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If you say wine is a convoluted beast, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. And that, friends, is a crying shame since sipping vino is so very simple. So, if you are looking for one of the few wines with a simple classification system, then Rioja wines may be perfect for you.
Welcome, vino lovers, to the world of Rioja!
Rioja has remained at a vantage point when it comes to wine innovation. This is primarily due to the continuous improvement both in the production as well as the aging processes.
It is considered one of the five most esteemed wine regions in the world today and alcoholic beverage that is consumed in over 130 countries.
Rioja Wines and Spain
No two ways about it: Rioja is virtually Spain, but in a glass of red, full-throttled wine. Thinking of Rioja always brings to mind the culinary delights you won’t find anywhere else but in Spain:
- Chunks of Manchego cheese along with a bowl of ripe, green olives
- Jamon Serrano, etc.
Rioja is renowned for its tannins and structure which is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, but with a fruity twist. So, if you are a diehard lover of Cabernet Sauvignon but won’t mind the expressly dominant cherry flavor present in Pinot Noir, then Rioja is perfect for you.
Rioja Wines: The Most Famous Spanish wine in America
Rioja is undoubtedly the most famous Spanish wine on the American market today. The alcoholic beverage is made from a blend of Tempranillo – which is the dominant grape – and Garnacha. The latter is often included in this blend of grape varieties to make it fruity.
Rioja is a blend that takes its name from the region where it is produced, much like several other wines that were made in the Old World.
Rioja wines are irresistible, full-bodied, fruit-forward, intensely concentrated, and silky smooth. The finest is the grand reservas which reveal remarkable transformation that can only occur with careful maturation.
Rioja Wines and Tempranillo Grapes
Tempranillo is the dominant grape in Rioja wines and thrives in Spain. The former colonial power is proud of this indigenous grape as it has been used for winemaking for more than 2,000 years.
Tempranillo was not only born but also cultivated in Spain, unlike many wine-producing countries that adopt grapes that are originally indigenous to Italy or France. The local name of the grape is “Tinto Fino” and is renowned for its distinctive attributes, moderate acidity and is also low in tannin.
The lively little grape shares its fruity exuberance with Pinot Noir as well as a radically distinctive affinity for aging.
But one thing is clear and definite: Tempranillo was created for aging in oak barrels. And Spanish vintners were quick to recognize this fact even though they borrowed the wisdom from the French.
Yes, it was the Bordelais – or French – who revealed their expertise in cellaring and barrel aging to Spain in the 19th century, i.e., 1860s. This was soon after the Phylloxera crisis that wiped out nearly all the vines in France.
The French, therefore, had no choice than to look for a new supply and ended up settling in Spain. It was during this period that they introduced the art of aging wines in oak to the mix.
Long aging of wines in barrels – especially older or used barrels instead of new – results in a sweet, velvety-textured, dried-fruit flavors with prominent notes of spice and vanilla.
Although French influence may run a little deep when it comes to Spanish winemaking, the beautiful and remarkable thing is that the wines of Rioja are unique in the wine universe.
Rioja stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Burgundy and Bordeaux, even though it flies somewhat under the radar compared to its age-worthy peers. This simply implies that a bottle of Rioja can be secured for less than a similar bottle of Burgundy or Bordeaux.
However, in reality, Rioja cannot be compared with any other wines like Napa, Bordeaux, Australia, etc.
In 2013, Wine Spectator awarded a Rioja as “Wine of the Year” since it only costs $63 a bottle compared to its peers who are far down the list. These wines could be procured for as much as $100 per bottle.
Rioja Wines: Where It Originates From
Rioja is one of the regions in North Central Spain which is a two-hour drive from Bilbao smack dab in a valley along the Ebro River. The region is subdivided into the following zones:
- Rioja Alavesa (next to Alava)
- Rioja Baja
- Rioja Alta
The entire valley is controlled by the Sierra Cantabria, a small jagged mountain range which prevents clouds from coming into the Rioja valley.
