Demystifying Rioja - Part 1

Rioja logo.jpgSomeone once said to me that you can't go wrong with Rioja and I often recommend it as a wine to pour at parties, mainly because it is one of the UK's favourite red wines. Although white Rioja is growing in popularity it is still only a fraction of the red wine produced in the Rioja region so this blog focuses on the reds.  

You might be forgiven for thinking that there is a typical style of Rioja as the UK market has been flooded in the past with entry level, commercial style Rioja which is all too often over-oaked and overly sweet. But in the last few years there have been accusations of complacency within the industry and some winemakers, Telmo Rodriguez among them, are rebelling against what he calls "supermarket wines" and the "Rioja recipe".

So can you go wrong with Rioja? I'm afraid you can.

Brand Rioja

(with thanks to the Consejo Regulador Denominación de Origen Rioja for the use of its statistics and photos of the labels and logo) 

Different Styles

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. 

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Around 15 years ago producers saw an opportunity to appeal more readily to overseas markets and began producing the formulaic, more commercial style wines.

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.

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So one Rioja can taste very different to the next. There is no right or wrong style. It is as always a matter of personal taste. But how can you be sure of finding a Rioja that is good quality and to your taste?

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. 
Winemakers have to submit their wines for extensive testing and must follow regulations on permitted grapes, yields etc. I was informed at a recent trade fair by a Rioja producer that the regulatory authorities are very frequent visitors to the winery and vineyard to make sure that the rules are being followed. 

rioja labels.jpg 

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: 

  • 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.
There has however been a rebellion against this system; several of the New Wave Rioja producers are happy to see their wines in the generic Rioja sub-category rather than have to age their wines for longer than they deem necessary to produce wines that are more expressive of the region and of the grapes.

Whilst the first three types can give an indication of how oaked a wine is, the 4th these days can be confusing. I argued in 2016 that this classification system was surely in need of an overhaul - and indeed it is to see an overhaul including the changes to ageing requirements mentioned above. I shall be covering the changes in Part 2 of this blog.


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 :

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telmo_rodriguez logo.jpeg

remelluri logo.jpg

Or try them all to compare!


© Wines With Attitude Limited,

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Lindsay Cornelissen DipWSET is passionate about good quality wine and set up Wines With Attitude to share that passion with other wine lovers.

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