Most people will have tasted Rioja, a wine made in both red and white styles from the regions of La Rioja, Navarre and the Basque province of Alava. It is a region with a large geographical, geological and climatic diversity with a length of about 100km and a width of 50km. The River Ebro slices Rioja in two from west to east, from Haro to Alfaro, and this means that some regions experience a pronounced continental climate, while others have a strong Mediterranean and Atlantic influence. The wine is traditionally blended from all three regions and Rioja is sub-divided again into Alta in the west (high, cool); the Basque Alavesa (the wettest and coolest of all three regions); and flat, warm Baja (sometimes unfairly branded Rioja’s ‘poor relation’) where the hardy grape Garnacha reigns. There is a huge diversity in the types of soils found throughout Rioja, including yellow soils threaded with clay and limestone, red clay soils rich in iron, and an alluvial fertile soil which is found in flatter areas. Red Rioja is produced from Tempranillo, Garnacha Tinta, Mazuelo and Graciano, and white Rioja, from Viura (also known as Macabeo) Malvasía and Garnacha Blanca.
While it can certainly be enjoyed while it is young, the ageing potential of well-made Rioja is still largely untapped. Some of the best Gran Reservas can still be en route to achieving maturity 20 years after release and will continue to develop exciting and complex flavour profiles along the way that will make the wait worthwhile. The wines are aged in 225-litre oak barrels and sustain periodic rackings, followed by further periods of bottle ageing. Rioja has the largest number of barrels of any wine region in the world and traditionally has used new American oak barrels for ageing purposes, which imparts a somewhat savoury cinnamon-coconut flavour. Modern Rioja often dispenses with American oak and uses French (Bordeaux) barrels, which tend towards a richer vanilla profile.
There are strict ageing classifications in place for Rioja which are controlled by the Consejo Regulador Denominación Calificada (DOCG) and by whom the origin and vintage of wine is guaranteed. The entry category is Generic or ‘Joven’ Rioja and these vibrant young wines are usually in their first or second year with plenty of primary freshness and fruit. The classic profile of ordinary Rioja is of an unstaurated red with a ruby and brick tint and flavours of cherry, plum and red fruit but ageing (depending on oak used) will impart flavours of dill, caramel, brioche, leather and dried flowers, amongst others. Modern manifestations tend towards a deep, more intensely purple hue and the best examples can be found from vineyards with smaller yields.
The terms below are still widely used but they are also being increasingly abandoned as bodegas seek to make the best wines they can, without being bound by the Crianza system. In 1560 Rioja wine producers agreed to put a common label on their wines using the colour green for Generic / Joven, red for Crianza, purple for Reserva and dark blue for Gran Reserva and although these delineations do still exist there are Rioja producers who choose not to adhere to these strict guidelines.
This refers to wine in at least its third year that has spent a minimum of one year in barrel. For white Rioja Crianza, the minimum barrel ageing period is six months. Crianza wines are most commonly aged in used oak, so the oak will be pared back and not overwhelming. It is a high quality, everyday drinking wine with ripe firm tannins from the Tempranillo grape. In terms of style, Crianzas tend to be medium to full-bodied, fairly rich and with approachable fruit and sweet spice flavours. The New York Times’ wine writer Eric Asimov says that “no other category of Spanish red wine is as consistently satisfying and as good value as Rioja Crianza.”
These are meticulously selected wines for quality and longevity that have experienced a minimum ageing between oak barrel and bottle of 3 years. At least one of these years has to be in barrels, followed by a minimum 6 months’ ageing in the bottle. They can display good length and complexity, soft tannins and mellow sweet fruit and can offer extraordinary value for money. For white Rioja Reserva wines, the minimum ageing period is two years, with at least 6 months in barrels.
These are wines from specific and valued vintages that have been painstakingly aged for a total of 60 months, with at least 2 years in oak barrels and 2 further years in the bottle. For white wines, the minimum ageing period is 4 years, with at least 6 months in barrels. Some producers of Gran Reserva choose to age their wine for five years or longer in the bottle before release. This extended aging and oaking period applies to both red and white styles of Rioja, though Rioja Blanco spends slightly less time in oak barrels than Rioja’s red wines. Gran Reserva is the pinnacle of the ageing process and the associated wines will display many more secondary and tertiary characteristic such as smokiness, leather, balsamic hints and a balanced velvety structure with well-integrated tannins.
Bodegas Corral Special Vintages
We talked about the vineyard Bodegas Corral in a previous blog post, highlighting its position on the famous pilgrimage route, the ‘Ruta Jacobea’ (Way of St. James) or Camino de Santiago. The winery was established in 1898 and remains in the Corral family hands to this day. In 1974, the family built a new winery in the village of Navarrete and named it ‘Don Jacobo’. They remain the only winery in Rioja to sit right on the world heritage trail. To celebrate the upcoming 50 years of the ‘new’ winery in Navarrete, the family released four rare vintages from the 1970s. These are prized Gran Reserva wines which lay untouched for decades in the winery cellars since bottling. Made traditionally and evocative of a different era, these fully mature wines defy their age and show great charm and character, each bottle being a piece of living history. They are exceptional examples of mature and long-lived Rioja Gran Reserva. Although they still possess a hefty amount of remaining fruit, they are also stunningly complex with lashings of savoury, woody, earthy and nutty character that only 40-50 years of ageing can impart.