The wine known as Rioja, or in some places as Spanish Rioja, is produced in Spain and has become defined by its age. It gained popularity when it was only one of two wines that the Consejo Regulador gave a Denominación de Origen (DO) status to in 1991.
This was remarkable, as it is the highest level of quality approval. The public took note and began consuming it in greater quantities. The best Rioja are those which have been well aged in barrels and in their bottles.
What Is Rioja Wine?
Rioja wine is one defined mostly by its age in oak barrels. While it once relied solely on American oak, due to the flavours of vanilla, coconut, dill and caramel that they imparted to the wines, it has also become common practice for Roja wine to age in French oak barrels as well.
There are plenty of Rioja wines available, in rose, white and red varieties sold in bodegas around Spain. Internationally, however, red Rioja wine is the most popular kind.
Where Is Rioja Wine From?
The area of Rioja is a wine region in Spain found below the Cantabria mountains to the south. This area is located in the north-central parts of Spain which is where the most historical wine regions are. The name Rioja is actually from Rio Oja, the Oja River, which is a tributary of the main Ebro River which provides water to the region.
The Ebro River valley has been known for its wine production since Roman times, and while there was a distinct slowing down of wine production during the time of Moorish occupation, Christian monks re-established the tradition during the 16th century. Originally, wine was made in the region solely for those who lived within the valley, due to its isolation, however in the mid-1800’s winemaking became more commercial once the first bodega was established in Longroño.
Wine then began to become an export commodity and Spain began shipping it throughout Europe as well as to New York in large quantities. This demand was driven mainly due to Phylloxera – a vineyard parasite – which was devastating neighbouring vineyards in France.
How Is Rioja Wine Made?
Rioja is mostly made from Tempranillo grapes, though some Rioja include other red grape varieties such as Graciano, Mazuelo and Garnacha. White rioja comes from Macabeo / Viura, while Rosé wines tend to have Garnacha and Tempranillo grapes.
Spanish Rioja wine has two distinctly different creation methods.
The most common one used today starts with destalking the grapes before they ferment – which leads to far better longevity for it. The second and more traditional way of producing Rioja is to ferment whole grape bunches in large pools – a process called carbonic maceration. The wines made this way have a much shorter shelf life – and are best consumed within the first year in order to enjoy the smooth taste and good body.
For both methods, uniform fermentation is the goal and to ensure that the aroma of the must is not lost. This must is then pumped over during fermentation for both processes, which helps to maintain a consistent temperature in the tank, as well as giving a good colour extraction. The wine is then decanted and separated from the solids once the fermentation process is complete. It is then added to storage tanks where quality controls are in place.
The main Control Board then carries out a battery of tests in order to ascertain if the wine deserves the Rioja title. Once checked, the product is moved to 225 litre oak barrels to assist with ageing of Rioja wines. Interestingly, Rioja has the highest number of barrels compared to any other wine region throughout the world, with an incredible 1.3 million to its name.
What Does Rioja Wine Taste Like?
The main characteristics of Rioja wines are their memorable flavours and high tannins and acidity. Notes to check are dark cherries as well as dark berries.
The oak barrel ageing lends other nuanced flavours to the final product including caramel and vanilla. This blend of rich fruits and smooth finishes make Rioja truly special and also ensures it blends well with a wide variety of foods.
Is Rioja Dry Or Sweet?
When it comes to the profile of Spanish Rioja, it offers overall a slightly sweeter and less dry experience for most. The acidity tends to be mostly high but there are varieties that offer both low acid and lower tannins depending on who the vintner is. An ideal Rioja has a medium sweetness with medium tannins and a medium to high oakiness to it, combined with a low acidity to yield a smooth, flavourful wine.
How To Drink Rioja Wine
How you drink Rioja wine depends entirely on the variety chosen. If it is a young Rioja wine, then it is best consumed within a two-year period after its release. Aged Rioja wines, however, have a longer shelf life and are aged for around seven years. As such, they make perfect accompaniments to special occasions.
What Food Does Rioja Wine Pair With?
Due to the mostly easy-drinking nature of Rioja, most foods including seafood pair well with it. If, however, you’re after the best tasting experience, then sirloin and other red meats pair beautifully with the flavours of the wine stealing the show.
Best Rioja Wines And Brands To Try
There are plenty of Rioja producers in Spain. For those wanting to taste some of the top rioja wines give these bottles a try:
- Viña Herminia, Lady Herminia Tempranillo 2018.
- E.H.Booth & Co, Gran Norte Reserva 2016.
- Muriel Wines, Montelciego Reserva 2016.
- Torre de Oña, Finca Martelo Reserva 2015.
- Remírez de Ganuza, Reserva Rioja 2014.
- Bodegas Beronia, Gran Reserva 2012.
What Wines Are Similar To Rioja?
While Spanish Rioja is a definite must-try, those after a similar tasting experience will want to seek a wine using the same main grape varieties: Tempranillo and Garnacha. Wines produced in the Rhône use Garnacha grapes (called Grenache), and wines produced in Navarra are very similar to Rioja since they’re located beside Rioja.
Cannonau wines from Italy, Argentinian Malbec, South African Bordeaux blends as well as Ribera del Duero are all worthy contenders for the weight and flavours that Rioja is known for.