You’ve probably heard of Rioja wine (pronounced Ree-o-her) but do you know where it comes from? Is it a brand name, is it the name of a grape or the name of a place? Well, this article will help to answer all these questions and tell you everything you need to know about this historically popular wine.
What is Rioja?
Rioja is the name of a wine region in northern Spain that spans across three provinces. La Rioja, Navarra and Álava. The region is sheltered by the Cantabrian mountains along the northern edge with the River Ebro running parallel to them throughout the heart of the region.
One of the many tributaries to the Ebro is the River Oja, or Rio Oja, after which the region gained its name. The mountains and the rivers offer protection and help to regulate the hot continental climate making this an ideal area for the production of wines as well as cereal crops and the regional speciality; white asparagus (esparragos blancos).
The region is sub-divided into three distinctive zones. Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental (formerly known as Rioja Baja). They represent the highest altitude vineyards to the lowest altitude respectively.
Why is Rioja so popular in the UK?
Britons’ first awareness of Rioja dates back to the late Middle Ages, leading up to the time of the French Revolution. Rioja producers had started to export their wines up to Bilbao and Santander on the northern Spanish coast where they were picked up by English wine merchants who traded there. The wines were almost exclusively red and were uncannily similar to those from Bordeaux, which were already well established and popular in Britain.
When phylloxera decimated Bordeaux’s vineyards in the late 19th Century, a number of Bordeaux growers relocated to Rioja and re-established themselves there. At the same time the UK turned to Rioja, who at that stage was largely unaffected by the louse, in order to keep a steady flow of red wine coming through to satisfy demand.
Both World Wars and Spain’s own civil war had a dramatic impact on Rioja’s wine production, and therefore exports, and it wasn’t until 1970 before the wines could be produced in significant enough volumes to create overseas demand again. It also coincided with the 1970 vintage going down in history as arguably the best of the century.
The wines have continued to gain huge popularity in the UK over the past 50 or so years, so much so that today, the UK is the region’s number 1 export market taking a third of all exported wines. In the UK, Rioja wines represent well over a third of all Spanish wines consumed here and close to 50% in value.
Why is Rioja so special?
With one of the strictest regulatory systems in the world, the Rioja wine region has earned a reputation for consistent high quality across all levels. From as far back as 1650, the growers and authorities were keen to set out guidelines in order to protect the quality of the wines.
Fast forward to 1925 and the formation of Spain’s first Consejo Regulador (Regulatory Council) was created to protect the Rioja name, delimit the production zones and establish best working practices in the vineyards and cellars – all under the banner of the DO (Denominación de Origen), similar to the French AOC system.
This was subsequently updated in 1991 when the DO achieved promotion to the highest level of quality with the inclusion of the term ‘Calificada’. This effectively meant that, in addition to even tighter controls on yields, the wines also had to pass a blind tasting panel of grape growers and winemakers every new vintage in order to gain approval. Even today, only one other region has been promoted to DOCa and that’s the tiny appellation of Priorat in Catalonia.
In addition to the controlling of grape yields and outlining pruning methods, the Consejo also determined which grape varieties were permitted, winemaking practices and the minimum periods of ageing after fermentation according to what style of wine was being made, i.e. Reserva, Gran Reserva, etc.
Rioja’s key labelling terms explained
When you pick up a bottle of Rioja, it’s important to realise that, unlike most other Spanish wine regions, the terms written on the labels relating to quality or style are legally defined rather than simply being indicative.
Here’s a list of the key terms you’ll see and what they guarantee for us as consumers:
Bodega – A winery or wine cellar
Blanco – Denotes a white wine
Cosecha – Basically means ‘harvest’ or ‘vintage’ and is the year in which the wine was made. It also defines the most generic level of Rioja, like Joven, and has no legal ageing requirement.
Crianza – Translates into ‘to bring up/to raise’ and is the first rung on the ageing ladder. By law, the wine must have spent at least 2 years ageing of which at least 1 year must be in oak barrels while the remainder has to be in the bottle.
Gran Reserva – The third and top rung on the ladder as far as ageing is concerned. To qualify, the wine must be aged for at least 5 years of which at least 2 must be spent in oak and the rest in the bottle.
Joven – Literally means ‘young’, a reference to the wine style and has no legal requirement for minimum ageing
Reserva – The second rung on the ageing ladder. Legally, the wine must have spent a minimum of 3 years ageing of which 1 year must be in oak and the remainder in the bottle.