This region – apart from wine – is also known for its production of delicious artichokes, piquillo peppers, and white asparagus.
Most wine lovers or even Spanish residents may tell you that Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Alta are much better than Rioja Baja. But that is just an opinion, and for the most part, untrue.
You can find highly impressive Rioja wines from all over the region or zones; all you need to do is focus on both the vintage as well as the vintner.
Rioja Alavesa is a neighbor to another zone, Alava which is located next to Rioja Alta. The wines in this zone share considerable similarities with wines produced in Rioja Alta.
You will discover more rolling hills in both Rioja Alavesa as well as Rioja Alta while the best vineyards can be found on the slopes that face the south.
You will also find a lot of ancient monasteries and fortified castles planted on hilltops in and around Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Alta.
Here, the temperatures are cooler, and the elevation is approximately 300m higher than Rioja Baja. As a result of the cool temperatures as well as the altitude, wines from this zone have much higher acidity and tannin than Rioja Baja.
Rioja Alta wines are also more elegant, thanks to the soils in this area which are loaded with iron oxide, thus giving the wines red hues and a high proportion of clay.
The vineyards in this zone are situated on the flatlands that are towards the Ebro River. The soil here is somewhat more consistent with calcareous soils – known as Cascajo – with some stones from ancient floods.
The Rioja wines from this zone are more fruit-forward, and the winemakers focus primarily on a more vibrant style wine, which is juicier and rounder. Take one sip, and you will feel the characteristic fig flavors that are always present in older wines from this zone.
Nevertheless, the alcoholic beverages from Rioja Baja are created in such a way that you must drink them as soon as possible.
Rioja Classification System – The 4 Styles of Rioja Wine
The following are the four styles of Rioja wine that is commonly found in wine shops today.
“Vin Joven” or Young Wine
Rioja wine – which was once known as “vin joven” or young wine – is a Tempranillo-based alcoholic beverage. These wines do not have the oak flavors or the tannin structure that is commonly found in higher-end alcoholic beverages.
However, Rioja wines make up their lack of tannic structure by being incredibly fruity. This is a common and prominent attribute of wines in their first or second year as they tend to retain their fruity, fresh, and primary characteristics.
In most cases, they are not aged in oak; however, some may have been aged for a brief period – often a few months – before it is bottled and sold. The label on such a bottle bearing the young wine is green.
Crianza is touted to be the most accessible Rioja wines as most of them are very affordable, i.e., less than $15 per bottle. Rioja wines at Crianza level must be aged in used oak barrels for at least one year.
Oak flavors in this wine are usually not all that pronounced. The minimum cask aging period for white wines is six months.
Once the wine is removed from the oak barrel, it is bottled for a few months, and then sold. Crianza is made in such a way that it comes out as a high-quality wine that vino lovers can drink daily.
This wine is not rich but rides on Tempranillo’s natural high tannin, which makes it a bit more full-bodied than Merlot. The bottle often comes with a red label on its back.
This class of Rioja wine is made from selected or hand-picked grapes of the best vintages they can find. It is made only during the years when the Rioja region enjoys a good growing season.
Reserva wines are usually aged for at least three good years, i.e., a minimum of one year in oak barrels and the rest in bottle. The minimum cask aging period for white wines is two years with a minimum of six months in oak barrels.
You can easily find a high-quality Reserva wine within the $15 to $30 range. Many wine lovers love this vino because it portrays a perfect balance or medium between the fruitiness of Crianza and the bottle-aged, oaky Gran Reserva.
Bottles of Reserva wine usually come with a brown color label on their back.
Rioja wines in this category are made from hand-picked grapes of exceptional vintages and have also undergone prolonged aging in oak barrels. This is a Rioja that is made only during the years the region enjoys exceptional growing seasons.
The wine must be aged in oak casks for a minimum of two years while they spend an additional three years in the bottle before it is sold off.
The minimum cask aging period for white wines is four years with a minimum of one year in oak barrels.
