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La Rioja: Spain’s Treasured Wine Region

Vineyard in Rioja

When contemplating Spanish wine, I immediately think of strawberry scented, savory red Riojas.  Traditionally aged for long periods in oak prior to release, the fine wines of the region have a reputation for complexities that only this winemaking technique can impart.   Rioja’s winemaking style was greatly influenced by the winemakers of Bordeaux that went to the region in search of grapes after their own vines had been ravaged by the phylloxera louse in the second half of the 19th century.  The proximity of Rioja to Bordeaux has allowed the two wine regions to share a mutually beneficial relationship.  Rioja reds, made primarily from the Tempranillo grape, have characteristic aromas and flavors of rich red berries and plum, notes of tobacco and vanilla, and a distinctive earthiness about them.  The traditional wood aged white wines of the region, from both Malvasia and Viura grapes, have a unique oxidized style, with a rich golden color and nutty, caramel qualities.  Although modern winemakers have moved away from extreme ageing in order to preserve fruit purity, oak aged wines remain the hallmark of the region.

Rioja is named for the Río Oja (River Oja), which is a tributary of the River Ebro.  Running northwest, the River Ebro begins in the Catabrian Mountains and flows out to the Mediterranean, with vineyard growing along most of its length.  The Rioja region lies in the river’s northern reaches and is sheltered by mountains on three sides, creating an ideal environment for grape growing.  Rioja is divided into three subregions, Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja, which surround the city of Logroño.  Rioja Alta is south of the River Ebro and west of Logroño.  The climate here is influenced by the Atlantic and the Tempranillo grape thrives in the area’s iron-rich soils.  The white Viura grape is also at home here, taking well to the clay soils.  Rioja Alta has the highest elevation of the three subregions, the shortest growing season, and consequently, the wines produced here are of a lighter style.  Rioja Alavesa is west of Logroño and north of the River Ebro.  Tempranillo is the dominant grape of the subregion, creating some of the lightest, most elegant, red Rioja wines.  Rioja Alavesa gets the most rainfall of the subregions and has a somewhat cooler climate. East of Logroño and south of the river is the third subregion, Rioja Baja, whose climate is less influenced by the Atlantic and has much hotter summers and colder, harsher winters.  The Garnacha (Grenache) grape dominates in the Rioja Baja, and most of Rioja’s fruity Vino Joven comes from this area.

The wine laws of Spain are similar in structure to those of France and Italy, where wine quality and region are designated with a hierarchy of qualifications. In Spain, the highest qualification is Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) and Rioja was the country’s first wine region to be awarded the DOCa status in 1991.  Priorat is the only other DOCa area in Spain.

There are four classifications relating to the length of time Rioja DOCa wines are aged:  Vino Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva.  These classifications apply to all of Spain, but the ageing requirements for Rioja are longer than for any other region.  Even still, Rioja wines are often aged beyond the minimum requirements! (See the chart below for a quick reference to Rioja’s wine age categories and requirements.)

RIOJA RED RIOJA WHITE & ROSADO
CRIANZA 1 year in oak + 1 year in bottle 6 months in oak + 6 months in bottle
RESERVA 1 year in oak + 2 years in bottle 6 months in oak + 1.5 years in bottle
GRAN RESERVA 2 years in oak + 3 years in bottle 6 months in oak + 3.5 years in bottle

Vino Joven, which translates to Young Wine, isn’t required to age in oak casks and is bottled in the year after vintage.  Although Vino Joven Riojas can potentially enter the market a few months after the harvest, the wines may still spend some time in casks prior to release.  These young wines exhibit pure fruit character and the majority are sold and consumed within Spain.

Rioja red wines that are labeled Crianza or Reserva must be aged in oak for at least one year, with any remaining time spent ageing in bottle.  Crianza reds must be two years old prior to release, spending at least a year of that time in oak, while Reservas must be three years old, spending at least a year in oak.  Gran Reserva red wines are given the most exposure to oak, spending at least two years in casks and must be a total of five years old before release.

Rioja white and rosado (rosé) wines bearing the Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva label must all spend at least six months of time in oak casks, each having a progressively greater total age.  Prior to release, Crianza whites and rosados must be one year, Reservas must be two years old and Gran Reservas must be four years old.   Although wood aged whites and rosados have gone out of fashion, they are still produced by Rioja’s iconic bodegas, such as López de Heredia and Marqués de Murrieta.

To get a taste of La Rioja’s exquisite wines, try a bottling from Bodegas Muga (Muga winery), such as the 2004 Bodegas Muga Rioja Reserva Selección Especial, made of 70% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha and 10% Mazuelo and Graciano.  This highly rated Reserva selection from the Rioja Alta subregion can be kept in cellar for another 20 years.  Bodegas Muga is an excellent Rioja producer, with a reputation for ample, powerful wines with intricate, intense aromatics and superbly balanced tannins.

The 2004 Finca Allende Calvario Rioja is a single vineyard Rioja which garnered 95 points from both Wine Advocate and Wine Enthusiast.  This complex, elegant small production Rioja (only 650 cases were made), will age gracefully for another 25 years.

If you’re after a mature wine with substantially more age under it’s belt, try the 1964 Bodegas Faustino Rioja Faustino I Gran Reserva, made of 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano and 5% Mazuelo.  Wine Enthusiast gave the wine 94 points and compared it to a fine, aged Bordeaux or Burgundy.  Bodegas Faustino was established in 1861 and has been passed down through four generations.

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