An Introduction to The Rioja Wine Region
Are you visiting the Rioja Wine Region and would like to learn more about Spanish wines? Do you know the main varieties of grapes grown in Rioja? Do you know the differences between a Crianza wine and a Gran Reserva wine? On this post, we want to share with you basic information about Rioja wines, so that you can brag a bit about your knowledge of Rioja wines the next time you enjoy one of these delectable juices with your friends and family.
The Rioja Wine Region is located in the north of Spain, on both sides of the Ebro river, and has the confluence of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean climates. The whole wine region is 65,326 hectares and is divided into 3 different areas: The Rioja Alta (27,347 hectares), Rioja Alavesa (13,389 hectares), and Rioja Oriental (24,590 hectares). The soil in the region is quite poor in organic content and can be divided into three types: calcareous clay with high limestone content, alluvial, and ferruginous clay soils. In total, there are more than 600 wineries registered under the Rioja DOC (“Qualified Designation of Origin”); 14,800 grape growers; 1,385,369 oak barrels to age the wines; all employed to produce a yearly average of 336 million liters of wine.
If you enjoy Spanish wines, you probably know that the main grape variety grown in Spain is Tempranillo and Rioja Wine Region is no exception. This type of grape has a low acidity, which results in smooth, light and aromatic wines that can be aged for a long period of time while still maintaining their quality. The Tempranillo variety represents 87.7% of the production from red grapes in Rioja. However, there are other varieties of red grapes also grown in Rioja, such as Garnacha (7.6%), Graciano (2.2%), Mazuelo (2.1%) and Maturana (0.3%), which are mainly used to blend the wines. For white wines, the Viura (a.k.a. Macabeo) is the main variety of grape grown in Rioja, making up 69.2% of the white grape production.
Even though there are excellent rosé and white wines produced in Rioja, the region has always been known for the quality of its red wines. Red winemakers in Rioja usually choose between two main production methods. The most common and widely used method involves removing the grapes (the fruit part) from the stems before initiating the fermentation process. In this way, winemakers are able to age the wines for a longer period of time. The other process, widely used by local winemakers of Rioja, involves placing the whole grape bunches (with the stems) into a tank. This method is called “Carbonic Maceration” and produces fruity and colorful young wines that are quite popular among the local people. Once the fermentation process has finished, the wines are aged first in Bordelaise style oak barrels with a capacity of 225 liters (59,4 Gallons) and second in the bottle for an additional period of time.
The Rioja wines can be classified either according to their origin or according to their ageing. On this post, we will focus only on the four different categories of wines recognized by the Rioja DOC according to their ageing process. If there is one thing that you must know about identifying Rioja wines, it is probably this. On the back of each bottle, there is a small label with a silvered seal which guarantees that the wine you are tasting has been produced according to the quality standards of the Rioja DOC. This seal can be one of four different colors depending on its ageing and provides specific information about the wine, like the year of its harvest or vintage with the word “cosecha” written next to it.
Generic or Young Wines of Rioja Wine Region
Green Label Color. They are usually fresh and fruity young wines that are no older than two years old. These types of wines are called “cosechero” or “vino del año”. The Rioja DOC has chosen to categorize generic or young wines under this label color, but with a little caveat. Under this category, Rioja also includes those types of wines that don’t follow the traditional ageing specifications established by the Rioja DOC Board in order for them to garner any of the other colored labels described below. Some of these strict rules include the capacity of the oak barrels used for the ageing process or the time the wine spends ageing, but we will explain these in a future post. In this sense, the green seal does not mean that the quality of the wines is poor or that they are necessarily “young” wines; this is why we always also recommend looking at the vintage of the wine detailed on that label.
Crianzas of Rioja Wine Region
Red Label Color. Crianza wines have been aged for at least one year in oak barrels and another year in the bottle before being released to the market. For the white wines the ageing time in oak barrels decreases to a minimum of six months. These are the types of wines that are usually served at a bar when you go out for pintxos.
Reservas of Rioja Wine Region
Maroon Label Color. Reserva wines have been aged for a minimum of one year in oak barrels and two years in the bottle. For whites and rosés, the ageing time decreases to two years with at least six months in the barrels. The grapes used for the production of these wines are carefully selected each vintage.
Gran Reservas of Rioja Wine Region
Blue Label Color. Gran Reserva wines have gone through an ageing process of at least five years, having spent a minimum of two years in oak barrels and three years in the bottle. For Gran Reserva white wines, the minimum is four years with at least six months in the barrel. These wines are usually only elaborated in years that have been rated as great vintages.
Although we must agree that it is not necessary to know any of these little facts in order to take great pleasure in a bottle of Rioja wine, understanding where and how these wines are made may enhance the experience for some people. So, there you go, now you can handily access these introductory details about our beloved Rioja Wine Region the next time you decide to purchase a bottle or pop open a Rioja at home. We will continue to add more interesting information about the Rioja Wine Region in future posts, so stay in the loop if you’d like to know more! And of course, if visiting Spain is in your future travel plans and you’d like to go on a Rioja wine tasting adventure with us, we’ll be happy to arrange a Rioja wine experience personalized just for you.