The Wine Region of Rioja
Snaking through the north west of Spain is the Ebro River and its tributaries. It is along here that the pilgrims traversed the Santiago de Compostela, and for over a thousand years vines have been nurtured and wines have been made. Rioja, perhaps Spain’s most famous and well-respected wine region is here, along the River (Rio) Oja.
Geography and Climate
Bisected by the Ebro and having mountains to protect from extremes, Rioja has a particularly unique climate. A Mediterranean location balanced with cooling influence from the Atlantic Ocean and drying effects from the proximity of central Spain ensure that fine balance and complexity can be found when grapes do not ripen too quickly. Wines from Rioja are elegant and well balanced, with great versatility at the table.
There are three sub-regions in Rioja that also contribute subtle differences to the wine. The Rioja Alta that comprises 42% of production, Rioja Baja at 37% of production, and the smallest, Rioja Alavesa with 21% of production. The Rioja Alta vineyards are planted mostly on the hillsides above the rivers of Rioja. The wines from Rioja Alta have a distinct Atlantic influence. Rioja Baja is flatter and warmer with Mediterranean influences. It is the warmest of the sub-regions with the highest concentration of Garnacha plantings. Lastly is the Rioja Alavesa with almost all Tempranillo plantings and wines that can often have mineral characteristics.
Tempranillo and Friends
Tempranillo is the undisputed star of the region, and while the grape is widely planted and in very nearly every Spanish wine growing area, it is in Rioja that it really shines. Tempranillo is not the easiest grape to use to craft high quality wines. It requires cooling influences, so large temperature shifts between night and day are a benefit, and dry farming without any irrigation contributes to the potential for high quality. Rioja, with its old vine vineyards and unique climate allows the grapes to develop in the best possible manner.
Tempranillo, while most often the predominant grape, also makes an excellent blending partner. When very small amounts of other grape varieties are added to Tempranillo, things start to get really exciting. This is indeed the case in Rioja with many of the best wines being predominantly Tempranillo and smaller amounts of Garnacha (more often called Grenache), Mazuelo (known as Carignan in France) and the local Graciano. Garnacha adds some strength and warmth to the blend, Mazuelo is used for brightness and tannic structure, and Graciano amplifies the aromatics.
There are tiny amounts of white wines in Rioja as well—approximately 8% of the total production, and they are made predominantly from Viura—the local name for the Macabeo grape. We don’t see a lot of white Rioja here in Canada, and unfortunately even less aged white Rioja. In its youth, it is fresh, bright, citrusy and eminently drinkable. The more traditional barrel-aged versions often have some of the grape Malvasia added and are complex, savoury, honeyed, nutty revelations. If you do come across one, be sure to try it out.
Rioja is unique in that traditionally many of the wines are aged in the Bodega (the Spanish word for winery) and released when they are ready to drink. It is not unusual to see current release red wines on the shelf that are eight to ten years of age. It is also important to note that we are also seeing more modern, brighter styles that don’t fall into any of the aging categories and these offer a different interpretation of the region. The aging requirements are as follows:
Blanco/Rosado: min. 2 years, including at least 6 months in oak (remainder may be in bottle, oak or stainless steel)
Tinto: min. 2 years, including at least 1 year in oak
Reserva Blanco/Rosado: min. 2 years, including at least 6 months in oak (remainder must be in bottle or oak)
Reserva Tinto: min. 3 years, including at least 1 year in oak and 6 months in bottle
Gran Reserva Blanco/Rosado: min. 4 years, including at least 6 months in oak (remainder must be in bottle or oak)
Gran Reserva Tinto: min. 5 years of aging with at least 2 years in oak and at least 2 years in bottle
Look for the wines of Rioja across the province in February, as Rioja is the first theme region for Winefest in Calgary and Edmonton. There will be ten producers in market and a host of events in retailers and restaurants throughout the month. It will be a great opportunity to taste and learn all about Spain’s most historic region.