Rioja 101 – Everything You Need to Know (2022)

Rioja Wine Guide Featured

What Is Rioja?

Most commonly known as Spain’s signature red blend, Rioja is, in fact, a term describing the blending of traditional Spanish red grape varieties. The base of the Rioja blend is Tempranillo, followed by Grenache (Garnacha), Graciano, and Mazuelo (Carignan or Cariñena). Selected producers have dispensation to include Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend, too, but this is an uncommon practice.

Red Rioja is almost always oaked and has several designations to exhibit how long it has aged. Sure, there is a bit of flexibility within the aging classifications, but, in general, they are a reliable indication of the wine’s taste. Each category refers to the minimum period the wine must age in oak. That is combined with an aging period that might be maturation in bottle or barrel.

There are four aging categories. The first two, Joven (renamed as Genérico recently) and Roble, consist of bright, fresh wines that must be consumed as soon as possible. Joven (young) wines are un-oaked, while Roble (oak) wines have aged in oak but less than 12 months.

Wines of the popular Crianza category need to spend at least 12 months in oak and a minimum aging period of 2 years. The final 12 months of the aging process need to be spent in the barrel or bottle. A combination of the two is also possible. Likewise, Reserva wines must spend a minimum of 12 months in oak. But, unlike Crianza, they need to age for a period of 3 years instead.

Tempranillo Grapes

The final and most prestigious aging category is the Gran Reserva. These wines spend a minimum of 2 years in oak and require a total of five years of aging. As such, they are very costly, commanding great prices. They have an incredible depth of flavor and withstand extensive bottle maturation. During the 20th Century, New American oak barrels were the norm for Rioja wines. Times have changed, though. Recent trends see winemakers preferring French oak or a combination of the two.

The Rioja characteristics depend on the aging category. That said, the Rioja blend shows the range of flavors from Tempranillo and the spicy accent from the Garnacha. The Cariñena and the Graciano are mostly used to add color and perfume to the blend. When sipping Rioja, expect to taste strawberries, cherries, and raspberries. Riper flavors such as chocolate, stewed fruit, coffee, and prune are common, too, but only in older, structured Rioja wines.

What Color Is Rioja?

As mentioned above regarding Rioja color, Rioja is a blend of different grape varieties. For the most part, though, the grapes used in the Rioja blend are similar looking in the vineyard. For this reason, we are going to describe the appearance of Tempranillo, the dominant grape variety.

The Tempranillo vine produces large bunches of thick-skinned fruit that display a purple tone. Tempranillo, like most grapes, is a member of the Eurasian grape species, Vitis vinifera. Most grapes used in wine production are family members of the Vitis vinifera, including Carignan, Grenache, and Graciano, to name a few. Now, the véraison is the important period of berry ripening. At this point, the Tempranillo grape skins are thick to the touch. Also, the skin begins to change color, becoming red and then purple. On top of this, during véraison, the grapes swell, fill with water, and develop their flavors. The acidity drops, and color pigments accumulate. The berry ripening is reliant on sunny conditions and mild water stress.

What Does Rioja Mean?

As the name implies, the Rioja blend is named after the autonomous community Rioja in northern Spain. The first known use of Rioja was in 1863, in the meaning of red wine from the Rioja region in Spain.

Bottles of Campo Viejo Rioja Tempranillo

How to Pronounce Rioja?

The Rioja pronunciation is a matter of concern for those of us looking to develop our wine knowledge. Frankly, learning to pronounce the name of this wine correctly is of the utmost importance, considering how popular and prestigious, within the wine circles, Rioja is. You can find many audio and video examples of how to pronounce Rioja online. There are three syllables in the world, and the emphasis falls on the second syllable. Phonetically, the wine looks like this:

ree-ow-huh

Where Does Rioja Come From?

The Rioja blend comes from the Rioja region, northern Spain. Specifically, it is in the Upper Ebro geographical region. Rioja is divided into three sub-regions, based around the city Logroño.Rioja Alavesa is to the west of Logroño, on the north bank of River Ebro in the foothills of the Cantabrian Mountain range. The larger Rioja Alta zone is south of the Ebro but still to the west of Logroño. There, the vineyards are planted at an altitude of 800 meters and receive moderating influences by the Atlantic Ocean. The Cantabrian Mountains, however, shield Rioja from heavy downpours or thunderstorms coming from the Atlantic.