This wine has age-worthy potential as well as the most tannin structure of the entire lot. Some new releases of Gran Reserva can be up to 10 years old – or even older – when you come across them.
Winemakers can cellar Gran Reserva Rioja wines for up to 30 years, thanks to their perfect characteristics. The bottle comes with a blue color label in the back of the bottle.
Gran Reservas possess this unique attribute of bringing out a tremendous amount of passion in those who consume them. And yes, you guessed it; it was a Gran Reserva that was awarded the “Wine of the Year” honor back in 2013.
Did you notice the amount of time for wines specified for Rioja wines to age in bottles? Rioja as a region only releases its wines when they are ready to drink.
These four models of Rioja wine along with their numbered labels are generally transported to any location with a document that guarantees the vintage origin, and quality of the vino.
These labels also make it easier for anyone to quickly classify Rioja wines.
When it comes to the grapes used in the production of Rioja wines, Tempranillo dominates here. However, there are lots of Garnacha as well as smaller amounts of Mazuelo, Graciano, Garnacha Blanca, and Viura among others.
Rioja Wines: The Best and Most Affordable
Here are some of the best – and most affordable – Rioja wines on the market today:
2015 Bodegas Beronia Crianza
If you are looking for fresh, smooth, well-rounded, and natural Rioja wine, then this is it. Beronia Crianza exhibits mouthwatering wild berry fruit which is enhanced by barely perceptive aromas.
The aromas of this Rioja wine are as a result of 12 months of aging in American and French oak barrels.
The 2015 Beronia Crianza portrays pleasant aromas of baking spice, black cherry, dried herbs, and so on. Not only does the wine taste sweet and fresh with soft tannins but also gives the impression of a lot of ripe fruits.
You will also discover and – enjoy – continued hints of herbs and baking spice with touches of vanilla and cedar as you drink this tasty nectar of the gods.
However, the fruit turns somewhat tart on the dry but long finish. The Beronia Crianza pairs well with and enhances the taste cheeses and red meats.
Here are the major components of the Beronia Crianza from Rioja, Spain:
- Tempranillo = 91 percent
- Garnacha = 8 percent
- Mazuelo = 1 percent
- Residual sugar = 1.8g/L
- Aging period = Wine spends 12 months in mixed oak casks of French tops and American staves with another three months in bottles before release.
- Alcohol content = 13.5%
2014 Marques de Caceres Rioja Reserva
For those looking for a grippy and savory classic Rioja, the 2014 Marques de Caceres Rioja Reserva is hereby presented to you.
Marques de Caceres Reserva is produced in the most exceptional vintage from “Vieilles Vignes,” thereby giving it more concentration as well as more significant aging potential. The richness of this Reserva wine and the intensity of the fruit is unsurpassed in Rioja.
This delicious Rioja wine begins with a classic bouquet with loads of sweet spice, vanilla along with hints of cocoa and coffee. All of these is an indication of the influence of oak wrapped around dark berry fruit.
This medium to full-bodied wine Rioja tastes grippy, delicious, and savory. Every flavor from the nose combines smoothly in the mouth. Experience some firm tannins which lead seamlessly into a grippy and dry finish
The fruit flavor, though, lingers nicely and well with hints of coffee, tobacco, and cocoa. If your senses are acute enough, you will perceive a balsamic taste as well.
Here are the major components of the 2014 Marques de Caceres Rioja Reserva:
- Tempranillo = 85 percent
- Garnacha = 10 percent
- Graciano = 5 percent (from 25-35-year old vines in Rioja, i.e., 85 percent Rioja Alta and 15 percent Rioja Alavesa)
- Alcohol content = 14 percent
- Aging period = Wine spends twenty months in French oak casks – 50 percent in new barrels, and 50 percent 2nd and 3rd use. Then, the wine ages for another two years in bottle before release.
2016 Montebuena Rioja
Everyone wants the good stuff: something smooth, tasty, and soft. From Bodegas y Vinedos Labastida comes the 2016 Montebuena Rioja.
