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In Rioja, bodegas (or wineries) have traditionally played the roll of buying grapes/wine from growers and bottling, ageging and selling wine that wine to market. Today, more and more bodegas are growing grapes as well, so there’s n increase in estate-grown wines coming out of this region.

An Intro to Rioja Wines

Rioja is pretty ubiquitous on wine lists these days, and though viticulture began in this northern region of Spain centuries ago, it wasn’t until more recent decades that the country’s fine-wine region established itself broadly on the international stage.

Rioja produces some really amazing wines. When it comes to appellations and varietals, Rioja is also fairly easy wrap your head around (yay!). If you’re into Cabernets, Grenache, or other full-bodied, fruity reds, this Tempranillo-dominated region is one well-worth exploring.

Here’s a bit of background on the Rioja wine region, as well as some info on the types of wines you’ll encounter from here and the various sub-regions from which they stem.

A brief history

  • The late 19th century was a pivotal moment for Rioja – at this time, an epidemic severely damaged French vines, forcing producers from Bordeaux turn to Spain to plant new grapes
  • As a result, French oak barrels and winemaking techniques were brought to Spain, establishing Rioja’s signature approach to winemaking, which involves ageing in oak, which suits the region’s dominate grape, Tempranillo
  • Traditionally, landholders in Rioja would grow grapes (and sometimes make wine) which would then get sold to wineries (or bodegas); bodegas managed the buying, blending, ageing and selling of the wine – they are uniquely known for releasing wine to market once they think it is ready to drink, not once it is bottled (sometimes holding onto the wine for up to ten years
  • Rioja wines are prized for how long they are aged in oak – the oaking technique has ebbed and flowed, originally flourishing under French oak, followed by a shift int he 20th century to cheaper American oak (making sweeter, paler wines); more recently, we’re seeing a resurgence of French oak
  • Rioja wines are the most commonly seen export from Spain across the globe, and today there are more varied winemaking approaches taken, with some very high end, robust wines and some young, fresh ones that can hold their own

The regions

  • Situated on the upper part of the Ebro river in northern Spain between a large rocky ridge and the Atlantic ocean, Rioja is well-suited for growing Tempranillo, though there is a large amount of Garancha (Grenache) production, too.
  • Rioja is split into three sub-regions:
    •  Rioja Alta – This western part of Rioja is home to the region’s highest vineyards. Just south of the Ebro and with the Atlantic to the west, the cooler climate makes it harder for grapes to ripen, resulting in fairly acidic wines; a short growing season keeps the wines bright and light; Tempranillo is the dominate grape here
    • Rioja Alavesa – The Alavesa is a smaller region on the northern side of the Ebro, with similar influence from the Atlantic and mountains, though the wines tend to be bigger bodied and more acidic than those from the larger Alta region; Tempranillo again is the dominate grape
    • Rioja Baja – this region is more distinct from Rioja Alta and Alavesa; Rioja Baja falls on the Mediterranean side of the mountains, resulting in juicier, sweeter wines that are meant for more immediate consumption; Garancha is the dominate grape here

The northern subregions of Rioja (Alta and Alavesa) are made of clay and limestone, in conditions that make it rather difficult for grapes to ripen; to accommodate, vineyards here are planted low and sparsely 

The classifications

  • Appellation categories are less complicated in Rioja than say, France or Spain. There are 3 main categories of Rioja wines that classify the region’s best Tempranillos  (as well as a general Rioja label):
    • Grand Reserva – these are the region’s most prized wines, which are aged at least 5 years (2 in oak, 3 in the bottle)
    • Reserva – still big, rich wines, but aged at least 3 years (1 in oak, 2 in bottle)
    • Crianza – Young and fruity compared to Reservas and Grand Reservas, but have still been aged at least 2 years (1 year in oak, 1 in bottle)
    • Rioja – anything labelled just Rioja would have very little or no oak, and is aged for about a year
  • Bottles range from about the $10 mark on the low end to a minimum of about $30 or $40 for your Grand Reservas.
  • As you work your way from Crianza up to Grand Reserva, Rioja wines have more oak, the ability to age more, and boast more tannin, structure, colour… and a higher price tag! Do bear in mind, though, some of the younger, fresher wines are really fantastic, it just depends what you’re looking for.

Rioja has given Tempranillo a good name, with interpretations on the varietal coming from all over the world. In particular, there are some really beautiful styles coming out of Australia.

In terms of Spanish Rioja, I think the best place to play is the Reserva category, as you can get something with a bit of age, fruit, weight and acidity behind it – they are somewhere in between the heavily oaked and serious Grand Reservas, and the fun, fresher Crianzas. Moreover, you can find them at a very reasonable price.

Remember, Rioja wines are pretty full-bodied and tannic, so they are usually best enjoyed when paired with a delicious meal!

For more information on Tempranillo in the New World, see our article on Tempranillo in Australia, or explore more of our favourite international wine varieties.

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Jill Haapaniemi

Jill Haapaniemi

Jill is a lover of all things food and wine. As a food blogger and recipe developer, she is passionate about sharing meals with others, never without a bottle of something to enhance the experience. She spends her free time at her partner’s family winery just outside of Melbourne, and can usually be found drinking Oregon Pinot, wines from the Rhône Valley or Victorian Shiraz.
Jill Haapaniemi

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