The wines of Rioja are a particular favourite of mine. The best wines show what the Tempranillo grape variety can achieve. Some wines are made to drink soon after they are made, and others just last for decades.
The Rioja region has a beautiful setting in central northern Spain. It is sheltered from the north, south and west by mountain ranges. The river Ebro, which is at the heart of Rioja, drains East into the Mediterranean, rather than the Atlantic which is much closer.
- Soils near the river are alluvial deposits of sand, gravel and limestone.
- Elsewhere, soils are a mixture of iron-rich clay, limestone and sandstone.
- Geological activity over the years has turned this into a complex mix of soils, which can vary over short distances.
The mountains surrounding the Rioja region protect it from weather extremes. But it is influenced by three weather regimes.
- Atlantic – mainly cool and wet.
- Continental – searing hot in the Summer, and very cold in the Winter.
- Mediterranean – a warmer influence from the East.
During the growing season, the weather is often hot and dry during the day, and much cooler at night. Ideal for growing grapes.
Rioja Wine Regions
There are three designated regions:-
- Rioja Alta and Alavese to the West. The vineyards are at higher altitude and cooler than those to the East. The climate and soil are particularly suitable for high quality Tempranillo grapes.
- Rioja Baja to the East. It is warmer and drier than it is to the West, and the conditions suit the Garnacha grape variety.
Rioja was the first wine region in Spain to be awarded DOCa status, the highest level in Spain. Within this there are four classifications based on the amount of barrel and bottle age that a wine has been given. However, this is only part of the story, as there can be a large variation in quality and price between wines within a given category.
- Joven, or ‘young’ wines. These have no wood ageing, and are not for keeping.
- Crianza – not released before their third year, with a minimum of 1 year in oak barrels.
- Reserva – minimum of three years total ageing, of which at least 1 year is in barrel.
- Gran Reserva – minimum of 2 years in barrel, and 3 years in bottle. Most producers will only make these wines in top years, when prime quality grapes are grown.
There are slightly different rules for white wine, but very few bodegas make wood-aged white Rioja any more.
New styles of wine
Red – some producers are trying to differentiate themselves from the rest by not using the above designations. They make a more powerful style of wine.
White – the old style of oaked white wines is a minority interest, even though the best are excellent. The new style is crisp and dry, and fairly aromatic. Made for the international market.
Rioja makes many really good wines, and apart from a few cult wines represents excellent value for money.