Rioja: What to Know

Can’t get enough Northern Rhône syrah or Napa Valley cabernet in your life? The red wines of Rioja are definitely for you. Produced mainly from tempranillo, these dark-hued wines are rich, robust and undeniably satisfying when sipped alongside equally hearty cuisines. Best of all, in addition to tasting great, these bottles generally cost significantly less than their international counterparts—a win all around.

What Is Rioja?

The name Rioja refers to the region in northern Spain where these wines are produced. Although red, white and rosé wines are made here, the region is best known for its full-bodied red wines. Rioja is a designated DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada), which is the highest category of Spanish wine classification. The main red grape varieties cultivated in Rioja are tempranillo, garnacha, mazuelo (cariñena) and graciano. White varieties grown in Rioja include garnacha blanca, malvasía and viura (macabeo).

Where Does Rioja Come From?

Rioja is located west of Navarra and south of the Basque region in northern Spain. The region is divided into three subzones: Rioja alavesa, Rioja alta and Rioja oriental (baja). In the past, Rioja wines were generally produced from a blend of fruit from these regions, though an emphasis on single-vineyard and single-region bottlings is on the rise. 

How Is Rioja Made?

Wines from Rioja are vinified in a variety of styles, and their final flavours depend on where the fruit was grown, the exact blend and how the wine was vinified. Most winemakers in Rioja use some form of wood (new and/or used) during their fermentation and ageing, though steel-vinified expressions can be found. 

However, for Rioja wines to be designated with a DOCa labelling, certain rules and regulations must be followed, including grape variety requirements. For example, red wines must be produced from at least 95% tempranillo, garnacha tinta, graciano, mazuelo and/or maturana tinta. For whites wines, at least 51% of the blend must come from viura, while garnacha blanca, malvasía, maturana blanca, tempranillo blanco turruntés, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and verdejo can make up the rest of the blend.

The classification system is a bit intricate too. Crianza, reserva and gran reserva are the best-known designations, and similar to the above, certain requirements must be followed, mostly pertaining to age. Rioja wines generally age in 225-litre oak barrels for one to three years, followed by additional bottle-aging for up to six years. Crianza red wines must age for two years, at least one in bottle, to receive said designation, while reserva reds must age for three years, with a minimum of 12 months in oak, prior to bottling. For gran reserva reds, wines must be aged for a minimum of two years in oak and three years in bottle prior to release. White Rioja ageing requirements for these designations are similar to those of red wines, just slightly less. 

What Does Rioja Taste Like?

As with most regions, Rioja wines’ flavour profiles are heavily dependent on where the fruit is grown, how it is vinified and aged, and which producer is making it. Based on grape variety and simple ageing requirements alone, it’s safe to say that most red Rioja wines are rather full-bodied and dark-hued, due to the high amounts of tempranillo used, and notes of ripe red and black fruits, ripe cherries, leather and baking spice are usually present. 

Whites from Rioja are also on the fuller side, often marked by flavours of yellow stone fruit, honeycomb and salty melon. This is mostly due to the high levels of viura used in the region’s blends. Oak notes, such as baking spice, dill or coconut, can be present, if a wine is aged in oak vessels, though steel vinification is often used in the production of white Rioja wines to preserve the wines’ acidity and natural freshness. 

Which Foods Should I Pair with Rioja?

Because of their dark fruit flavours, muscular nature and solid backbones, red wines from Rioja beg to be sipped with robust dishes. Drink them alongside barbecued meats, smoked sausages or roasted game. Lentil-based stews and grilled veggies make for equally savoury vegetable-based substitutes. White and rosé wines from Rioja make excellent happy-hour options, pairing perfectly with Spanish-inspired tapas, especially croquetas, cured ham and salty chunks of Manchego cheese. 

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