Spotlight – Rioja

First off Happy New Year!

The themes for the majority of my blogs this year will look at both popular and lesser known wine regions and grape varieties as well as interesting wines I have tasted.  I am as always available to answer any wine questions you may have, just drop me a line.

Ok, onto this first post of 2018 – Rioja.  As I am sure most of you know, Rioja is a region in Northern Spain not a grape variety.  Rioja can be red, white or Rosado (Rose) and the variation in styles within these categories can be huge, but more on that later.

Rioja is one of currently only two Quality wine regions in Spain awarded the highest denomination level: in Rioja known as DOCa (DOQ in Priorat for those interested). Effectively this means the wines are subjected to higher levels of testing (by the Consejo Regulador) to ensure their quality.

The region of Rioja runs North-West to South-East and is divided into 3 zones along the river Ebro: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa (which touches on the Basque Region to the North) and Rioja Baja (which is the most south easterly area and is noticeably warmer and drier).

As a general rule, the better quality wines come from Alavesa and Alta, the greater quantities from Baja. Look for this on the label, it helps give you an idea of potential quality.

Grape Varieties

By law 14 grape varieties are allowed: 5 for the red wines of which Tempranillo and Garnacha (aka Grenache) are the most important. For the whites there is an even greater range of 9 varieties allowed: Viura (Macabeo) is the mainstay with Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca also traditionally used but latterly international varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are allowed to make up minority elements of any blend.

The most important thing to note about Rioja is that whilst single varietals do exist (see right), the majority of wines will be blends, with the dominant grape depending on the area of production: Tempranillo preferring the slightly cooler climate of the more northern parts of the region: Alta and Alavesa whereas the hotter drier Baja region sees Garnacha dominate production.

Decoding the label

Anyone who has drunk Rioja may be aware of the various terms that are seen on Rioja labels and all relate to the minimum amount of time spent in barrel prior to release which is longer than in other regions of Spain (bar Priorat). It’s also worth noting that most wines spend substantially longer in oak/being aged than the legal minimums shown below.

Note: historically American oak was the wood of choice for the barrel imparting characteristics of coconut and vanilla which was always a clear indicator in blind tastings as to the provenance of the wine, but these days more French or European oak is used which has more smoky, spicy notes.

Rioja tries to make things easier for the consumer by including coloured labels on the back of the bottle which shows the style of wine you are buying:

Joven – literally translates as ‘young’ and these wines are sold usually with very little if any ageing – with no oak characteristics, pure fruit driven style. Now often seen on labels purely denoted as ‘Rioja’.

Crianza – minimum of 12 months in barrel (minimum ageing 24 months)* – these wines have some oak influence but still retain a lot of primary red fruits with a touch of sweet spice evident.

Reserva – minimum of 12 months in barrel (minimum ageing 36 months)* – wines in this category are richer stylistically than Crianza and have more secondary characteristics due to the time spent in oak. Deeply coloured and with ripe red fruits evident they also exhibit lots of sweet spices: vanilla/coconut.

Gran Reserva – minimum of 24 months in barrel (minimum ageing 60 months)* – these wines are allegedly from ‘outstanding’ vintages and tend to be less deeply coloured with lighter more tawny tones at the rim (showing their age), they have less primary fruit than any other style, with more characteristics associated with ageing and the long time spent in oak (ie oxidative effects). Dried fruit, smoky, spicy.

* The above ageing requirements are for red wines, the whites follow a similar classification structure for oak ageing but with no legal requirement for oak for Crianza and less time spent in oak for Reserva/Gran Reserva. Most white and rosado wines though are Joven.

White Rioja has been less popular in the UK, this is probably because of the historical penchant for Spanish winemakers to leave these wines in new oak barrels for too long, resulting in a heavily oxidised, very oaky wine, deep gold in colour, butter, nuts, caramel, bruised apple (think sherry) characteristics rather than fresh fruit, which was something of an acquired taste.  These days modern technology has improved, oxidation has been reduced with barrel ageing much reduced (often to zero!) and wines are consequently more easily palatable retaining both freshness and fruit….thankfully.

Note: some winemakers are experimenting with barrel fermentation for whites so you may note this on the label too.

What to try?

Ultimately it depends on the style you prefer: oaky or fruit driven or a complex balance of the two.  If you want a simple slurper then a Joven works or a lighter Crianza but as part of a meal Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva are best – the richer the food, the richer the wine style is a simple rule of thumb – remember to match the wine with your food to complement not overpower.

So there you have it, Rioja explained. If you are wanting to try but don’t know which producers are worth exploring: you can’t go wrong with big brands such as Campo Viejo or Beronia for a more entry level introduction, personally I’m a big fan of Muga, Baron de Ley, Marques de Murriata, CVNE (or Cune) and last but by no means least: Cerro Anon.

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