All About Rioja

All About Rioja
Why Rioja? It’s the best known wine region in Spain with a worthy reputation for its classically styled red wines.

Where is Rioja? In the north of Spain, close to the French border. The northern part is due south of the coastal city of Bilbao. The wine region runs both sides of the Ebro River.

Age? Wines have been made here since Roman times and the wines of Rioja were granted legal in 1102. At the end of the Fifth Century when the Moors were expelled, and monasteries and vineyards were re-established along the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. The regions first wine laws date from this time. Wines weren’t exported until the 1700’s when better roads connected the region to the port at Bilbao.

What were those wines like? We don’t know, but the modern wine industry dates from the end of the 19th Century. After phylloxera devastated France’s vineyards, French merchants sourced replacement wines from Rioja and Bordeaux winemakers moved there to make wine in the French style. Phylloxera ultimately arrived in Rioja in 1901 but after twenty profitable years new wineries and techniques including barrel aging in Bordeaux sized 225 litre barriques, were well established.

What grapes? The king of Rioja is the black Tempranillo, an excellent variety now finding favour in the New World. Most Rioja’s are a blend of Tempranillo with one or more of Garnacha (Grenache), Mazuelo (Carignan) and Graciano. Some Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is also grown. For white wines the chief grape is Viura (also known as Macabeo) and Malvasia.

What does it taste like? I think red Rioja is similar in style to Bordeaux with the same sort of elegance and linearity. But a big difference is that most Rioja undergoes mandatory aging in oak; this used to give an overly woody edge to the wine but modern tastes and techniques have toned this back considerably. Rioja is one of the very few places where the world Reserva (Reserve) actually means something. Wines labelled as Crianza must spend at least 1 year in oak barriques and then a further year in tank or bottle before release. Reserva wines spend at least 1 year in oak barriques and then a further 2 years in tank or bottle while Gran Reserva must have at least 2 years in oak and then at least 3 years aging in bottle.

White Rioja used to be an acquired taste as it had spent very long in oak, but modern tastes mean few white Riojas see any or more than a little oak. However wines labelled as Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva must spend 6 months in oak with 1, 2, or 4 years respectively aging in bottle. For an unoaked white Rioja expect a fresh crisp dry wine with hints of lemon, while oaked wines are fuller bodied, softer with some nuttiness and vanilla.

Are they expensive? Being currently somewhat out of fashion means there are some good bargains to be had.

Recommended wineries? CVNE, Murrieta, Marques de Riscal and an inexpensive personal favourite is Marques de Caceres.

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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.

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