Rosado – Denotes a rosé wine
Tempranillo – The main red grape variety used to produce Rioja. Many wines that state ‘Rioja Tempranillo’ on the label will be made exclusively from this variety and will be made either unoaked or in a semi-Crianza style – that is typically aged for just 6 months in oak so that the influence is subtle.
Tinto – Denotes a red wine
Viñas Viejas – ‘Old vines’. Unfortunately, there’s no legal definition of what age constitutes the use of this term so it’s open to interpretation! In reality, anything over 25 years would be considered as old vines as yields begin to decrease naturally from here onwards.
What defines the characteristics of Rioja?
While the overriding majority of Rioja wines are still red, the proportion of white and rosé wines has been growing steadily since the mid to late noughties, reflecting the change in consumer tastes. So, producers have reacted by investing in better cellar equipment and increased their plantings of white wine grape varieties too.
Apart from a few famous, traditional bodegas, out go the old-fashioned over-oaked whites and in come the fresher fruit-forward, and in some cases, subtly-oaked whites that can be drunk with or without food.
The best of these also reflect their terroir like Bodegas Luis Cañas’ Rioja Blanco Viñas Viejas. In this case, the Viura vines that make up most of the blend are at least 60 years-old and are planted on limestone slopes and terraces. The remaining 10% is Malvasia which adds an attractive floral scented element to the otherwise citrus-infused wine. 5 months of ageing in new French and American oak barrels adds a creamy texture and subtle spice flavours making this a great all-rounder when it comes to food pairing.
Red Rioja has also adapted to modern tastes with greater emphasis on fruitiness, sometimes at the expense of oak spice. The delicious Tunante de Azabache Rioja Tempranillo is a pure Tempranillo red made by the environmentally conscious Azabache co-operative. There’s no oak used at all so it’s loaded with plum, cherry and raspberry fruit with a juicy and rounded finish.
Where oak is used in the reds, it tends to be much better integrated and that invariably means using less new oak as well as combining both American oak and French oak. The Bodegas Ondarre, Ondarre Reserva Rioja is a stylish example which exceeds the legal minimum ageing to 16 months. Silky smooth and refined, the balance between rich red fruits and warming spices defines this award-winning Reserva.
Rioja’s progressive spirit
Over the past 13 years, the Rioja Consejo has introduced a series of ground-breaking new rules to enable the region to evolve and adapt to the changing demands of consumers around the world.
The first of these was the addition of new permitted grape varieties in 2008. In addition to the historic three white and four red varieties, the Consejo authorised the use of six more white varieties and one further red variety, most of which are native to the region. The odd ones out are the internationally recognised Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
Here’s the full list of grapes with the historic ones listed first.
White Varieties: - Viura, Garnacha Blanca, Malvasia, Tempranillo Blanco, Verdejo, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Maturana Blanca, Turruntes
Red Varieties: - Tempranillo, Garnacha Tinta, Graciano, Mazuelo, Maturana Tinta
In 2017, the Consejo approved two new wine categories. Viñedo Singular or ‘Single Vineyard’ which identifies the region’s best single sites to extend the premium category, and Rioja DOCa Quality Sparkling Wine, an extension to the bottle-fermented Cavas of Catalonia. In reality, the latter will only represent a minor specialism as opposed to having any commercial impact.
What foods can you pair with Rioja?
The region is as famous for its culinary prowess as for its wines and the two very much go hand in hand.
The unoaked white Riojas, other than making ideal apéritifs, will pair with the regional white asparagus as well as another speciality, piquillo peppers stuffed with goat’s cheese or béchamel sauce. They also pair well with sushi.
Oaked white Riojas have slightly more versatility and drink really well with charcuterie like jamón and salchichón as well as deep-fried whitebait or sardines and cod-based dishes.
The Rosado’s also work well with the same foods as oaked white Riojas and young, unoaked or lightly-oaked reds can be very good with classic dishes like paella, fish and bean stews and poultry-based dishes.
Reserva and Gran Reserva reds are more structured and complex, so require fuller-flavoured dishes like slow-braised or roasted red meats and rich game stews. Lamb and suckling pig, in particular, are regional specialities and also hugely popular.
Why not try some out for yourselves as it’s the perfect season to enjoy these fantastic wines!