Your Red Wine Guide – Rioja

Region – Northeast Spain
Grape varieties – Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano, Mazuelo
Style – Oaky, with straberry, plum and cherry fruit

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     Spain′s best-known wine is made in the north-central part of the country along the valley of the Ebro, after whose tributary, the Rio Oja, the wine is made. Rioja′s origins go back a long way, but the region was set on its modern course by a disaster in France. When mildew (oïdium) and phylloxera devasted French vineyards toward the end of the 19th century, some Bordeaux vignerons hopped over the Pyrenees looking fow unaffected vineyards with which to pursue their livelihood. When them they brought the practice of long ageing in barriques. While oakiness in Bordeaux diminished over the years, it persisted in Rioja.

     Indeed, so much is oak ingrained into the Riojans that they grade their wine not by quality of the fruit, but by the lenght of time it spends in oak. Sin crianza  wines see no oak; crianza wines are aged for a minimum of two years, with one of these in oak; reserva wines have three years ageing, with aat least one year in oak; and finally gran reserva wines have five years ageing, with a minimum of two years in oak. It′s certainly true that oak is part of the Rioja appeal. The best producers have always  used oak with sensitivity, making sure that only their finest grapes are made into gran reservas. And the sin crianza wines can be vibrant and fruity, but there′s nothing about them to suggest that they come from a top-class wine region. In general, the level of oaking is decreasing, but the quality of fuit behind the wines is not always as good as it could be. It′s easy to understand why. Virtually all Rioja estates have to buy in a large proportion of their grapes from the region′s 18.000 growers , so quality control is difficult. Fortunately, nowadays there is a small number of single-vineyard Riojas such as Remelluri, Contino and Martines Bujanda′s Finca Valpiedra.

     However, like Champagne, Rioja is essentially a blended wine. The region is subdivided into three smaller regions. The highest, coolest vineyards lie in the Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa, and are planted mostly with Tempranillo, Mazuelo, and the delicately aromatic high-quality Graciano. Vineyards on alluvial soils in the Rioja Baja, which edges toward hot, Mediterranean-like summers, are planted mostly with Garnacha, which makes big, alcoholic, rather coarse and jammy wines. A typical Rioja would be 60-70% Tempranillo and 15-20% Garnacha, with the balance split between Graciano and Mazuelo.

     While not an officially sanctioned variety, some bodegas are allowed to include Cabernet Sauvignon in their wines, which brings the backbone that Tampranillo sometimes lacks. Rioja was for several years unchallenged as Spain′s premium red wine region, but the succes of Ribera del Duero and Priorato in recent times has threatened that position.

Oak-free Rioja is simple, juicy and fresh, with strawberry flavours and not a great deal else. But to think of the higher-quality wines as being something similar with a woody vanilla sheen is a mistake. Modern wines often have  cherries, plums and blackcurrants in addition to the berries, with spicy, peppery, earthy overtones. Old-fashioned wines at their best have smoky, almost savoury flavours with notes of tobacco, herbs, blackberries and mulberries. The oak, thought noticeable, is never the main event. Sadly thought, in many wines the fruit has added and the juiciness has gone, leaving little apart from the oak.


  • Never shake a bottle of Rioja.
  • Never mix wine from two different bottles of Rioja in the same glass.
  • Bottles of Rioja wine do not need to be opened in advance of drinking.
  • Never decant a bottle of Rioja, and if you do so, then it must be immediately before drinking.
  • Serve Rioja in suitable glasses: always clear glass to appreciate its colour and aroma, and never fill the glass more than half full.
  • Serve red Riojas at 16-18ºC, and whites and rosés at 10-12ºC. Never warm or chill the wines rapidly.
  • Serve white Rioja before red, young wine before aged, and the one lowest in alcohol before the more alcoholic.
  • Try the Rioja in your own glass to appreciate its characteristics before serving or allowing it to be served.
  • At the table, treat the wines of Rioja with the care and respect their qualities deserve and require that everyone there does the same.
  • Do not be a slave to strict rules about selecting the right Rioja for each dish. Choose freely but with critical judgement.

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