Rioja at a glance
Author: Catriona Felstead MW
Senior Buyer Catriona Felstead MW talks us through the different regions that comprise Rioja DOCa. She tells us there’s more to Rioja than its famous mature oaked reds.
When you think of Rioja, chances are you’re thinking of a very specific style of wine. It’s one of those regions that’s almost a brand name in its own right, like Champagne. When you pick up a bottle, you already have a preconception of what it’s going to be and what it’s going to taste like: a mature oaked red wine.
In many cases, you’d be right – but there’s more to Rioja than that. Let’s take a closer look at the different regions of Rioja and the factors that influence the style of wine made.
The three Riojas
Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental – which used to be called Rioja Baja – are the three regions which comprise the Rioja DOCa. Broadly speaking, Rioja Alta has more in common with Rioja Alavesa. As with all Rioja, the wine is made from a blend of grape varieties: Tempranillo, Graciano, Mazuelo and Garnacha. In the Alta and Alavesa regions, blends are more Tempranillo dominant. Whereas in Rioja Oriental – the eastern side – blends tend to be dominated by Garnacha.
Most people would probably consider the Rioja Alta to be the traditional heart of the region – this is where you’d find the most historic bodegas. But the Alavesa is equally important, and the Oriental is also rising in prominence on a fine wine level. Those based in Haro – like López de Heredia, Muga and Marqués de Murrieta – are all based in Rioja Alta.
If you looked at the Alavesa on a map, you’d see that it crosses over into the Basque region. Being closer to the mountains, the character of the wine is different: it’s not quite as soft and generous as you might get in the Alta, and you get a little more minerality and freshness.
In Rioja Oriental, you get a lot of cooperatives and more “everyday” type bodegas. But you’ve got people like Alvaro Palacios down there. He’s really given the region more prominence with wines such as La Montesa and Valmira, which is a top cuvée.
These are 95-96% Garnacha wines, quite distinct from the wines you get in the Alta and Alavesa regions. They taste quite different, but they can be sensational.
There are a few people like Alvaro leading the charge in Rioja Oriental. But for the most part, a lot of the Garnacha in the Oriental region is taken up to other regions and used in the blends there, so there’s very much a crossover.
The hallmarks of Rioja
The great thing about Rioja is that the wines are pretty much always released when they’re ready to drink. So, unlike other regions – where you might be buying the wines to lay down for a while – most Rioja wines can either be drunk straightaway or put in your cellar. So, you’ve got a wine that you can buy and is immediately accessible. In terms of taste, you can expect rich, red and black ripe fruit, often with a lovely note of vanilla coming through from the oak. But crucial to a good Rioja is the freshness that comes through.
Rioja has a continental climate – it’s right in the heart of northern Spain. You get very cold nights there, cold winters, hot summers. There’s a lot of diurnal variation, with the temperature changing significantly between day and night. So, you often get lots of freshness in the grapes by the time they’re harvested, and that really comes through in the wine. You should never get a heavy, stewed, thick style of wine with Rioja. Instead, you should get ripeness of fruit and complexity from the barrel-ageing underscored by freshness. They’re often just lovely wines to drink.
Rioja beyond its reds
Rioja’s white wines can be absolutely delicious. Again, they’re much rarer than the reds just because less is made. They’re made from the Viura grape, and can appear in many different styles. The white wines of the highest reputation would be from a traditional producer like López de Heredia, where these wines are aged for a long time in barrel before release – much longer than the traditional hierarchy of the Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva would require – so they have a unique and specific flavour.
They can be quite oxidative and nutty. I adore them, but some people don’t like them – they’re slightly Marmite wines. But they have a huge reputation, and people that love them really love them.
Allende Blanco is a famous example of white Rioja. It’s more modern in style, with more French oak, and less oxidative than traditional examples – but it still has that edge.
Rioja Rosado [rosé] is also unique in style. They tend to be quite dark in colour, because they’re often made from Tempranillo, but they can also be made from Garnacha. An exception would be Viña Tondonia’s Gran Reserva Rosado: it’s oxidative, nutty, yet fresh at the same time, with an orange hue. Rioja rosés are not wildly popular in the UK, but there are a lot of good wines out there.
The question of sustainability
Sustainability is a key concern for anyone who is a proper premium producer. With someone like López de Heredia, you wouldn’t necessarily think they’re sustainable because they’re a traditional producer. But by the very nature of how they work, they are naturally sustainable: they do all the same things now that they did 50 years ago, before you had chemicals and pesticides and tractors. Whether it’s fermentation or racking or stabilisation, everything with them is natural because they’ve retained a traditional way of working – which was always the sustainable way, without anyone thinking about it.
It’s not easy to be organic in Rioja because it’s quite a wet region. Realistically, if you were to farm your vineyard organically, you might end up losing quite a lot of your crop, due to the fact that wet conditions can lead to rot and disease. Lots of producers will work as sustainably as possible – but reserving the right to save their crop if they have to.
There are lots of up-and-coming producers in Rioja who are worth keeping an eye on, to see what they end up doing in the future. Telmo Rodriguez is someone who we work with. He makes a beautiful wine called Las Beatas and also a wine called Tabuerniga. He makes his own wines in a style that he feels Rioja would have been made 2,000 years ago, taking a very hands-off approach. It’s not about the oak – it’s all about purity of terroir coming through.
You could have a big debate around the question of terroir in Rioja. The way Rioja has traditionally been made is very much about the winemaking: it’s about the oak and how it’s made in the winery. Through that process, you naturally lose a bit of the purity of terroir. What Telmo was doing with Las Beatas and Tabuerniga was stripping it right back and showing what Rioja would have tasted like historically.
The new laws in Rioja
In 2017, the rules changed around winemaking in Rioja DOCa. Here’s a quick overview of the new laws.
- The sub-region can now be used on the label instead of the village, eg “Rioja Alta” instead of “Logroño”
- Rioja Baja can now legally be referred to as Rioja Oriental (avoiding connotations of lower quality, something Álvaro Palacios has been fighting for)
- “Viñedos Singulares” can now be put on the label of single-vineyard wines (although there is no maximum size of the vineyard)
- Reserva wines must now be aged in bottle at the winery where it was made for a minimum of six months (to cut down on the trade of Reserva wine in bulk)
- Gran Reserva wines must still be aged for five years, but with a new minimum of two years in cask and two in bottle – the extra year can be spent in vat, bottle or wood (it was previously a minimum two years in barrel and three in bottle).
Explore our Rioja wines here.