Regional guides

Getting to know Rioja

Our Director of Wine explains how to get to know Rioja, including what the label can tell you about how it was made, and what you can expect from the wine.

Ricardo Arumbarri
Ricardo Arumbarri and raul Acha from Lopez de Haro with our Director of Wine, Pierre Mansour

Rioja is Spain’s most distinguished and widely known wine region, with a long history and centuries-old bodegas. Its geography is large, spanning different climates, soils and grape varieties. It is modern and forward-thinking, but rooted firmly in tradition. Recently it has seen the arrival of a new wave of ultra-modern bodegas that are pushing the boundaries and taking the wines to even greater heights. As a result, Rioja has a wonderful variety of styles – there is no single ‘typical’ Rioja so it can be daunting to choose. This is where we can help – here, I explain the basics behind ageing classifications and the main grapes of the region. The wines alongside introduce everything from delicious, distinctive blancos to concentrated, exotic reds and mellow, oak-aged styles.

Masters at ageing – crianza, reserva and gran reserva

Rioja sets the standard when it comes to oak ageing. The labels are incredibly helpful because they show the ageing clearly – a fundamental factor in how the wine tastes.

A crianza is aged for at least 12 months in barrel before release. They tend to be deep in colour, ruby red with red fruit flavour, a touch of oak spice and a good introduction to the oaky style of red Rioja. Higher up the ladder are reserva and gran reserva, which are Rioja’s classic wines, ranking among the world’s finest. Reservas are matured for at least three years and gran reservas for five years. This long ageing is an oxidative process so these wines are usually mahogany red to garnet in colour. The flavours are enticing, savoury and multi-dimensional, with silky soft tannins and smooth texture.

But don’t reject reds with no ageing description, or so called generic reds. These can be some of Rioja’s most inventive and exciting styles, often harnessing an expression of a specific vineyard or grape variety such as the Contino and Gómez Cruzado wines.

Rioja 2

Blancos

The whites of Rioja are on the biggest trajectory and quality is being transformed. We focus strictly on the region’s local grapes - viura, malvasia and tempranillo blanco. Styles vary from glorious, barrel-fermented and long-aged wines like Allende to fresh, fruity and precise styles like Javier San Pedro’s excellent Las Levantadas.

Rioja reds — the grapes

Tempranillo is the most important grape and is at the heart of Rioja's best wines. It makes abundantly fruity, light wines and has a special affinity with oak-ageing, becoming graceful, silky and perfumed with time. A typical red will be a blend of mostly tempranillo with some garnacha to add body. Garnacha is becoming more popular and some producers experiment successfully by giving it the leading role. Graciano (a fine Rioja speciality, prized for its aroma and acidity) and mazuelo (the Riojan name for carignan which gives tannin and colour) are also used to complement the final blend.

Discover Pierre’s selection 

Pierre Mansour

Director of wine and buyer for Spain

Pierre Mansour

Pierre Mansour joined the buying team in 2003 and was promoted to the position of Head of Buying in 2017 and then Director of Wine in 2019. He is responsible for Spain and Lebanon.

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