Rioja is one of the two Denominaciones de Origen Calificadas in Spain (the other one being Priorato). It is the most well-known Spanish appellation abroad, producing more than 300 million bottles a year. And the one serving as an entry door to Spanish wines. It has then both a strategic and image role.
The three sub-regions of Rioja
Rioja is a viticultural region with 63.500 ha under vine, gathering 600 bodegas, 18.000 vine growers and 120.000 plots, all of which are thoroughly identified and characterized by the Consejo Regulador (Rioja’s regulatory body). This extension of vineyards is divided into three different areas: Rioja Alta (43% of all vineyards), Rioja Alavesa (20%) and Rioja Baja (37%).
Globally speaking, we can say that Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa have an Atlantic climate while Rioja Baja – the most easterly area of all – would have a more Mediterranean type of climate.
Tempranillo is mainly grown in Rioja Alta, along with Mazuelo and Graciano in the hotter areas. Rioja Alavesa will also be a perfect place for tempranillo while Rioja Baja will favourably greet Garnacha.
Soils, along with climate and vine exposure, are quite different: clay-based and often alluvial in the north, meanwhile iron and chalk rich outcrops can be found in Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. In short, a passionate winemaker from Rioja can here work with many nuances and make his or her own particular interpretation of this outstanding terroir.
Main and complementary grapes
Speaking about red varieties, the Tempranillo grape is by far the most widely planted, representing more than 75% of all vineyards. Apart from tempranillo, other varieties are used and usually blended with it: garnacha, mazuelo and graciano. Tempranillo is a good base for Rioja wine: it brings a fair alcohol level (around 13%) and when yields are reasonable (around 55 hl/ha or less) enough colouring matter and polyphenols to make a very personal wine.
However, like in a musical score where a single note cannot make a symphony, Tempranillo goes well with garnacha, which gives strength and warmth (alcohol degree can reach sixteen percent) and mazuelo. This latter variety completes the other two with acidity and tannins, adding some extra ageing potential to the wines. Graciano in turn will bring some more structure and sharpness to the final blend.
When it comes to white wines, Viura (called macabeo in north-eastern Spain) and Malvasía are the two cornerstones that are part of the traditional blends. Viura – at the time added to red wines to give them some extra acidity and brightness – has a strong personality and complexity. Malvasía will bring a longer living capacity as well as more weight and a good marriage with oak barrels. Garnacha Blanca is another traditional grape used in blends. The novelty comes from the recent introduction of verdejo, native from Rueda and a couple of international very famous varieties: Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc.
The style of the wines
The style of the wines is definitely marked by legislation and the length of time wines stay both in wood and in bottle. Joven Rioja will be fresh, fruity and vibrant; crianza will be a more serious wine, the teenager of the family, just starting to discover some composure after troubled times. Reserva will be the adult wine, with a story to tell and some thoughts to share with the drinker. Gran Reserva is the grand-father, the elderly member, sending wisdom and peace to the Rioja fan.
Besides these styles – and sometimes intertwined with them – are sub-zonal wines (coming from a single sub-region), finca wines (single estate) or pago wines (single vineyard). Some mono varietal wines, based on secondary grapes, are part of the viticultural landscpae: 100% Graciano, Mazuelo or Garnacha bottles can be found, even though they are not the most common kind of wines.
White wines follow the same classification as reds (that is joven, crianza, reserva and gran reserva). However, for these wines, general ageing in wood and bottle is shortened compared to red Riojas.
Our 10 favourite wines
97 points – Prado Enea 1973. Bodegas Muga: Delicate and subtle, with a good overall freshenss and complexity (leather, tobacco, sweet spices). A must. After the mythical 1970 vintage, 73 is a great value of the decade.
96 points – Castillo de Cuzcurrita Reserva 2005: This wine has layers and layers of complexity, soft round integrated tannins. It has the elegance of a Bordeaux first growth.
96 points – Barón de Chirel 2006. Marqués de Riscal: A celebrated icon wine.Coming from very old vines, A dark cherry colour wine, with toasted and spicy aromas along with ripe, dark-berried fruit and a complex and elegant with a long, balanced finish.
95 points – Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva 1971: López de Heredia. Another classic Rioja wine. Deeper incolor that the Muga 1973, it shows a bright color and offers a perfect balance between aromatics and freshness. On the subtle, elegant side. Pretty long finish. Elegance and delicacy are part of this wine.
95 points – Amancio 2010. Viñedos y Bodegas Sierra Cantabria: After destemming and fermentation in 10 hl oak vats, the wine is aged in new French oak barrels for 24 months. A new style Rioja with lots of personality given by the tempranillo grape
94 points – Muga Reserva 2010. Bodegas Muga: A rather renovated Rioja, with depth and elegance. A real pleasure to drink now, even if it can be kept for 10 year
94 points – Pagos Viejos 2010. Bodegas Artadi: Another modern style Rioja: concentrated, with a new expression of the tempranillo grape. Bright, long finish where fine oak and clove aromas dominate
92 points – Contino. Viña del Olivo 2010: Tempranillo and graciano wine, very representative of this grape. Good freshness and soft tannins, lively and charming, with lots of fruit and integrated oak.
89 points – Allende blanco 2013: This white wine, viura based, is amazing. It has the body and charm of a great white wine, with citrus and lots of stone fruit.
89 points – Viña Ardanza Reserva 2010. 89. A classic wine, which has introduced a step by step and discrete change in its style, leaving the wines less time in wood. A juicy, flavourful and incredible tempranillo from Rioja that has seduced generations of drinkers and continues to do so.