There is a wealth of historic producers, many of whom have been making wine for centuries, but recently the region 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. The geography of the area is also a contributing factor, spanning a terrain that stretches 75 miles from north-west to south-east resulting in diverse climates, topography and soil types – all of which further influence quality and wine style.
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Rioja is divided into three zones:
- Rioja Alta is located in the western, higher part of the region, and includes the winemaking town of Haro which is home to many of the best Bodegas (Muga, CVNE, La Rioja Alta, Roda). The vineyards lie high on the slopes of the Sierra Cantabria (up to 800 metres) resulting in grapes that ripen late yet retain lively acidity making for wines that can age well.
- Rioja Alavesa, further east in Basque country, shares many of the characteristics of Alta in that its vineyards grow some of the region's best grapes, in particular around the towns of Laguardia and Elciego. Alavesa's red wines are marked by their purity of fruit and beguiling scent.
- Further south, in the eastern section, is Rioja Oriental, where garnacha flourishes in the hotter, more Mediterranean climate.
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 crianza will be a blend of mostly tempranillo with some garnacha to add body. 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.
Winemaking – the different styles of Rioja
The best way to choose Rioja is to find a bodega that makes the style of wine you like as modern-day Rioja offers such a range, varying from the very traditional to the overtly international. Interestingly it was Bordeaux negociants who influenced winemaking in Rioja, showing the locals how to age wine in oak barrels. Today, Rioja's wine styles are largely determined by barrel maturation (type and age of oak as well as time spent in oak). At The Society, we focus on three key styles which are described below along with our pick of the best producers:
Traditional: fragrant, silky and delicate wines from long ageing in cask (usually American oak) and bottle. These are mostly ready to drink on release. The Society's Rioja, Navajas, Amezola and La Rioja Alta are traditional-style wines The Society follows.
Modern-classical: younger, rounder wines that retain the delicious character of Rioja through cask ageing (often a mix of American and French oak) with the structure to develop in bottle. Bodegas Muga, CVNE, Marqués de Mejia and Contino fall into this category.
Modern: richer, velvety wines aged for less time in newer (usually) French oak, which are released earlier and mostly need keeping. The best producers here are Roda, Paisajes and Lanzaga.
Rioja Blanco: white Riojas have changed the most. Viura, malvasia and garnacha blanca are the traditional grapes, producing interesting blends. Today most are made in a neutral, fruity style as the oak-aged whites of yesteryear have diminished in popularity. This is a pity as these long-aged whites were some of the world's most glorious wines. Lopez de Heredia in Haro is one of the few who still make them well.
Rioja wine law & age statements on labels
In 1926 Rioja established the first consejo regulador and so was the first Spanish wine to obtain Denominación de Origen status. The regulations govern many aspects of wine production but of most significance to wine drinkers are the rules specifying oak ageing:
Joven: wines that have had no oak ageing.
Crianza: wines must spend a minimum of one year in oak barrel and one in bottle before release.
Reserva: wines spend one year in oak barrel and two in bottle. Reserva wines are some of Rioja's finest.
Gran Reserva: wines are usually made in the best vintages where the fruit quality is rich enough to support two years in oak barrel and three in bottle.
What can be confusing is that these are minimum regulations and each house does its own thing. The more premium wines will often spend much longer in oak. The choice of which vintages will be suitable for the long-haul is each winery's decision.
In essence, therefore, a bodega that makes all four styles (not all do) will, at the time of writing, probably be selling 2012 Cosecha, 2011 Crianza, 2009 or 2010 Reserva, and either 2005 or 2006 Gran Reserva.