Thursday, 15 August 2013

Wine for Beginners: Guide to Rioja

- By Rosie Simpson

I am on a mission to learn about the vino of Spain. In terms of quantity, they take bronze after France and Italy, having somewhere around 3 million hectares under vine.

Spain is a big old place and wine is produced… well, basically everywhere. The trouble is, we certainly get the quantity of Spanish wine here in the UK but what we don’t get is the variety – too many of Spain’s gems remain practically undiscovered in this country (check out Jo’s Spanish whites post for a couple of suggestions.)

If it is Rioja you’re after however, there is absolutely no problem. In fact, last year, in Britain we bought a whopping 3,168,000,000 bottles of the stuff. The problem is knowing which bloody Rioja to choose, as there are hundreds of examples on sale here, (and no, they don’t all taste the same.)

Despite my eagerness to sample the weirder and more wonderful wines of Spain, I realise that Rioja is a good place to start. So in order to help others, I’ve decided to decode the information overload on Rioja labels. (This is only marginally less James Bond than it sounds...)

Rioja Facts:

The name: Rioja is the name of the region the wine comes from, not the grape.
Grape: Generally a blend of a few indigenous Spanish varieties, but the majority of the blend will be Tempranillo
The region: The region is landlocked in the northwest of Spain along the River Ebro. 
Colour: Also worthy of note is that Rioja can be red, white or rosé.

The Label

Now, onto the more confusing elements. On the label you will always have the name of the ageing process, which really only denotes how long a Rioja has been aged for. Knowledge is power, so I’ve tapped out a little description of each below. 

Increasingly, you may also find the name of the sub-region within Rioja being mentioned on the label. There’s three main ones, but don’t worry too much: the majority of Rioja is a blend of grapes from various parts of the Rioja region.

Armed with this information hopefully you can head off to the shops and feel less terrified by the vast choice of Rioja on offer.


Joven – Spends less than a year in oak, is bottled, sold and drunk. Fruity, simple, easy-as-pie to drink. Mostly consumed in Spain but exports are picking up.

Crianza – Released for consumption after two years of ageing. The reds have at least one year in oak and the whites and rosés have 6 months, the rest of the time it is in bottle in the cellar. These wines use a good quality base wine so the oak and fruit balance well. Robust enough to stand up to food – often a very successful crowd pleaser.

Reserva – Produced in the best vintages. Released after three years of ageing. Reds have one year in oak and whites and rosés have 6 months. Rest of the time in the bottle. The fruit is mellow and turning into more complex rich and sophisticated wine.

Gran Reserva – Produced in exceptionally good vintages. Released after five years ageing. Two years in oak and the rest of the time in bottle. Highest levels of tannin mean this can age the longest of all the Riojas. Can have oxidative aromas and powerful oak influence with incredible complexity and length.


Rioja Alta – Situated to the west, mostly south bank of River Ebro. Cooler and wetter. Delicate wines. Arguably best Riojas come from here.

Rioja Alavesa – Smallest area, situated northwest, north side of River Ebro. Cooler and wetter. More delicate wines.

Rioja Bassa – Largest area, situated southeast, mostly south bank of River Ebro. Drier and hotter. Bolder wines with higher alcohol content.

Images taken from malias and Fareham Wine's photostreams respectively, under the Creative Commons License

No comments:

Post a Comment