This vino is named after one of the best quality areas of Labastida which is located in the eastern part of the village. It covers over 395 acres (160 hectares).
Montebuena Rioja is a medium-bodied wine with a spicy vanilla bouquet that is smooth and fruity in the mouth. You will relish the well-integrated secondary nuance with a persistent but full-flavored finish.
Nothing is over the top with the 2016 Montebuena Rioja, which begins with an attractive and tempting aroma of black cherry, red licorice, raspberry, spice as well as a little vanilla.
This wine has excellent balance: fine tannins, tart fruit, and some gentle touches of spice build on the mid-palate, and this leads straight to the dry finish.
At this low price, the Montebuena Rioja is indeed a steal!
Here are the major components of Montebuena Rioja from Rioja Alavesa, Spain:
- Tempranillo = 100 percent
- Aging period = Wine spends three months in used American oak casks
- Alcohol content = 14 percent
2015 Burgo Viejo Rioja Crianza
The 2015 Burgo Viejo Rioja Crianza is a red ruby-colored, well-balanced wine that portrays black fruit, spice, coconut, vanilla, and coffee roasted bean flavors. This is another example of a classical style Rioja – rich, complex, and powerful – at a good price.
Rioja love to use oak, and this has given wines from this region a truly unique appeal. Many of today’s wines seem to concentrate more on quantity rather than quality. This particular medium-bodied vino is heavily influenced by oak, artfully well put together.
The Burgo Viejo Rioja Crianza begins with a tantalizing aroma of black cherry, baking spices notes, and lots of oak (in the form of chocolate, vanilla, cedar and so much more).
Take a sip, and your senses will be swamped pleasantly with tons of oaky spice and vanilla interlaced with lots of ripe, juicy fruit.
This silky-smooth wine has good acidity. Coffee and cocoa notes become pronounced mid-palate and lead smoothly into the drawn-out, dry finish featuring lingering dark raisiny fruit and oaky spice notes.
For vino lovers in the wine universe looking for flavorful and tasty Rioja wines with lots of good old American oak, the Burgo Viejo Rioja Crianza is the answer to your prayers!
Here are the major components of the 2015 Burgo Viejo Rioja Crianza:
- Tempranillo = 90 percent
- Graciano = 10 percent
- Aging period = Wine spends twelve months in American oak casks
- Alcohol content = 13.5 percent
2013 Beronia Rioja Reserva
Wines from Rioja today show that the use of oak aging is becoming more prevalent in the region. No doubt oak aging is a process that is used all over the world, especially in winemaking countries.
However, French and Spanish vintners have mastered the art of using oak barrels for aging premium quality wines.
The use of oak casks or barrels for aging wines come with lots of benefits. For one, oak imparts several flavors to wine, depending on how long the wine is matured. This is because the wine pulls the characters out of the oak and absorbs them as it matures.
The type of oak used in the aging process also matters a lot as it could have an overall impact on the outcome. The two main types – or style – of oak used in aging wine are American or French.
In reality, the oak has little to do with where it is from or where it was cultivated; but it has a lot to do with how the oak is prepared for aging wine. It is the preparation that determines whether or not it is considered American or French.
For instance, French oak can be imported into America and deemed “American” if the barrels are crafted in the American method.
The bottom line here is that French oak appears to impart a lot more flavors from the sap and wood than American oak. These flavors include caramel, vanilla, chocolate, among others.
The 2013 Beronia Rioja Reserva appears to be made for lovers of vanilla. It is referred to as a “Vanilla Monster” by some sommeliers and connoisseurs in the wine universe. That is to let you know how vanilla-laden this vino is!
Beronia Rioja Reserva begins with inviting aromas of dark fruit along with lots of vanilla. Expect to perceive some baking spice, a little chocolate, and lots of other touches here and there that will captivate you.
Tasting this alcoholic beverage reveals a smooth wine that is loaded with flavors like vanilla, licorice, oak, and blackberry. It is oaky, for sure, but it works remarkably well and even has some excellent aging potential.
