Rioja is a brilliant wine region located in Northern Spain. It surrounds the River Ebro and is further divided into 3 main areas. These are Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja.
Although many people believe only red wine is produced in Rioja it is actually also home to some wonderful white and rosé wines. Equally, it is only of the permitted areas for Cava production. Historically, the area has a strong connection with monks and the area is part of the world-famous Camino de Santiago walk. The capital of La Rioja is Logroño, a brilliant city for drinking wine and eating Pinchos, small tapas like snacks that can be found in most of the bars. They are delicious and perfect with a glass of Rioja wine.
Haro, a smaller town easily reached by train, is another fantastic location. It is the perfect place for visiting wineries and is where many of the big names are located including Muga, La Rioja Alta and López de Heredia Viña Tondonia.
The Areas of Rioja.
There are big climatic differences between the areas in Rioja brought about by the differing Atlantic and Mediterranean influence.
This area has the largest influence from the Atlantic climate as it is the furthest north above the River Ebro. It is the smallest area and is sub-divided into two parts. Unlike, the two other areas the Rioja Alavesa is governed by the Basque Country. Generally, the vineyards are located at higher altitudes. This, combined with the stronger Atlantic influence, means that temperatures are often cooler. Therefore, the grapes can retain higher levels of acidity adding to the ageing potential and elegance of the wines.
This is the best-known area of the three. It is located south of the River Ebro and is the furthest west. Generally, Rioja Alta is still much cooler than Rioja Baja which is further inland to the East. The town of Haro is situated in the centre of the area making it a great place to visit and to taste. Again, higher altitudes play a role in maintaining higher levels of acidity adding to the structure of the wine. Long periods of ageing and time in oak barrel add to the complexity of the wines produced in this area.
Known to be the warmest of the three, Rioja Baja is dominated by Garnacha (Grenache) which suits these conditions more than Tempranillo. Unlike Alta (meaning high), Baja translates as ‘low’, relating to the Altitude of the area. The name of Rioja Baja has recently been changed to Rioja Oriental to improve the poorer reputation it has established over the years. It is the largest planted area and produces the most wine. It is very different climatically to the other two areas. The conditions are far warmer and drier meaning the grapes can often develop more cooked and jammy fruit flavours and can lose acidity fast. Garnacha suits these warm areas and is generally planted in the hottest locations.
Similar to Bordeaux, the wines from Rioja are often produced from a blend of grape varieties. There are four main red grape varieties (Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano) and a plethora of other red and white grapes grown. International grape varieties are on the rise with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc being the most popular.
Tempranillo is the star of Rioja. This red grape variety is used in the majority of blends. It ripens earlier than Garnacha and this relates to its name, meaning ‘little, early one’. The grapes have thick black skins meaning the resulting wines are deeply coloured. The grapes produce a range of flavours from red to black fruits depending on the growing conditions. Tempranillo suits oak. Oak ageing can highlight the chocolate, plum and fig characters and add toasty, vanilla notes.
This is also very important in the production of Rioja. The majority of plantings are located in the warmest, low altitude area of Rioja Baja (now Rioja Oriental). It is used for both red and rosé wine production. Its thin skins mean it produces light coloured wines which can show signs of age and oxidation quickly.
Better known as Carignan in France, Mazuelo is a fantastic grape variety. It has a bold often harsh structure with incredibly high tannins and body. It suits dry soils and a warm climate in order to fully ripen.
This ingenious Spanish grape variety is used to add perfume to the blend. It ages well developing complex tertiary flavours whilst retaining floral violet and minty notes.
This is the most important white grape variety grown. It produces a high yield so can be an attractive grape to grow for wine producers. The wines can range from over-produced and rather neutral to exciting, fresh and floral. Traditionally, the white wines from Rioja were subjected to over ‘oaking’. This created wines with strong flavours of vanilla and toast. Many producers are using more controlled oak practices which can highlight the grapes natural flavours and add complexity.
Malvasía (de Rioja)
This is far less common than Viura in terms of planting however, it can be used in some of the best more elegant white wines. It is incredibly aromatic meaning only a small proportion can be very influential.
The wines from Rioja can range from traditional to modern in terms of style. Traditionally high proportions of American oak were used creating very vanilla and coconut flavoured wines. They were kept in barrel for long periods of time and often has oxidative notes. Premium producers could (can) make incredibly interesting wines from the more traditional style. Modern practices include shorter ageing, less oak and more focus on bringing the fruit out of the grapes.
This is incredibly important for the wines of Rioja. There are four levels of ageing used. These are Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva.
Joven, meaning young, focused on highlighting the grapes fresh fruit and primary flavours. Generally, the wines have no oak influence and are designed to be consumed young.
These wines have one year in oak and some time in the bottle before they are legally allowed to be released. Generally, the time in bottle will be between 6 months to a year. The white wines at this level must spend 6-months in oak.
These wines are made from very high-quality grapes. The wines are only released after a minimum of three years of which at least 1-year must be spent in oak. For the white wines, it is 2-years total ageing with 6-months in oak.
These are the rarest wines in Rioja only produced in exceptional years. The wines must be aged for a minimum of 5-years (60months) of which at least 2-years must have been in oak. These wines are often very expensive as they take so long to produce. For the white wines, it is 4-years total ageing with 1-year in oak.