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Rioja is located in north eastern Spain where wines of quality have been made for hundreds of years.  References to great wine date back to 1102 when King Sancho of Navarro legally recognized this prestigious wine.  But it was not until the 1970s with the foundation of the Denomination of Origin that quality could properly be regulated, monitored, and enforced.

In even more recent history there has been a surge in quality with producers making seductive, velvety, balanced, and immensely interesting and ageworthy Tempranillo based wines.   Quality has never been higher with pricing still relatively low proving that excellent value is still possible in the Old World.

Grapes

Tempranillo, a native grape,  is the most planted variety with over 75% of plantings.   Fruity, velvety, good color and acidity, with balanced alcohol, aromatic lift, and propensity to age, it’s a wonder we do not see Tempranillo more widely planted outside of Spain.

Garnacha (aka Grenache in France) is another component in Rioja and brings color, alcohol, and red fruit flavors.

Also, Graciano, Mazuelo (aka Carignan in France), and Maturana Tinta.

White:

Viura (aka Macabeo), Malvasia, Garnacha Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Blanca, Turruntes, Chardonnay, Savignon Blanc, and Verdejo.

 

Maximum yields are set at 6,500 kilograms per hectare for red grape varieties and 9,000 kg/ha for white grape varieties.  Annual production is 280 to 300 million litres, 90% of which is red, with the balance in white and rosé.

 

Wine Producing Places

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Rioja is comprised of 3 sub regions located on both sides of the river Ebro.  From east to west Rioja measures 100 kilometers, with the valley averaging about 40 kilometers in width.  Altitude stretches to 700 meters above sea level.

Rioja Alta is located in mountainous far west and enjoys a mostly Atlantic influence, both factors provide relative coolness ideal of Tempranillo.  Further north is Rioja Alavesa where there are also fine examples of Tempranillo being grown.  Rioja Baja is drier and warmer due to the Mediterranean influences, factors that result in heavier and more full bodied wines.

Winemaking

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The wine is a blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha and is historically aged in new American oak which imparts sweet vanilla scents.  The prolonged aging of quality wines leaves behind pleasant stewed red and black fruit flavors and well integrated tannins.

Joven (young) wines do not require and any time in barrel and are exuberant with fruit and meant for early consumption.

Crianza must spend 2 years of aging- one in barrel and one in the bottle.

Reserva requires one year in oak and 2 years of bottle aging.

Gran Reserva, the top of the quality pyramid, requires 2 years of oak aging with an additional 3 years of bottle aging.

 

 

Typicity

The wines of Rioja are generally released ready for consumption.  This can mean anything from 1 year old for Joven up to 10+ years of aging for Gran Reservas.

Joven wines are fresh, full of zippy fruit, and labeled “Rioja.”  These are meant for early consumption and offer great value for money.

With time in (typically) older oak, Crianza wines exhibit more complexity than joven Riojas.  They have the high tannin of Tempranillo with more body than Merlot but not quite so much richness. These are great everyday wines– think great value Cabernet Sauvignon.

Reserva  is from top quality fruit and are aged longer in oak which imparts even more complexity than those of Crianza wines.  These are serious wines that can age for decades.

Gran Reserva is the top of the quality ladder.  It is only made in the best of years with the best of grapes, and after extended time aging has the most tannin and structure of the Riojas.  In practice most are released at about 10 years of aging and can age for 50+ years.

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