquet and also on the palate. Another more modern development is the use of French oak barrels rather than American oak. The grain on French oak is tighter and doesn’t allow for as much oxygenation as American oak. It doesn’t have that pungent vanilla aroma either but one thing it does have is a larger price tag - French oak costs almost double American oak.
The final change in wines has been a move away from regular blends from all of the Bodegas vineyards to single vineyard wines that have a greater expression of terroir. There are some superb examples out there but perhaps my favourite is the San Vicente from Sierra Cantabria which is not only a single vineyard wine but also is made from the Tempranillo Peludo (the hairy Tempranillo) which is an older variety of grape that is naturally low cropping and gives incredible quality fruit albeit in small quantities.
Turning away from red wines, there are some excellent white and rose wines to be had in all three regions and for everyday drinking with and without food, they take some beating. Gone are the days of oxidised, dull wines that were the norm in the region’s bars and restaurants and nowadays they are, in general, fresh and vibrant whites with crisp acidity and bright, fruity aromas with plenty of berry flavours. There are some top end whites that have been barrel fermented but in a world full of very high quality white wines, I prefer to stay away from these in favour of more classical examples.