Riojas have a lot in common with Bordeauxs. Both wines are made from a traditional distinct and time-tested blend of a few different varietals. Any wine classified as a Rioja will be a Tempranillo-based blend that incorporates smaller amounts of Garnacha, Mazuelo, and Graciano grapes. Rioja is especially known for the notes of vanilla and leather that develop while the wine spends time in oak barrels. Like Bordeauxs, the very best Riojas are wines that can age for decades and sell for thousands.
Also like Bordeaux, Rioja is a wine that takes its name from the famed and storied region where it is grown. Rioja has been Spain’s premier wine producing region for about as long as Spaniards have made wine. Rioja can traditionally be broken down into three smaller areas: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja. No matter where they’re grown, however, these wines are always made up of the same distinctive blend of grapes mentioned earlier.
Wines from the three areas of Rioja are usually fairly distinct due to differences in soil composition and climate. The wines from Rioja Alta are probably the most well-known the world over and are made in a traditional style that favors a lighter red wine that’s easy to drink and especially food friendly. Wines from Rioja Alavesa, on the other hand, are big full-bodied wines with high acidity and tasting notes of ripe red fruit set off by pronounced oak flavors. Lastly, Rioja Baja produces wines that are usually too alcoholic to drink on their own and so most of the grapes grown in the area are used as blending grapes for Riojas from the other two regions.
Riojas can also be categorized according to the amount of time they spent aging in oak. Crianzas are aged between 1 and 2 years, with at least 6 months in oak. Reservas are aged 2 to 3 years, at least 6 months to 1 year in oak barrels. Gran Reserva wines must be aged 4 to 5 years, 6 to 36 months in oak.
Sierra Cantabria Crianza 2006 $14.00
Beronia Crianza 2007 $15.00
La Rioja Alta Viña Alberdi Reserva 2003 $20.00
Marques de Caceres Gran Reserva 2001 $25.00
CUNE Gran Reserva Imperial 1999 $55.00
R. Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva 1991 $100.00
Rioja is a unique blend of distinct grapes — so if you like Rioja, there is only one place to get it! However if you like Rioja, here are some other Spanish reds you might enjoy trying:
Try: Priorat, one of the other great wines from Spain. Priorat is a very arid rocky area in the North East region of Catalonia. The wines that are made in the area are made mostly from a blend of Garnacha, Carniñena, and Syrah. Don’t mistake these for easy-drinking Rioja Altas – these are big powerhouse reds known for their complex and muscular structure. Like the best Riojas, however, these are wines that can be aged and often come with a hefty price tag.
Try: Montsant. Yet another Spanish wine named for place rather than varietal, Montsant neighbors Priorat and often uses the same grapes but throws Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot into the mix more frequently than the winemakers next door. The result is a wine that is brighter and riper than most Priorats and with a musky rather than an earthy quality.
Try: Mencia. Mencia is one of the great still undiscovered regional treasures from Spain. Grown in the North East part of Spain frequently known as “Green Spain” this is a bright, light, and delicious wine that is just about due to step out onto the world stage. Mencia has great acidity and a light body that makes it a great food wine just like the best Rioja Altas but shines on its own or with a slight chill, too, and frequently has flavors of cranberries and cherries.
For more information on the episode featuring Rioja, click Episode Guide: Relishing Riojas from Spain.
Photo of Tempranillo grapes courtesy of Vibrant Rioja.