Around the World of Wine - Rioja

In this second installment of our 'Around the World of Wine' blog we're going to take a closer look at Spain's most famous red wine producing region (although it's not all red), Rioja.

Geography and Climate - Rioja is a region of Northern Spain, not far from the Pyrenees and Atlantic coast. Despite it's close proximity to the coast it is considered to have a continental climate, largely due to the shielding effect of the Cantabrian Mountains that take the brunt of what the Atlantic weather systems have to offer. Continental climates are characterized by high seasonal temperature fluctuations, from hot summers to cold winters, with most rainfall concentrated in the winter and spring.

The River Ebro runs through the heart of the region, which is split into three main growing areas. To the east is Rioja Baja, the hottest part or Rioja, to the west is Rioja Alta, where the more traditional lighter Riojas come from, and Rioja Alavesa in the center, where the wines are more concentrated due to the poorer soils and lower grape yields.

Grape Varieties - Of the red grapes varieties grown in Rioja, Tempranillo is by far most widely planted, and typically makes up between 60% and 90% of the blend. It has a lot of flavour, often summer berries and plum, but does sometimes lack acidity and sugar, so hence the fact that other varieties are blended in to produce a balanced wine.

Those other red varieties are Garnacha (Grenache in France), Graciano and Mazuelo. Garnacha tends to add body to the wine with the other two varieties adding flavour and aroma.

White Rioja is predominantly made from Viura, with Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca used as the 'seasoning' varieties.

Wine Production and Classification - Traditionally both red and white Rioja was aged in oak barrels, and although this is still largely the case, there are more whites being produced that are un-oaked. The type of barrel used has quite an influence on the finished wine, and in recent times Rioja producers have used a high proportion of barrels made from American oak. These tend to impart a slightly sweeter spice than French oak barrels, so it's not uncommon for vanilla and caramel flavours to come through in the finished wine. Quite often it's a combination of both types of barrel so that no flavour dominates too much.

It is the ageing process that determines the classification of a wine in Rioja, and these are as follows (for red Rioja):

Joven (young) - These are wines that have spent no or very little time on oak and are labelled just as Rioja

Crianza - Wines that have been aged at the winery for two years, with at least one year in oak.

Reserva - Wines that have been aged at the winery for at least three years, with at least one year in oak.

Gran Reserva - Wines that have been aged for at least two years in oak and three years in bottle.

Reserva and Gran Reserva wines are not necessarily produced every year. In poorer vintages the original wine might not be of sufficient quality to benefit from this length of ageing. As wines age in barrel they tend to oxidise a little, so the initial fruit flavours and tannins lessen and spicier secondary flavours become more prominent. If it doesn't start off with a good structure and plenty of fruit flavour then it won't be a pleasant balanced wine at the end.

It is for this reason that the words Reserva and Gran Reserva on a label don't necessarily mean it's a better wine. Be very aware of Reservas and Gran Reservas below the £10 mark as they might often be rather lacking in any fruit flavour.

When they're good, however, they're really good, and few other red wines can touch a well aged Rioja for levels of complexity.