For this blog post, we're heading to Spain and their celebrated wine region, La Rioja. You can watch my video from 2020, or continue reading below...
June 9th is "The day of La Rioja"- it’s an annual holiday in the Spanish region, which commemorates the anniversary of when the autonomous community statute was approved in 1982. Everyone has the day off school and work to take part in events, contests, communal meals, and no doubt, some wine tasting.
La Rioja is situated inland from the Northern coast, but the seven rivers flowing through the area regulate the temperatures of the hot climate. One of the rivers, the Rio Oja, gives the area its name, whilst the River Ebro is the dominant water course, meandering through the valley. The region is split into three wine areas, but generally, wines will be labelled as a Rioja and can use grapes from all three areas.
The vast majority of Rioja wines - around 90% - are made from red grapes. The dominant grapes for red wine are Tempranillo and Garnacha (the Spanish name for Grenache). A few other local grape varieties are permitted. Just under 10% of wines are white wines. Viura is by the far the most common grape used for white Rioja, but again, a few other varieties are allowed to a lesser extent.
The way Rioja wines are separated is by its ageing. There are four different styles, and to help you identify them, there is a colour coding on the back of the bottle.
The youngest wines - these may be called Joven (the Spanish word for Young) have a green square on the back. These are base entry wines, have no requirement to have any aging, and will taste fruity but not have any complexity. You’ll get plenty of red Riojas of this class and price range in the supermarkets.
As 90% of the Rioja wine is red, the following information about ageing only applies to red Rioja wines. There are different rules for the whites, which generally have less time in oak.
The next level up from Joven is Crianza - it should say so on the label, but will have a cherry red square on the back of the bottle. To qualify as a Crianza wine, it must have had a year in an oak barrel. This adds a touch of complexity to the wine, flavours of cherry and cedar, with a distinctive little smokiness. It’s a better quality than the young joven wines, but with an accessible price tag.
Then we start getting serious and go up to the Reserva wines. On the back, the square is burgundy red, and producers will only use grapes from vintages that have been good. These wines have to be aged for at least three years, one of which has to be in oak.
So to the pinnacle of the Riojas... the Gran Reservas. The square on the back is navy blue, and these wines - like the Reservas are only from the best grapes from the best vintages, and will be aged even longer. The legal requirement is to have at least five years ageing - of which two must be in oak and at least three in bottle. That doesn’t mean that all the Gran Reservas are five years old, many are left a lot longer and only released when ready.
The ageing process changes the taste and the colour of the wines - with age, the fruit flavours will make way for the oakiness, and you’ll get increasing amounts of dusty tobacco. Cherry red colours in the young wines become subtley darker, and a very old Rioja will appear almost garnet.
The longer the wine has aged, the more expensive the bottle will be. In the supermarkets, the entry level wines are around the £5 mark, with the Crianzas anywhere between £7 - £12. With the Reserva wines, expect to pay upwards of £10, although look out for supermarket offers. You will find Gran Reserva wines in the supermarket, usually the big commercial brands, and these will range from £10 - £20, but there’s really no upper limit for a quality Gran Reserva from a smaller producer who has aged the wines from really special vintage years. You'll have to look online or in independent wine merchants if you want to splash out.
In terms of pairing food with Rioja, simply think Spain. What grows together, goes together, so enjoy alongside chorizo, steak, or strong manchego cheese.
For the young whites, this fresh and summery wine will pair nicely with simple grilled fish, maybe garlic prawns, or a little squid. And a hot summers day!