To the east of Logroño lies Rioja Baja, on the most southern bank of the Ebro. The climate is less maritime and more continental, with hot summers and hard winters. Annual rainfall is also low, making cultivating a challenge, as droughts are frequent. Furthermore, the Rioja blend is present in the regions of Priorat, west of Barcelona, and Valdepeñas, south of Madrid, too. Outside Spain, red Rioja is found in South Australia and California. That said, simple, fruit-forward Tempranillo and Garnacha blends are much more common away from Spain than structured, high-quality Rioja blends.

Spain has a super long history of wine production, but its wines have gained popularity on an international scale only in recent years. Styles vary from barrel-aged reds to modern, refreshing whites or dynamic sparklings. Even though international varieties are widely planted in most of Spain’s wine regions, the local grape varieties are the ones that are celebrated.

A Traditional Winery in Rioja

What Kind of Wine Is Rioja?

Red Rioja is made in different ways, depending on the style the winemaker wants to achieve. Riojas designed for early drinking undergo semi-carbonic maceration to produce wines with vibrant red fruit flavors and low tannins. Wines designed for long-term maturation, such as a Gran Reserva, undergo traditional fermentation instead. Many producers use cap management techniques and extended maceration to produce heavily extracted wines, deep in color and fruit flavors.

But what defines the Rioja style is the oak maturation. It adds smoky, earthy, and spicy aromas, giving incredibly concentrated and structured wines. Undoubtedly, barrel-aged Riojas are perfect for barbecues and formal warm-weather occasions. They are impressive, from the first to the last sip, and always welcomed by guests.

Except for red Rioja, there is also white Rioja. Winemakers are permitted to use eight white grape varieties in white Rioja blends. The most widely planted variety is Viura. Usually, the white Rioja wines are aged for extended periods in American oak barrels to develop a golden color and nutty, almond notes. But these deliberately oxidized wines aren’t as popular with consumers as they used to be. Therefore, more modern white Riojas are made with minimal contact with oxygen to preserve the natural fruit flavor.

Is Rioja Dry or Sweet?

Rioja is always a dry wine. In fact, most Riojas are bone-dry, without the slightest amount of residual sugar. If wine enthusiasts taste a bit of sweetness, it comes from the high alcohol concentration and the jamminess of the fruits. As Rioja matures over time, the strawberry and raspberry notes become mellow and juicy, increasing their flavor intensity. As such, sweet stewed prunes or luscious dried figs are common in Riojas and may show misleading candied sweetness.

What Does Rioja Taste Like?

Regardless of the aging category, the Rioja tasting notes highlight tastes of dark fruit, high tannins, and racy acidity. To put it into perspective, Rioja wine is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon in boldness, but it shows a pronounced fruit character, too. For this reason, it is ideal for wine enthusiasts who enjoy Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc but seeking the cherry notes that Pinot Noir is famous for.

The Rioja aroma is rich with strawberry, cherry, plum, and blackcurrant scents. On the palate, the Rioja taste is dynamic and jammy. An abundance of blackberries, chocolate, prunes, and dried fig notes join touches of spice, herbs, and tomato leaf. Riojas that have aged in oak display tobacco, vanilla spice, leather, and clove flavors. They have high but unobtrusive tannins, although Joven Riojas may show few green tannins, as well. Also, the high acidity balances the intense jamminess of older Riojas, keeping them bright and refreshing.

Rioja Vineyard with Davalillo Castle as Background

How to Serve Rioja?

Considering that Rioja wine comes in many styles, finding the best way to serve it is challenging. Each Rioja has different serving requirements. In general, Riojas below 41ºF (5ºC) or above 65ºC (18ºC) are not that good as their expressiveness decreases. If structured wines get too cold, they taste thin, whereas if they reach higher temperatures than recommended, they lose their freshness and become muddled.

Joven Riojas are best served between 53-57ºF (12-14ºC), while Crianzas are great at 57-60ºF (14-16ºC). The best temperature to serve Rioja that has barrel-aged extensively, such as Reserva or Gran Reserva, is between 60-64ºF (16 to 18ºC). The un-oaked white or rosé Riojas are enjoyable at 44-50ºF (7 to 10ºC). At the same time, barrel-fermented white Riojas are delicious at 50-53ºF (10 to 12ºC). And for optimum taste, pour Rioja into standard larger-sized red wine glasses. For serving Gran Reserva, however, Burgundy glasses are recommended, but they are expensive.

