Demystifying Rioja - Part 1
So can you go wrong with Rioja? I'm afraid you can.
- There is no denying that the regulatory body for the Rioja wine region has made a success of brand "Rioja". Production of Rioja continues to grow to the point that it now accounts for 37.8% of Spanish wine production in volume and 48.5% in value.
- Exports make up 38% of sales and the UK is Rioja's biggest export market accounting for almost 33% of those exports though this has declined a little in the last couple of years. This means in 2017 the UK imported 47.5 million bottles of Rioja!
(with thanks to the Consejo Regulador Denominación de Origen Rioja for the use of its statistics and photos of the labels and logo)
One thing that Rioja provides is choice; you might think that Rioja is simply Rioja but in fact there are a number of different styles.
- What could be described as Traditional Rioja was generally
- produced from a blend of different grapes (mostly Tempranillo, often Garnacha or Grenache and sometimes Mazuelo or Carignan, Graciano and Cabernet Sauvignon)
- with grapes often bought in from other growers
- aged in cheaper American oak for a long time therefore achieving
- distinct vanilla and stewed fruit flavours with savoury notes and even oxidative characteristics i.e. nutty, sherry notes because the wine may have been over-exposed to oxygen
- light in body and colour as the grapes are macerated for less time
- quite elegant in style
This Modern Rioja was and remains generally
with grapes increasingly from the winery's own vineyards
aged for less time and in more subtle French oak
showing more fresh fruit flavours integrated with lighter oak flavours
darker in colour, more medium in body and often higher in alcohol and tannins
But there has been a backlash in the last few years against this style and its more industrial production. Forward-thinking producers are now focusing on making the most out of the basic ingredients, the grapes and the terroir.
- Modern is no longer modern; I'm labelling the new style of Rioja as New Wave Rioja and its characteristics are:
- it may be 100% Tempranillo or a blend of grapes
- grapes are often "single estate" i.e. from the winery's own vineyards like Telmo Rodriguez Lanzaga so the producer (that's Telmo above) can be sure of the origin and sometimes "single vineyard"
- old vines are appreciated and often grown in old, trellis-free and lower yielding bush vines
- lower yields which tend to produce better quality wine
- more subtle oaking:
- French and / or Hungarian oak tend to be used more than American oak
- oak ageing selected according to what is considered best for the wine not to achieve a certain classification (see below).
- the wines see less bottle-ageing in the winery with winemakers foregoing the Reserva and Gran Reserva labels for the simple Rioja category; young wines may need maturing in your wine racks therefore before they are ready to drink
- the resulting wines tend to be more intense, complex and more elegant
Top quality - it's official...
- Rioja is one of only two Spanish wine regions classified in the highest Designation of Origen category, DOCa (also known as DOC or DOQ), the other being Priorat. So all Rioja should be top quality.
- You can check the authenticity of each bottle of Rioja through its numbered back label and seal which use a system widely seen on European banknotes making them difficult if not impossible to forge. They guarantee the origin and vintage of each wine.
This system, in place since 1980, also guarantees the ageing time of each of Rioja's red wines according to the sub-categories or types below:
Gran Reserva refers to wines aged in oak for a minimum of 24 months and in bottle for a minimum of 24 months (until recently this was 36 months), with an overall minimum ageing period of 5 years
- Reserva wines are aged for a minimum of 3 years, with at least one year in oak and effective from January 2019 a minimum of 6 months in bottle
- Crianza wines must be at least in their third year, having spent a minimum of one year in casks and a few months in the bottle
- the more generic Rioja sub-category (also known as Vino Joven or Sin Crianza) covers wines in their first or second year where the style was intended to be more about easy-drinking wine with fresh fruit flavours. 52% of Rioja imports into the UK fall into this category.
Despite Rioja being of the highest quality category in Spain, it is sadly possible to go wrong with it though we are seeing a move away from the over-sweet, over-oaked wines that give it a bad name. There is so much diversity in the brand and yet it is difficult to be sure from the labels what style of Rioja a wine is. The best advice is to find a producer whose wines you like and / or ask your friendly wine merchant for advice.
But don't be alarmed; there are many fantastic examples out there. See my Rioja wines :
- Bodegas Altanza Lealtanza Rioja DOCa Selección de Familia which is more in the Modern Style - 100% Tempranillo, aged in French oak for 21 months, showing a balance of fruit and light oak, elegant - and great value for a Reserva wine
- Telmo Rodriguez Lanzaga Rioja DOC which is a New Wave Rioja - single estate wine, from biodynamically produced grapes mainly Tempranillo with a small amount of Graciano and Garnacha, just 14 months in French oak, a generic Rioja but still a little more refined
- Remelluri Reserva and Gran Reserva wines perhaps closer in style to what we think of as traditional Rioja but also New Wave - single estate wines, from organically produced grapes mainly Tempranillo with a small amount of Graciano and Garnacha, with longer in oak they are even more complex and richer but still very elegant
Or try them all to compare!
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