In partnership with ARAEX GrandsEverything you need to know about this key Spanish wine region...
In partnership with ARAEX Grands
Rioja fact file
Rioja DOC covers 63,500 ha of vineyards, spreading through three administrative regions: La Rioja, Basque Country and Navarra, 144 municipalities, and hundreds of distinctive vineyard sites.
Climate: Moderate maritime climate, influenced by the Atlantic Ocean.
Soils: Mostly clay soils, with some limestone.
Grapes: Red – Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo, Graciano, Maturana Tinta.
White – Viura, Malvasía de Rioja, Garnacha Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Blanca and Turruntés de Rioja Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo.
Annual production 2017: 349 million kg*
Max. yield per hectare: Red – 6,500 kg. White – 9,000 kg.*
*Source: Consejo Regulador de la D.O.Ca. Rioja
Despite being the most renowned Spanish region, few connoisseurs understand the full picture of quality and diversity in Rioja. Entry-level consumers see Rioja as attractive mid-body, soft vanilla-scented food-friendly red wines.
This makes sense, since this style of wines can be found in all supermarkets. Many people go up the ladder into higher categories, but most of them remain at that level or move on to other wine regions, thinking erroneously that Rioja has little else to offer.
This is a pity. There is great diversity in Rioja. It is a wine country on its own; few regions can claim to excel in young and old red and white wines, rosé, sparkling and sweet.
Whites can be fruity wines made of up to nine different varieties and their combinations – complex expressive terroir wines from single vineyards – are rare jewels that are aged on oak for decades, or anything in between. Rosé wines can be pink, fruity charming beverages, complex rosés made on their lees or the unique wonder of rosé aged for almost a decade in old oak vats.
Red wines go from juicy carbonic maceration to extracted long-maceration wines, from single vineyards to mastery regional blends, from almost reductive styles to seductively oxidative gran reserva, from wines to drink before the next harvest to wines to drink next century, from dense Tempranillos to floral Garnachas to elegant Gracianos to wild Mazuelos.
This is not all; sparkling wines are also made using the traditional method, and most relevant Rioja sparkling wines are sold within the Cava appellation.
Now that vermouth is also back to the forefront, do not forget to try the century-old formulas of some bodegas. You will be surprised and delighted. Or try the rare supurados, amarone-style delicious sweet wines – one of several Rioja sweet wine styles.
A second argument to love Rioja is the best wines’ ageing potential: Rioja is one of the five classic wine areas in the world that can consistently show many old, often centennial, wines of unsurpassable quality, both red and white (and even a rosé!). Icon Rioja is a smart long-term investment.
There is another Rioja feature that is likely to evaporate swiftly: low prices. No classic region matches Rioja’s amazing offer at mid-range prices. Rioja is a top quality region and, for a short time I am afraid, a land of wonderful wines at good prices, an affordable opportunity to taste greatness.
Rioja sub regions
Present Rioja regulations only distinguish three historical wine regions: Rioja Baja, Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa.
Until recently, the most popular Rioja brands used to be blends of grapes from two or three of those sub-regions, although some boutique wineries used to produce wines coming from their own vineyards in just one sub-region.
Rioja Alta: Grapes – Tempranillo, Mazuelo
Hectares: Over 27,000*
Rioja Alavesa: Grapes – Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano. White – Viura, Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca
Hectares: Over 13,000*
Rioja Baja: Grapes – Garnacha
Hectares: Over 24,500 hectares*
*Source: Consejo Regulador de la D.O.Ca. Rioja
Late last century, the market success of a new wave of producers that put more emphasis on the vineyard developed interest for vineyard designation. After a long debate process, it seems that by 2018 the DOC Rioja will adopt new rules, including recognition of the municipalities and single vineyards (“Viñedos Singulares”).
To qualify for this classification, producers will have to comply with certain rules, including having vines more than 35 years old, that grapes are entirely hand harvested and a tasting committee will oversee it. This label with then be combined with the current Rioja labelling rules on barrel-ageing.
The objective is to have a Burgundy-like scheme with generic wines, villages and the crus. Thankfully Rioja is more complex than any law. I think that classic cross-zone blend wines will shine in their unique style, many other wines will be renowned because of their single-vineyard quality and there will be a myriad of in-between high quality proposals.
The only thing that Rioja lacks is simplicity.
A word from our sponsor ARAEX Grands
Explore the wines of Rioja with some of our recommendations…
Rolland & Galarreta Rioja
With state-of-the-art winemaking and vineyards located between 450 and 700 meters altitude, the wine is made from grapes of low yielding vines at least 25 years old. On the palate, it shows soft tannins and liquorice, a velvety structure and a long, delicious and persistent finish.
Lar de Paula, Merus 4
The winery itself has been built with a single purpose in mind: transforming the finest grapes into great wine through a process in which excellence is the primary concern. The wine has very powerful toasty notes (cocoa and coffee) of high quality wood, perfectly blended with ripe fruit.
Castillo Labastida, Reserva Especial
Grapes sourced from vineyards around the village of Labastida (Rioja Alavesa) of an avergae age of 55 years old, at an altitude of between 500 and 560 hectares in the foothills of Sierra Cantabria. The wine is full, with a good presence of the tannins, although these are offset by the glycerine-like character, resulting in a fleshy feel. Long lasting and lingering.
Luis Cañas, Reserva Familia
Grapes for this wine are sourced from vineyards of at leat 50 years of age with low yields and hand picked. Complex variety of aromas which combine to give us an intense, sophisticated wine.