Beronia Rioja Reserva ends with even more vanilla, sweet spice, and dark fruit as well as lingering chocolate notes on the long-lasting dry finish.
Here are the major components of the 2013 Beronia Rioja Reserva from Rioja, Spain:
- Tempranillo = 95 percent
- Graciano = 4 percent
- Mazuelo = 1 percent
- Aging period = Wine spends twenty months in mixed oak barrels with French tops and American staves. Spent another 18 months in bottle before it is released into the market
- Residual sugar = 2g/L
- Alcohol content = 14 percent
2013 Lopez de Haro Rioja Reserva
For Rioja wines that deliver even more taste than its price tag, the 2013 Lopez de Haro Rioja Reserva is your best bet.
This wine is produced by Bodega Classica, a winery that is located on a picturesque hillside of the historic village of San Vicente de La Sonsierra. Bodega Classica, in its lofty position, is surrounded by a sea of vineyards which are flanked by the slopes of the mountain range of Sierra de Tolono and the winding course of the River Ebro.
The Lopez de Haro Rioja Reserva begins with inviting and pleasing aromas of ripe black cherry, vanilla notes, and a hint of balsam. When you take a sip of this wine, you will find out that it has a smooth texture with lots of sweet spice notes, licorice, tart black cherry fruit, and even more vanilla.
The taste of the wine turns somewhat oakier mid-palate with touches of chocolate and coffee which carry into the dry, long-lasting finish.
Here are the major components of the 2013 Lopez de Haro Rioja Reserva from Rioja, Spain:
- Tempranillo = 90 percent
- Graciano = 5 percent
- Garnacha = 5 percent
- Aging period = Wine spends twenty months in a combination of American and French oak casks
- Alcohol content = 13.5 percent
Rioja Reservas is no doubt a fantastic category for wine enthusiasts and beverage hunters to find value. Thanks to the substantial oak aging and strict regulations of these Rioja wines, wine drinkers all over the world can derive maximum pleasure when drinking premium-quality vinos.
On this note, therefore, the 2014 Marques de Caceres Reserva is highly recommended. This is because this wine is made from an exclusive, handpicked selection of Tempranillo grapes and then matured in French oak barrels.
It is, however, recommended that to enjoy the best of this wine, you should uncork the bottle at least one hour before serving at 60-65F. The Marques de Caceres Reserva pairs excellently well with grilled meats, hearty dishes, and roasts.
5 Little-Known Facts About Rioja
Here are five little-known facts about Rioja
1. The Rioja wine is not all about the Tempranillo grape
The first thing people bring to mind at the mention of the word “Rioja” is the Tempranillo grape. No one faults that line of thought since the Tempranillo grape makes up a significantly large majority of the blend for most of the Rioja wines out there today.
Do you notice the distinct aroma of mellow spice and dried, red fruits that lots of wine lovers adore? The Tempranillo grape imparts those aromas to the Rioja wine.
The Tempranillo grape has been in the Rioja region as far back as the mid-15th century. It is alleged to be the most popular wine grape that is planted around the world.
So, this is why Tempranillo comes to mind when discussing Rioja and the other three prominent grapes, i.e., Graciano, Mazuelo and Grenacha or Garnacha.
Now, many wine lovers don’t know this, but the laws that regularize the delegation of Rioja DOCa on a label also gives room for the use of these grapes – i.e., Graciano, Garnacha, and Mazuelo – in any percentage.
An excellent example is the Rio Madre Rioja, which comprises 100 percent, Graciano.
2. The Majority of Rioja is Sub-region Specific
Most Rioja, even though they are not particularly labeled as such – are specific to some sub-regions. For instance, the western section – which also has higher elevation – is known as “Rioja Alta.”
It is perceived to be the area that has the highest quality compared to the others, thanks to great balance and verve.
The northern section – known as “Rioja Alavesa” – has high elevation but poor soils which relatively help to keep down the yield. Wines from this region are full-bodied, high acid alcoholic beverages.
