About Rioja Wines
Talk of Spanish Wine and Rioja immediately enters the conversation as it is still the most visible export from this great wine producing country.
The region of Rioja surrounds the river Ebro that carves its way through Spain’s north east territories it and takes its name from the province of ‘La Rioja,’ with the capital Logrono as its wine centre.
Finding The Best Rioja
The red wine of Rioja first became a much loved style in the 1970’s and is still regarded as the pre-eminent of all of Spanish wine.
The harvesting of wines in Rioja has ancient historical connections with the Phoenicians and Celtiberians, with written evidence of vines being cultivated here as far back as 873.
La Rioja benefits from a continental climate and the Cantabrian Mountains help to isolate the region giving some protection to the vineyards from the fierce winds that are typical of northern Spain. The region is also home to the Rio Oja [Oja river], believed to have given the La Rioja its name.
La Rioja has three principal regions of wine production - Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja with each area producing its own unique expression of Rioja wine. All three regions make red [Tinto] white [Blanco] and rose [Rosado] wines.
"In 1635 the mayor of Logrono, the capital of Rioja, prohibited the passing of carts through streets near wine cellars in case the vibrations caused a deterioration of the quality of the wine!"
The levels of classification in Rioja are dictated by the length of time the wine has been matured in barrel and bottle before being released for sale.
Rioja Wine Classification:
The lowest category – Joven Rioja is given to the new wines and means’ young’. These wines can have a delicious cherry like taste and are quite often served chilled. Not much is exported.
Next is Crianza Rioja – Wines that must be matured for 1 year in barrel and 1 year in bottle. Following are Reserva Rioja wines that must spend 1 year in barrel and two years in bottle, with Gran Reserva Rioja wines maturing for two years in wood and a further 3 years in bottle.
Traditionally the wood used for barrels in Rioja is American oak, favoured for providing a natural sweetness of vanilla. This is preferred to the softer oaks of France such as Limousin. However more modern producers are changing to French to try and achieve more subtle flavours.
Tempranillo is the main grape variety of the reds, supported by Garnacha [Grenache] which lends a helping hand of spice to the wine and gives an edge to the ‘more softer’ fruit style of Tempranillo.
The White Wines of Rioja have mixed receptions in the wine world, the traditional style is heavily oaked and deliberately ‘oxidized’ to give a golden yellow colour, with an aroma almost like sherry, whereas the ‘new style’ for the whites is fresh and clean, fermented in stainless steel vats at low temperatures, maximising the fruit flavours. Often made without the use of oak maturation these wines are light and delicious and mostly produced to drink young, from 1-3 years. Some however will go longer.
"The King of Navarra and Aragon gave the first legal recognition of Rioja wine in 1102!"
The grape varieties for white wines are not so well known in the wine world outside of Spain – the quite ordinary Viura and the more perfumed and musky Malvasia.
The roses [rosados] tend to be quite powerful, similar to the Tavel Rose of the Rhone Valley, giving characteristics of slightly over-ripe fruits such as peaches and strawberries.
So as the main export of the region are the reds, we will feature the main characteristics that you should expect from a good Rioja in the form of Tempranillo, being the dominant grape variety.
On the Eye: Young wines should be bright, clear and purple in colour with a slight garnet rim, ageing to a deep violet
On the Nose: A distinctive toffee, chocolate and strawberry aroma with hints of vanilla with fruits of the forest as they mature.
On the Palate: Can be quite light strawberry and vanilla in younger wines moving on to be big, rich and luscious as they age with heavy tannins.
Matching Rioja with Food
Young Rioja wines pair well with red and white meats as they have good fruit flavours. Grilled lamb and pork are ideal, but not with heavy or powerful sauces.
Older wines will certainly fit well with red meats and game, especially duck. Crispy duck with fruits and the classic Duck a l’Orange. Pheasant is a traditional Spanish favourite, roasted or casseroled in Rioja.
When you have chosen your Rioja from our list you may just want to enjoy it with simple roast lamb or beef, you can’t go wrong!
Alan Hunter AIWS,