Suitable for Long-Term Storage

To bottle age a Rioja, as with any red wine, all you have to do is store it in an environment with unfluctuating temperatures (50-60°F or 10-15°C) and a portion of humidity. Considering that Rioja may age up to 15 years or more, a cellar seems the best environment to store it, uninterrupted for an extended period.

Direct sunlight or artificial light, such as kitchen lights, should be blocked out. If they are not, irreversible damage might be caused. The wine could lose color, flavors, acidity, and character. The reason this happens is that intense exposure to light changes the chemical compounds of the wine. Odors should also be kept at bay, as they could find their way inside the bottle, instilling unwelcome aromas and flavors, such as vinegar or animal sweat.

How Long Should Rioja Breathe?

Since most Rioja wines are aged in oak and have a woody taste, decanting them seems a great idea. An hour or two suffices, as it enables Riojas to come in contact with the oxygen in the air and develop their aromatics and flavors, as well as reach their full potential. That said, not every Rioja must be decanted.

Juven Riojas have to be drunk in their youth. Decanting them might not be the wisest choice. In every case, try pouring a small amount of wine first into the glass and drinking it. Focus your senses on the wine’s flavor profile and decide if it really needs decanting. If the answer is yes, then decant it. Not every Rioja is the same, so bear that in mind.

What Food to Pair With Rioja?

As you would expect, Rioja pairs perfectly with local Spanish food, particularly pork and lamb recipes that contain saffron, garlic, and red bell peppers. Joven Rioja fares better with spicy dishes, while a Reserva or Gran Reserva benefits more from simple, unsophisticated food.

Foods like roast lamb, lamb shanks, or rosemary garlic grilled lamb cutlets make a divine food pairing with Rioja. Likewise, British staples, such as Lancashire hotpot or Shepherd’s pie, or even Greek Moussaka are fantastic choices to complement Rioja. In addition, pork dishes cooked in Spanish style with chorizo, morcilla, and beans also accompany the wine perfectly. For the best flavor combination, strive to pair a Crianza Rioja with chili-based courses, such as chili con carne. Moroccan tagines, Mediterranean-style fish soups, or paella.

Almost any kind of American barbecue is superb with smoky Rioja wine, such as a Reserva one. However, Gran Reserva Riojas are phenomenal with game meat, like roast pheasant or a juicy grilled venison steak. There are so many options when it comes to Rioja cheese pairing.

In fact, the list is nearly endless. Hard sheep’s cheese like Manchego complements a Gran Reserva nicely, for instance. Garrotxa, Majorero, or Montenebro are also excellent options. On top of that, Rioja tastes so mellow when combined with Mahon, Cabrales, or Tetilla cheeses. Finally, remember that the cheeses could form part of dishes like pasta or cheese fondue.

Roast Lamb With Garlic and Rosemary

How Much Alcohol Does Rioja Have?

The Rioja alcohol content is high in the range of 13.5 to 18% ABV. The alcohol concentration should not surprise, considering that in the Rioja blend, there is Garnacha, a black grape famous for creating high-alcohol wine. When produced as a single-varietal wine, Garnacha results in a wine with alcohol as high as 15% ABV. In any case, check on the label before purchasing the wine bottle and drink responsibly.

How Many Calories Are There in Rioja?

Despite the high alcohol content, Rioja does not have high calories. The carbs in Rioja are 0 to 4 per glass, while the calories range from 113 to 125 per serving. That makes Rioja a perfect dinner wine!

Conclusion

Referred to as Spain’s Bordeaux, Rioja makes amazing wines. Period. Just sip a mature Gran Reserva to understand how perfection tastes. Warm, smooth, with notes of baked strawberries, spices, and black pudding, Rioja is a comfort wine, too. One that does not disappoint, as long as you pair it with fragrant, warming foods, the likes of chorizo, spinach stew, or roast pork. Don’t overthink it. Rioja has unbelievably strong foundations. It stands up to even the boldest examples of Cabernet Sauvignon or Madiran!

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