Spain's Rioja is undoubtably one of the world's great wine wine regions. What's even better is that it's also one of the most affordable wine categories to test the waters with if you still haven't experienced many bottles of it. The reds are based upon the indigenous grape variety called Tempranillo, which is a medium to full-bodied red wine that takes very well to long aging periods both in the barrel and in the bottle. Tempranillo is very close to Merlot in a tactile sense, but tastes a little more rustic and similar to Italy's sangiovese, but with a touch less acidity. The white's are very unique here as well, and are made primarily from the another indigenous variety called Viura. These white's are different from most other Spanish white wines in that they are often barrel aged for lengthy periods. We won't dive too deeply into the origins and incredibly history of Rioja, but let's just mention that the earliest written evidence of the grape being grown in Rioja dates back to the year 873 AD.
The Geography and Climate
Rioja is located in North Central Spain on the south of the Cantabrian Mountains along the Ebro river. La Rioja is a continental climate and is protected by the mountains and river which lends a moderating effect. The region is situated a-top a plateau and resides about 1500 ft above sea level. The landscape is subdivided into three distinct regions: Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta, and Rioja Baja. The Alaves and the Alta are located north closer towards the mountains and are cooler regions because of their slightly high elevations. The Rioja Baja is located in the Southeast portion of the region and is warmer, also receives quite a bit less precipitation the the aforementioned.
Viticulture and Vineyards
Rioja has roughly 57,000 acres of land under vine and has an estimated annual yield of about 250 million liters of wine. The soils are primarily clay based, and have high concentrations of chalk, iron, limestone, and alluvial silt. 85% of the wine made in Rioja is red and the red grapes grown here are Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache), Graciano, and Mazuelo. Most wineries use a very high concentration of Tempranillo in their blends, and for this reason when people speak of Rioja, they almost always speak of Tempranillo. White Rioja is made primarily with Viura, however Malvasia and Garnacha blanca are also blended for added aromas and textures. There are also quite a few rose wines produced here too, which are made with a variety of varietals especially the aromatic Garnacha. Being that Rioja is quite a historical wine region and many bodegas have been there for around a century, there are lots of great vineyard sites with old vines fruit. The most sought after grapes are grown in the limestone/sandstone based soils of the Alta and Alavesa. These low-yielding and high concentrated berries produce wines of distinction and many times make up a large part of what goes into a Gran Reserva.
An unmistakable characteristic of Rioja is the way the wines are influenced by oak and by long-term aging. In the 18th century the use of oak was introduced to Rioja by the Bordelais vintners and from then on the vanilla and oak flavor has been a trademark of these wines. Originally the proprietors opted for French oak barrels, however when prices began to increase unsustainably, many bodegas started using American oak barrels which were far more inexpensive at the time. American oak most often imparts a stronger flavor profile because of the loose grain of the wood. Many older producers still use a lot of American Oak, but increasingly modern producers are moving towards the more fashionable flavor profile imparted by tightly grained French oak cooperage. In times past it was not entirely too uncommon for producers to age their wines and hold them back from release for 15-10 years. Some staunch traditionalist still to this day stretch the aging limits much past the minimum requirements, however much more common amongst modern day producers is to produce a fresher style and one that has more general appeal to the foreign markets. A fascinating statistic to consider is that the typical Rioja bodega is in possession of anywhere from 10,000-40,000 oak barrels.
As with all European wine making countries, Spain has a intricate system of wine laws put into place to govern qualitative standards within the vineyards and the cellar. The wines in Rioja are classified into four basic categories. First, the easily named "Rioja" classification is for young wines that typically spend less than a year aging and many times not even in oak barrels. Next, is the category called "Crianza" which is wine aged for a minimum of two years, one of which must be in oak. "Reserva" is the following classification where the wines take a step up in quality with the producer and they must be aged for a minimum or three years, of which one year is required in oak. The final category which is saved for the best wines the producer will release are called "Gran Reserva". These are wines made in only the best years and produced with the best grapes that the bodega can source. The minimum aging requirements for a Gran Reserva are five years of total aging, two of which must be aged in oak barrels. Many producers opt to age their Gran Reserva wines for even longer than the minimum standards.