We have put together our own personal guide to Rioja wine – enjoy!
Rioja (Ree-ock-a) has deservedly the greatest reputation of all Spanish wines. It is not so long ago that the British consumer was offered little more than Spanish Burgundy, Spanish Chablis and Spanish Champagne. Since the restoration of the monarchy and Spain’s joining the Common Market, there has been a great renaissance in the country’s production of quality wine production. At its forefront have been the wines of Rioja.
Rioja wine takes its name from the scenic, mountainous region in northern Spain where fantastic wine has been produced for centuries. The Rioja region itself spans over 65,000 hectares of vineyards, with a variety of soil and climatic conditions making Rioja a diverse and unique wine-making destination.
By far the majority of wine that is produced in the region is red, then rosado. Comparatively little white wine is made. The classification of the wines depends on the length of time they have spent in cask (if at all) and in bottle. This begins with sin crianza, then crianza, reserva and finally gran reserve, which cannot be released on the market until it is at least five years old. More fashionable nowadays are reserve especial wines where more emphasis is placed on bottle-aging.
Traditionally, the wines have been sold under marchants’ brand names, but now single vineyard wines are becoming more common and it is permitted to name sub-regions if the wine comes exclusively from one of those.
What’s the Rioja region like?
Within this guide to Rioja wine, we’re going to go all the way back to where Rioja comes from.
The Rioja region has on average slightly cooler weather than other famous wine producing regions in Spain. It benefits from a combination of climates – Atlantic, Mediterranean and Continental. The region’s hot summers, cool winters and a large amount of rain each year create the perfect growing conditions for premium quality grapes.
The vineyards of Rioja lie in the upper valley of the river Ebro in north-western Spain. This river rises in the Picos de Europa and flows into the Mediterranean south of Barcelona. The wines take their name from a small tributary, the Río Oja, which also gives its name to the province of La Rioja. Rather confusingly, the wine can also be produced from parts of the neighbouring provinces of Alava and Navarra.
What are the subregions of Rioja?
Rioja is divided into three separate regions, each with its own unique climate, history and culture which affects the types of grapes grown, and the flavour notes and profiles of the wine it produces.
Rioja Alta lies to the west of the region, to the south of the river Ebro, and is centred around the two great wine towns of Logroño and Haro. The vineyards are located on gently rolling hills. Alta has an Atlantic-influenced climate and soils that are red in colour and rich in iron producing the full-bodied wines that are at the base of most Rioja blends. It is one of the most popular wine tourism destinations in the world.
Rioja Alavesa is the smallest of all the Rioja regions, with an Atlantic climate and is dry and sunny for most of the year. Here the soil has a white tinge, due to high limestone content. The wines tend to be lighter in colour than those of the Rioja Alta and with rather more finesse. The wines produced in this region are lauded for their high acidity levels.
This region was known as Rioja Baja up until 2018. Unlike the Alta and Alavesa, Oriental has a dry and warm climate, due to its closer proximity to the Mediterranean Sea. The Rioja Oriental vineyards are largely on the valley bottom, with clayey soils, where Garnacha is the dominant variety. Oriental wines are much darker in colour than other Rioja wines, generally have a much higher alcohol content and are more often used in blends than as single-varietal wines.
What grapes are grown in the Rioja region?
Our guide to Rioja wine wouldn’t be complete without talking about the distinct grape varieties. Many types of red and white grapes are grown in the Rioja region, but there are a number of varieties the region is most famous for.
For red wines, the most widely planted variety is the Tempranillo, from the Spanish word for early. This is important in a region where harvesting generally takes place in late September and October. It is less aromatic than other red wine varieties, which means it benefits from being used in blends. It gives soft full wines and is often blended with small proportions of Graciano and Mazuelo, which add tannin and acidity.
Known as the Grenache, Garnacha needs hot and dry climates to flourish and so does well in Spain. This grape is grown for making early drinking, sin crianza, and rosé wines. It’s a hardy grape which thrives where others would struggle to grow, and as it has a longer growing season allowing high levels of sugars to develop, the wine produced has on average a higher alcohol content than other varietals.
Also known as Carignan, this variety takes a long time to ripen and so is only successfully grown in hotter climates and is very rarely made as a single varietal wine. It has a signature purple or deep red colour and as a consequence many wine producers mix it with other varieties to create blends that would otherwise be lacking in colour.
The region has until recently placed little emphasis on its white wines. For these the main grape has been the Viura (aka Maccabeo) and to a lesser extent the Garnacha Blanca. Viura brings fruity and floral notes to wines it is used in, and is often a popular choice for producers who make white Rioja.
Modern vinification techniques, such as cold fermentation and the use of stainless steel have made the wines much more interesting. In a bid to further improve their popularity it is now permitted to use a small proportion of grapes such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Why do we love Rioja in Wales?
We wouldn’t have created a guide to Rioja wine is we didn’t love it! So, why is Rioja so widely appreciated in Wales? We’ll bet that more Rioja is likely consumed per head of population than anywhere else in Britain. We can think of two reasons: the first is lamb which is the ideal partner for a bottle or two of Rioja. In almost every village in the region in Spain there is an asador, a restaurant where the speciality is whole lamb roasted in vast wood-fired ovens. Perhaps surprisingly, a large proportion of these lambs are of Welsh origin.
Secondly, South Wales can be proud of the variety and number of Spanish restaurants that it boasts. These have led us willingly to explore and enjoy the wines of Rioja.
What Rioja wines do we stock?
Here, at Fine Wines Direct UK, we are proud of the range of wines from Rioja that we offer and is one of the largest selections in Britain. We pride ourselves on having a variety of wines suitable for different palates and budgets. We have a 2010 Gran Reserva which is the very first of its kind made by Marques de Caceres under the Excellens range, with an intense colour and body that goes well with red meats like T-bone steaks. We also have a fantastic Siglo Saco produced by Bodega Manzanos which is a great match for tomato based Mediterranean dishes .
We invite you to study our list and make your choice. You will not be disappointed – have a look at our whole selection of Rioja wines here.