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Rioja wine guide

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Rioja is Spain's fine wine capital, a region characterised by rich tradition and vibrant innovation.

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.

View our range of wines from Rioja

Geography

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 Baja, where garnacha flourishes in the hotter, more Mediterranean climate.
Map of Rioja Map of Rioja - Click to enlarge

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 crianza (see right) 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.

Styles of Rioja Styles of Rioja - Click to enlarge

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.

What's In A Barrel?
What's In A Barrel? - Click to enlarge
Rioja Grapes
Rioja Grapes - Click to enlarge

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 longaged 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 Minimum Ageing Laws Rioja Minimum Ageing Laws - Click to enlarge

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 barrel and one in bottle before release.

Reserva wines spend one year in 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 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.

Wines ageing at the historic La Rioja Alta bodega
Vintage Scores Vintage Scores - Click to enlarge

Recent vintage round-up

2011
Very dry conditions resulted in wines of great power and weight.

2010
This is a superb vintage, certainly the best since 2005. The wines balance freshness with concentration, some growers describing it as a mix of the elegant 2005s and the intense 2004s.

2009
A hot, dry summer and good harvest conditions meant grapes reached excellent maturity. The wines are rich, dense and flamboyant.

2008
A text-book year, with fine, elegant and very fragrant wines that, like 1998, are mainly to be enjoyed young.

2007
A complicated year requiring a super selective and protracted harvest. Ultimately considered very satisfactory and of good ageing potential.

2006
Lowest yields since 2001 and a generally favourable weather cycle, its wines are light, fragrant and mostly should be enjoyed now.

2005
A large, healthy, plentiful harvest; officially rated as exceptional and unprecedented, its wines are full, immediate and classy.

2004
A cold spring and wet August, but a large harvest of excellent quality for those skilled enough to deal with the tricky weather. Dark, well-structured wines; the best still unravelling.

2003
Irregular weather and an extremely hot, dry summer posed problems for harvesting and vinification. Officially rated good, but wines were thin and short-lived.

2002
Cold and drought affected development of the fruit, and yields in Rioja Alta and Alavesa were low. Initially, the quality looked doubtful, but it was a deceptive vintage, and many outlived the 2001s.

2001
Smaller harvest and goodquality fruit. An excellent vintage with some outstanding gran reservas being released now.

2000
Generally favourable conditions. Huge harvest, but abnormally high summer and autumn temperatures led to uneven quality and a good many wines that were simply bland.

Older vintages

1999
The worst April frost in memory delayed maturation, and summer rain resulted in mildew. Average.

1998
Biggest-ever vintage. Rain in the autumn delayed picking. Very good and very fine in their day.

1997
Little sun and much rain gave a large and patchy vintage. Poor.

1996
Cold spring and cool summer. Well-structured but fairly immediate, these were fragrant and appealing in their day.

Beyond this, if tempted to indulge in significantly older vintages - should you be able to find them - only choose those from a top house, make sure they've been stored properly, on no account either let them breathe or decant them and aim for 1955, 1956, 1960, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1970, 1975, 1978, 1981, 1982, 1985 or 1995.

View Spanish Wines >

Click here to read our Spain wine guide >

Click here to download this guide >

Click here to view our online vintage chart >

Updated May 2015

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