The southeast region, on the other hand, is warmer and drier. It is called “Rioja Baja,” this sub-region is known to produce wines of infinite power and ripeness.
3. There is a great connection between Bordeaux and Rioja
Historians have been able to trace the relationship between Bordeaux and Rioja as far back as the 18th century, i.e., 1780 to be precise. Don Manuel Quintano was said to have traveled to Bordeaux at the time with one goal in mind: learning how to make fine wine.
When he returned to Spain, he brought along with him a new tool that had been in use in Bordeaux for a while, i.e., the oak barrel. This magic bullet of sorts paved the way for the enhancement of the quality of Rioja wine as well as encouraged the idea of exportation.
Exportation had always been a significant factor in Rioja and soon enough, markets as far away as Cuba were enjoying the sweet nectar of the gods. This showed the possibility for Rioja wines to remain as intact – during an extensive journey – as the best wines from France.
There is another instance which also shows how Bordeaux has contributed to the longevity of Rioja wines. At the time, vineyards across France – including the famed Bordeaux – were perishing slowly from a particular type of grape lice. The event is widely known as the Phylloxera invasion.
However, despite this massive attack and destruction, residents of Bordeaux never stopped consuming their beloved alcoholic beverage. If anything, the demand for wine increased.
And so, the Bordelaise had no choice than to turn to their counterparts to the south to help quench their thirst as well as that of their customers in the capitals of Europe. That was how Rioja was brought to the world stage in London, Paris, and even beyond.
4. Rioja remains a terroir lover’s dream come true
It is incredibly rare to come across varied wine regions – yet as unique as – the geologies that Rioja is blessed with. Some of these regions bear considerable resemblance – in climate and terroir – as places like Coonawarra, Contra Costa, etc.
Since most wineries don’t have land holdings in several sub-regions, it is common for the wines of a particular vintner to show the unique characteristics of their sub-region consistently.
Now, when you also consider the fact that it is possible to make use of any of the four major grapes thriving in this region in any percentage, you will end up with one reality:
There is an unusually high degree of variation in possibilities and styles with Rioja. So, from delicate, light-bodied beauties – which bear considerable resemblance with Pinot Noir – to full throttle, epicurean fruit bombs, Rioja is indeed, a force to reckon with in the wine universe.
5. If Rioja stops producing wine today, no one would know
Rioja is perhaps second to champagne when it comes to the amount or quantity of wines that are stored.
Thanks to the practice of labeling Rioja wines based on minimum aging laws, there is a natural development of a backlog of supply. For a particular wine to receive the Reserve label, a red Rioja has to be aged in oak for at least one year or in the bottle for two years.
A lot of vintners in the region have gone above and beyond these minimum requirements. Many producers end up holding the wine for up to ten years – with a few up to twenty years – before releasing the wines to the world.
Therefore, if producers cease the production of Rioja wines today, they will still retain their customers and keep supplying wine for up to four years without any issue.
A few traditionally-minded wineries also exist in Rioja where the supply of wine reaches the level of more than eight years. Wineries in this region will never succumb to the “ferment it quickly and push it to the market” kind of mentality that is prevalent these days among many new world wine areas today.
This is why Rioja holds a special place in the hearts of many connoisseurs and sommeliers.
Frequently Asked Questions
If you want to have an idea about the Rioja experience, but don’t have a bottle, there are some Merlots that might be considered similar, such as the Morgenhof Wine Estate. Also, you can try with a Filius Chardonnay or even with some Shiraz.
One of the main features of a Shiraz is its viscosity and residual sugar level. It has a high level of alcohol as well, which differs from the Rioja. On the other hand, Rioja has a medium texture and it doesn’t have a high level of residual sugar.
The difference between Rioja and Crianza is in aging time. Rioja is meant to be aged for a maximum of 1 year, while Crianza can be aged for two years.
As you can see, Rioja wines have come to stay. Although these wines pair well with virtually anything, they go well with savory flavors such as strong cheeses and meats that can stand up to the strength of the alcoholic beverage. Enjoy!