There are three official sub-regions — Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja — but the traditional wines of Rioja have always been blends of grapes grown in all three areas. Both Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa are at higher altitudes, with cool breezes from the Atlantic Ocean to temper the Mediterranean weather. Rioja Baja sits at a lower altitude and is hot and dry. The soil of Rioja Alavesa is yellow limestone clay that extends well into the Alta region. However, a lot of the Alta soil is similar to the silt and clay of the Baja, where there is a hard limestone pan found less than a foot beneath the topsoil.
The mainstay grape is Tempranillo, which usually constitutes the majority of the blend. Although normally low in acid, it flourishes in the limestone soils of Alavesa and Alta, producing grapes with good acidity and a good concentration of flavors. Garnacha, which grows well in the Baja region, adds sweetness and volume to the wines, while Mazuelo, also known as Cariñena, adds freshness and acidity. Graciano, which may be the area’s rising star, adds mineral aromas and smoky notes.
Traditionally, Riojas are not released from the winery until they are ready to drink. All Riojas carry, an official D.O.Ca. seal on the back of each bottle, which indicates the classification level. The wines are ranked according to an aging regimen, often involving both oak barrels and time in bottle: “Joven” is the ranking for young wines that have little or no oak aging. “Crianza” wines are in their third year, with a minimum of 12 months in barrel. “Reserva” wines age for 36 months, with 12 months in barrel. The top “Gran Reserva” wines require 24 months of aging in barrel, and a further 36 months in bottle.
While red wines command the most notoriety, there are also some white wines produced in Rioja. Viura is the most common white grape, and makes white wines that are floral with a light and delicate character. Malvasia is used to give structure to white Riojas, while Garnacha Blanca can also be added for its pleasant taste and aroma of sweet honeysuckle.
Rosé wines in this region have traditionally been made from Garnacha Tinta, but some producers have experimented with 100% Tempranillo rosés.
Wines made in the traditional Rioja style show a lower intensity of color. Their orange hue and aromas come from the evolution of the wine in cask, where the fruit takes on more subtle nuances as it spends time in wood. Modern Rioja wines are intensely colored, with less-evolved hues (blue-purple) due to aging. They also show more expressive and intense aromas, rather than notes of oxidation.
So when a friend stops by to chat, offer a glass of Rioja rosé. If you fancy an aperitif, try a white Rioja. If you are eating caramelized onions, roasted peppers, anchovies and Manchego cheese on Catalan flatbread, pair it with a Crianza-level Rioja. For a Gran Reserva wine, a fine match would be lamb with an allioli sauce. Salud!