Rioja Wine Region
Whether you are a wanting to know what’s the best wine to buy from your local wine merchant, or you are a serious wine tourist planning a tour of the Rioja wine region, or simply a holiday maker to Spain wanting to get the most out of the local food and wine, a little knowledge about the wines of Rioja will stand you in good stead. For many people, Rioja is simply a good quality red wine. Which of course it is. But it is also so much more. It could be a rich and complex 15 year old Rioja Gran Reserva. Or it could be a light and fresh Rioja Joven, fresh from the latest harvest (“joven” means young). Or it could be a fruity white, or rose. When it comes down to it, Rioja offers a rich and complex range of wines to suit any palate, and offers so much more than the average supermarket red.
Types of Rioja wine
The wines from the Rioja wine region are made primarily from the Tempranillo grape, but other varieties such as Graciano, Mazuelo and Garnacha are also allowed to be used in the production of Rioja wines and are often used in combination with Tempranillo.
There are three main types of Rioja wine:
- Rioja Tinto (red Rioja): This is the most common type of Rioja wine and is made primarily from Tempranillo grapes. The wine is generally aged for a minimum of one year in oak barrels, with some wines aged for much longer.
- Rioja Blanco (white Rioja): This type of Rioja wine is made from white grapes such as Viura and Malvasía. It is aged for a minimum of six months in oak barrels.
- Rioja Rosado (rosé Rioja): This type of Rioja wine is made from a blend of red and white grapes, and is aged for a minimum of six months.
In addition to these main types, there are also several sub-categories of Rioja wine based on the length of aging:
- Joven wines: are young wines with no oak aging, they are light and fruity and is sometimes compared to the French Beaujolais Nouveau. You will see this as the cheapest option in all the tapas bars.
- Crianza wines: are aged for at least 2 years, including a minimum of 6 months in oak.
- Reserva wines: these are wines made with good quality grapes of good vintages and are aged for at least 3 years, including a minimum of 1 year in oak.
- Gran Reserva wines: these are top of the range wines, made from the finest selected grapes, in the best vintages, and are aged for at least 5 years, including a minimum of 2 years in oak. These wines can typically be laid down for many years, even decades, so are the option to go for is you are looking to establish a wine cellar, and have the patience (and self control!) to wait.
Each type of Rioja wine will have its own distinct flavour profile and characteristics, with the aging process having a significant impact on the final product. Then of course, there is the question of the oak barrel. Not all barrels are created equal! And to say that wine is aged in oak is to tell only half the story.
The commonest types of oak barrels used in the Rioja region are American oak, although there is also increasing use of French oak. They each impart a different flavour to the wine. American oak is widely used and generally thought to arise from Spain’s connection with the discovery of the New World. This oak imparts more of a vanilla or caramel flavour to the wine, whereas wine aged in French oak will have spicier notes.
Another consideration is the age of the barrels, and many producers will only use barrels that have already been aged for a considerable time.
Towns of the Rioja wine region
Rioja Alta (La Rioja unless otherwise stated)
How Rioja wine is made
The method for making Rioja wine can be summarised as follows:
- Firstly, grapes are harvested by hand or machine, depending on the winery, at the optimal ripeness level.
- The grapes are then crushed and destemmed in order to separate the juice from the solids.
- The juice is then fermented in stainless steel tanks or wooden vats. Depending on the style of wine being produced, the fermentation process can last anywhere from several days to several weeks.
- After fermentation, the wine is aged in oak barrels, and the winery will decide the time aging depending on the style they want.
- After aging, the wine is blended if necessary and then bottled. Some Rioja wines are aged for several more years in the bottle before they are released for sale.
After being released for sale, many rioja wines – particularly a Reserve or Gran Reserva – can be laid down for many years, and will improve with age. It’s always a good idea, when buying rioja, to ask the producer how long they would recommend the particular wine can be stored.
What to eat with Rioja wine
There are many types of food that pair well with Rioja, including:
- Meat dishes: Rioja is a great match for grilled meats like steak, lamb, and pork. Its fruitiness complements the savoriness of the meat and its tannins help to cut through the fat.
- Cheese: Rioja’s acidity pairs well with hard, nutty cheeses like manchego or cheddar, and its tannins can help to soften the saltiness of blue cheese.
- Casseroles and stews: The rich fruitiness and moderate tannins of Rioja can complement the flavours of casseroles and stews, making it a great wine to serve with dishes like beef bourguignon or coq au vin.
- Tapas: Rioja’s versatility makes it a great choice for pairing with a variety of Spanish tapas dishes, such as tortilla, croquetas, or patatas bravas. Often you will see Joven or Crianza being sold in the bars of rioja to accompany the tapas/pinchos.
- Chocolate: Rioja’s tannins help to balance the sweetness of chocolate and highlights the fruity notes of the wine. And what could be more perfect than a glass of rioja and a bar of dark rich chocolate?!!
It’s also worth noting that Rioja comes in many different styles, from young and fruity to aged and complex, so the type of food you pair with it will depend on the style of the Rioja you’re drinking. If you are in a bar or restaurant in the Rioja region it is always a good idea to ask the serving staff for advice on which wine will be best suited to your food choice.