Rioja lies in Northern Spain, south of Bilbao, between two sheltering mountain ranges. It is divided into three subregions: Alta in the west (generally high and cool); Basque Alavesa (humid temperate); and flat, warm Baja where Garnacha reigns supreme. Today it stands among the top-five most recognised wine regions of the world.
Rioja is arguably most well known for its red wine with roughly 85% of total production made in two broad styles. The first is a more ‘traditional’ style involving a short fermentation followed by extended ageing in American oak. These are relatively pale wines with fragrant, sweet oak notes. Then there is a ‘modern’ style which is usually 100% Tempranillo and features more extractive winemaking. The wine is aged in French oak, and is often deeper, richer and weightier. Tempranillo, Rioja’s dominant variety, is commonly blended with the aforementioned Garnacha, seasoned with fine, mercurial Graciano or with Mazuelo — aka Carignan.
Traditionally, red Riojas were classified according to the length of time they were aged: Crianza (2 years), Reserva (3 years) and Gran Reserva (5 years). These terms are still widely used but modern bodegas are increasingly dispensing with these labels in order to make the best wines they can, without being bound by the Crianza system. Approximately12% of production is given over to white Rioja which also exists in roughly two styles; either fruity and crisp or complex and age-worthy due to barrel fermentation. A combination of Viura, Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca are used in the blend and rosé styles are also made.
Image: View from Bodegas Exopto vineyard, Rioja, Spain. © Bodegas Exopto.