Wine Reviews

Let’s talk About … Rioja

“In Spain, no matter if you make screwdrivers, at some point after you have saved a little money, the first thing you want to do is own a bodega. It is very important to the Spanish soul.” Yolanda Garcia, Bodegas Valduero as quoted in Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible

Rioja is a region in the north of Spain, with vineyards along both banks of the Ebro River. The Cantabrian mountains shield the region from cold northern winds. Summers are warm and sunny and winters are milder than those in the open regions of Spain.

Rioja’s history

Winemaking has a long history in Rioja, being on the Camino de Santiago where pilgrims would stop to quench their thirst.  The wine was not known for its high quality. However, when the phylloxera blight hit France, Bordeaux winemakers were forced  to look for new places to go and settled in Rioja in the late 19th century.

The French winemakers brought extensive experience with them, increasing the quality of the wine significantly and wine sales boomed.  The wines were made to replicate the familiar wines of Bordeaux.

Phylloxera hit Rioja in 1901, destroying almost all of the vineyards. The vineyards were replanted with American rootstocks but wartime and economic downturns caused many of the vineyards to be ripped up and replaced by wheat. Rioja was able to return to wine in the 1960s, with financial stability encouraging investment in modern bodegas.

Rioja’s regions

Rioja is divided into three distinct regions. Most wines are blended from the three regions, with top quality wines coming mainly from the first two:

  • Rioja Alta: western edge of Rioja, produces fuller bodied wines
  • Rioja Alavesa:  highest altitude, smallest region, chalky soil
  • Rioja Baja: hotter and drier than the other regions, limestone soil, the grapes tend to be deeper in color and fruitier

Rioja was the first region to receive Spain’s highest status of quality, DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calcificada).  Most of the growers sell their grapes to cooperatives or wineries known as bodegas.


Red varieties are grown on over 90 percent of the vineyard area in Rioja, with Tempranillo being the most important grape in the region.

Named for its early ripening (from the Spanish temprano), this dark skinned grape can grow even in a short season. When young, tempranillo bursts of cherry flavors.

When traditionally aged in oak, the wine has flavors of spicy tobacco, leather and chalky dust. In the past, Riojas tended to be aged for a very long time in American oak, leading to an overwhelming vanillan flavor.

Currently, the trend is to age for a shorter time, and use either French or a combination of French and American oak to produce fresher tasting wines that can be enjoyed earlier and are more similar to California wines than those of Bordeaux.

Another change that has come to Rioja is creating wines from 100% tempranillo grapes. In the past, tempranillo was combined with garnacha (grenache) or mazuelo (carignan).

Aging requirements in Spain

Quality wines can use 3 different terms to describe the amount of aging the wine has undergone prior to release.  For reds such as tempranillo, the minimum requirements are:

  • Crianza –  6 months in the barrel with 2 years of total aging
  • Reserva – 12 months in the barrel with 3 years of total aging
  • Gran reserva – 18 months in the barrel with 5 years of total aging
  • Joven, meaning young, is wine that may or may not have been oaked and is released with no more than 12 months of aging in the barrel.

Click here to read a recent review of a fantastic Rioja from the great 2009 vintage

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