Spain’s Rioja region has built its reputation on producing classically styled red wines. Matured in oak, with strict age regulations determining their style, these are dependably enjoyable bottles that many wine lovers always have on their table or in their cellar.
Perfect for enjoying on a chilly winter day, there are three styles of aged Rioja to look out for: crianza, reserva and gran reserva.
What style to choose?
Crianza, the youngest wines, spend a minimum of 12 months in oak, and can only be released in at least their third year after harvest. Usually well-priced, they are fruit-forward, but full-bodied with enough structure for food pairing. Rioja is a classic match for lamb.
Reserva wines must spend a minimum of 12 months in oak and six months in bottle. Because they are aged for longer, reservas are usually made from better quality grapes than crianzas, giving them more body and character.
The oldest wines, gran reservas, will be made with a winery’s top grapes and have the longest ageing requirements. They spend a minimum of two years in barrel and two years in bottle before release – but often much longer. These top Riojas can offer great value in comparison to similar aged styles from Bordeaux or Italy, for example, with just as much drinking pleasure.
More to explore
While Rioja’s crianza, reserva and gran reserva wines offer plenty of great options for winter drinking, there’s more to discover in the region. What about full-bodied, oak-aged white Rioja? With great complexity and depth of flavour on the palate, these wines are ideal for food pairing. Think dishes such as roast chicken and turkey, pork in creamy sauce or hearty fish stew. The same goes for aged rosados, made in a textured gastronomic style.
The choices don’t stop there either. Rioja is evolving, with a new generation of producers choosing to make wines outside the conventional ageing requirements. Many of these new-wave wines are labelled ‘genérico’. Previously known as ‘joven’ – and referring to entry-level Riojas – this is now a dynamic category to watch.
At the same time, Rioja’s newest category, viñedo singular, has turned a spotlight on single-vineyard wines. Launched in 2017, this emerging style of Rioja is already producing some top-quality wines, as a recent Decanter Panel Tasting proved.
On my last trip to Rioja in October 2022, it was clear that producers are not resting on their laurels. Some of the innovation is driven by external changes. In particular the threat posed by climate change is causing producers to look for cooler vineyard sites and grape varieties that cope better with hot vintages.
‘Tempranillo suffers a lot in very hot weather,’ explains José Ramon Urtasun, co-owner of Remírez de Ganuza in Rioja Alavesa. ‘But Garnacha copes better in the heat.’
Garnacha is used to make Ramon Bilbao’s Límite Sur red, part of the winery’s new Límite range alongside Límite Norte white. First produced in the 2017 vintage, these two wines are made from new high-altitude plantings; vineyards that sit at the outer limits of the demarcated Rioja region.
Old and new
While some wineries are focusing on the new, others are looking back to old viticultural methods and protecting their old vine heritage. In 2021 Rioja’s governing body, Rioja DOCa, approved a number of measures that were aimed at preserving the region’s old vines. These included financial incentives and training.
‘Sometimes when you look back to the past you find solutions for the future,’ says Richi Arambarri, manager of Vintae, which owns Hacienda López de Haro in Rioja Alta. Its El Pacto range is going back to field blends, focusing on old vines.
The result is increasing diversity of wines – which can only be good news for Rioja lovers. As well as classic oaked styles for winter drinking, you’ll find fresh crunchy reds, refreshing rosés and crisp whites for summer months – and plenty in between.
‘There is space for this diversity in Rioja,’ says Raquel Pérez Cuevas of Queirón winery in Rioja Oriental, a fifth-generation producer. ‘There’s movement, a sense of change and making things better in Rioja.’
Top Riojas to enjoy this winter
Wines recommended by the Decanter team from recent tastings