Rioja at a glance
With Logroño, Rioja’s regional capital at its epicentre, the region is divided into three zones along the river Ebro: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental (known as Rioja Baja until 2018).
Rioja Alta, west of Logroño, is the sub-region associated with higher quality grapes, grown on a variety of soils (clay-limestone, ferrous-clay and alluvial). It includes the winemaking town of Haro, known for its centuries-old cellars and home to some of Rioja’s most iconic producers. The vineyards lie on the slopes of the Sierra Cantabria, at up to 800m altitude, allowing the grapes to ripen late while retaining lively acidity, thus producing wines with great potential to age.
Rioja Alavesa covers a section north of the river Ebro that belongs to the Basque province of Alava. The vineyards share many of the characteristic that produce high quality fruit in Rioja Alta, especially around the towns of Laguardia and Elciego.
Rioja Oriental stretches south and east from the suburbs of Logroño. It is the hottest, more Mediterranean, of all three sub-regions, where Garnacha flourishes.
Scroll down for our pick of 14 Rioja wines to try and explore the region’s styles
Grape varieties and Winemaking
There are 14 permitted grape varieties in Rioja, variably distributed across the different sub-regions.
The most important, and most widely planted, is Tempranillo which thrives on the clay and limestone soils of Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. Most Riojas are, however, blends: Garnacha is used to add body to Tempranillo, which in cooler vintages can taste thin; Mazuelo (Carignan) contributes with tannin and colour; Graciano, a Rioja specialty, adds aroma and acidity. Single-varietal Garnachas and Gracianos are increasingly in vogue, especially those hailing form old plots, rescued from oblivion.
Viura (known elsewhere in Spain as Macabeu) is the chief white grape, although some of the traditional oak-aged whites and new barrel-fermented wines are blends of Malvasía and Viura. There is renewed interest for other local white grape varieties though, namely Tempranillo Blanco (a mutation of the red), Maturana Blanca, Turruntés (a local name for Albillo Mayor) and Garnacha Blanca.
For a long time, winemaking in Rioja was driven by process and style, rather than by variety, vintage and terroir, the aim being the production of a consistent profile, very much shaped by extended ageing in oak. This is certainly changing with an increasing exploration of the character of the multiple grapes and their varied expressions in the different landscapes and terroirs. A symptom of this shift was the creation of a single-vineyard (Viñedo Singular) classification, which Tim Atkin MW reported on.
Rioja in seven different styles:
For a long time, white Rioja’s most distinctive characteristics were imparted by fermentation in oak, followed by extended ageing in wood. Some of the regions rarest and most collectible wines are in fact old White Gran Reservas, which display an intense golden hue, full body and an expressive profile of nutty and dried fruit aromas.
This fell out of fashion in the 1970s with the introduction of cool fermentation techniques and an attempt to meet more commercial styles from other regions. Today, however, while many white Riojas are still fermented in stainless stell and released as Jovén (i.e. whithout maturation in oak), oak fermentation has seen a revival. The wood influence is now managed quite subtly and French oak is favoured to American. For whites labelled Crianza, Reserva, or Gran Reserva, the minimum wood-ageing period is just six months, followed by one, two, or four years, respectively, of ageing in bottle prior to release.
In Rioja, as elsewhere, rosado (as rosé is known in Spain) is a popular style for summer drinking and export markets. Vibrant, fruit-driven styles made both from Tempranillo and Garnacha became a staple in the portfolio of most winemakers.
There is also an ongoing rediscovery of an historical style called Clarete, stylistically between a rosado (traditional rosé) and a light red. It typically has a more intense hue and a firmer texture as it results from the co-fermentation of red and white varieties.
Wines released one or two years after vintage, without any oak influence. They tend to have great intensity of fruit, round tannins and smooth texture. Very approachable and perfect for everyday drinking.
There are young producers challenging tradition and moving from longer extractions and extended macerations, favouring a lighter approach instead. The result are wines with great acid drive, gravely tannins and crunchy fruit.
Crianza wines spend at least 12 months in oak and can only be released beyond their third year. They tend to have a fuller and body firmer tannins than a Jovén, but retain juiciness and intensity of fruit. There is great value to be found in Crianza, with great optionss for everyday yet serious drinking.
Aged for at least 36 months, including a minimum of 12 months in oak, and released after a minimum of six months in bottle. Reservas are generally made from sterner fruit than Crianzas, needed to survive (and truly benefit from) the extended ageing. These wines are denser, with a darker fruit profile and show firmer, more muscular tannins.
Favouring oaky complexity and longevity over the fruit-driven density of Reservas, Gran Reserva Rioja demands a minimum of 60 months ageing, of which at least 24 months must be spent in oak. Like Reserva, it needs to rest in bottle for a minimum of six months before release. This style is usually reserved for the highest quality grapes, and some producers will often age their wines for much longer than the legal minimum to develop softness and complexity. Gran Reservas vary significantly in style due to different choices of wood (American vs French oak) and length of maturation.
Rioja Gran Reservas are considered great value when compared to aged wines from other regions. ‘A Gran Reserva of a particular age will usually be better value than a comparative style or level of quality from another country,’ noted Beth Willard following Decanter’s later Gran Reserva Panel Tasting. ‘You don’t need to buy a 2019 Bordeaux en primeur when you can buy a 2011 Rioja, for a fraction of the price, that is almost ready to drink.’
Some might argue there is an ongoing clash between traditional and modern Rioja. The fact is that even many of the traditional producers are investing significantly in experimentation and innovation. Still, it was much due to the efforts of smaller winemakers and growers that newer trends took hold, pushing a move from style-driven towards terroir-driven winemaking.
It’s not entirely accurate to separate ‘Modern Rioja’ as a category as it in fact overlaps all the other styles. But it serves to highlight how the region is an evolving landscape, where alongside the classical examples we all know there are producers challenging stereotypes and revaluating Rioja’s wine history.
From mavericks saving old lost vineyards planted to ancient field blends, to the introduction of more diverse winemaking techniques (think fermentation in concrete and carbonic maceration), there’s much to discover beyond your everyday drinking Crianza!