Rioja is one of the world’s absolute best wine regions. There’s little debate about that. It’s also one we love at the shop. So we feel it’s a great choice for our first installment of our Region of the Month series!
Rioja sits in north central Spain. Though it may seem like the name is a derivative of the Spanish word for Red (Rojo), it's actually named after the river that runs through the region, el Rio Oja.
Three sub-regions within Rioja produce different styles. Rioja Alta, with vineyards at the highest altitude, produces grapes suited for creating light to medium light reds with bright, red fruit and exceptional acidity. Think Burgundy.
Rioja Alavesa's vineyards lay at a lower altitude, though still well above sea level, leading to riper grapes and bolder wine.
Rioja Baja is considerably lower in altitude (altitude is hugely important in all Spanish wine regions, since the country itself is so far south). Grapes here can often get too ripe, sometimes leading to grapes with enough sugar to make wines approaching 18% alcohol. For this reason, Rioja Baja rarely makes its own wines. Instead, grapes from here are used in other parts of Rioja for blending.
So that's the geography, which plays a gigantic role in the way the wines from the region turn out. The real star of Rioja, however, is the grape most prevalent there, tempranillo. Tempranillo grows in many other places around the world. But outside of (possibly) Toro or Ribero Del Duero, Rioja is the best place for it.
A quick note about tempranillo: there may not be another grape that is so flexible in the world. It can make wines as sleek and subtle as Oregon pinot noir to wines bold and big enough to compete with a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon (the cab is still bigger, but not by much).
Tempranillo is not the only grape grown in Rioja. They also grow garnacha, mazuelo (Carignan) and Graciano and a white varietal named Viura also known as Macabeo in Catalonia, which can make stunning table whites and sublime, full, age-worthy whites à la White Bordeaux, as well as small amounts of international grapes. Chardonnay, for instance, is used in the best white Riojas.
The final piece in the Rioja puzzle is aging. Though average aging times have decreased as Spanish wines have become subject to the demands of the international wine market, Riojas are still some of the longest aged dry wines before their release.
In the past, practically all Riojas spent significant time in oak barrels. Not the 2-3 years max we see from most regions today. We're talking 7 years minimum for the Reserva class, and closer to 15 to 20 for the Gran Reservas. Now, Gran Reservas can see 10, Reservas 3-5.
Here’s the aging classification system in Rioja:
Joven - No oak aging at all, minimal bottle aging. These wines are bright, clean and fruity; "spring in a bottle" in many ways. You should drink them within 6 months to a year after release.
Crianza - 6 months to 1 year in Oak, another 6 months in the bottle before they hit the market. They can last another 4 to 5 years, in some cases more, and are still very fresh and fruit driven, with the extra body and slight vanilla tones that oak can give.
Reserva - 2+ years in oak, 1 year in the bottle. Now we're getting into the textural and intensity level that Rioja's are known for. Reservas benefit heavily from the complexity that the extra time in oak adds. They can range from something akin to a Premiere Cru level Burgundy or oak aged Northern California pinot noir, to something closer to a Barbaresco, to the textural equivalent of a Chilean carmenere. Or, it could be said that all these styles are best when they are like Rioja!
Gran Reserva - Some producers will still give their Gran Reservas, which they only make during exceptional vintages anyway, the old school treatment of a total amount of aging in the 15-20 year range, but usually it's more like 3-5 in the barrel, and then what they feel is an appropriate amount in the bottle. If given the fully traditional aging method, expect to be kicked in the mouth, and nose, with tar, char, leather, tobacco, funkiness, briar, soft yet huge tannins, along with spice and earth. You'll get plenty of fruit too, but it will be secondary, the way you get fruit tones in good coffee. The more modern styles essentially flip this: powerful and complex fruit tones, ranging from raspberries to figs, all wrapped up in floral and briar tones, with all those char-earth-leather-tobacco notes dancing through the fruits and flowers.
So there you have it! Our first installment of “Region of the Month!” Keep your eyes peeled for the next one!