The Spanish Wine Region of Rioja

Interested in learning about Spanish wine? Bristol Bar & Grille Master Sommelier Scott Harper shares his knowledge of the Spanish wine region of Rioja:

Having the good fortune to touring the vineyards of Italy, France, California and stopping for a quick beer in Germany, my next European stop almost assuredly will be Spain. Currently Spanish wines are hot! For the big rich mouthful of red wine think, Catalonia’s Priorato blended from Garnacha, Carinena and other grapes. When thinking of a refreshing high quality white wine to go with shellfish, the delicious Albarino from the Rias Baxias area of Galicia comes immediately to mind. These are but a few of the newer wines that have entered the market over the last decade.

About Rioja

But when you think of the classic wine of Spain you must think of Rioja. The first high quality table wine from Spain and the first Spanish wine I can remember trying is the venerable red Rioja (Ree-OH-ha). Rioja is one of Spain’s finest red wines. I say red Rioja because it can come in two additional colors, a white and rose. Although it is the red Rioja that conjures up full flavored terrific bottle of fine wine with a multiplicity of flavor placing it as one of the world’s classics red wines. White Rioja is made typically from a blend of Viura, Malvasia De Rioja & Garnacha Blanca. Some white Rioja styles are rich, full bodied and aged in oak but others are fresh, bright, zesty wines that are excellent as apertif. Rose wines are dry with the flavor of fresh berry fruit and made from mostly the same grapes as the red Rioja.
The Region

The Rioja region is located in North East Spain and is named after the River Rio Oja. Rioja is divided into three sub regions: Rioja Alta, in the northwest and as the name suggests is the region with the highest elevation up 2000 feet, Rioja Alavesa, which is the Northern most area and lastly Rioja Baja which is in the lowlands of the Southeast.

The History

Rioja’s gain was France’s lost when in the mid to late 1800’s France experienced a major decrease in its viticulture areas, especially in the region of Bordeaux. This decrease was due to a plague of mildew and a root louses called phylloxera. This duo devastated and nearly completely destroyed the vineyards of France, leaving the French without wine and the French wine makers without wine to make. Therefore winemakers came to Rioja, the closest quality wine region of the time, and influenced the Spanish winemakers helping them to supply wine to there new market. By the time the French recovered, Rioja was already popular in other countries supplying wine around the wine drinking world.Cork versus screw top

The Wine

The primary grape of red Rioja is the Tempranillo. Tempranillo is the most important quality wine grape in Spain and usually makes up the majority of the Rioja blend! It also makes great wine in other regions such as Ribero Del Duero. It typically has the flavors of strawberry, raspberry and oak barrel ageing. The secondary grapes are Garnacha (Gernache), Graciano & Mazuelo (Carignan).

Unlike American wines labeled reserve or grand reserve the Terms Crianza, Reserva and Grand Reserva are defined by law. Crianza must be aged 2 years one in oak barrel and one in the bottle, Reserva must be aged three years with a minimum of one year in oak and one year in bottle. Gran Reserva which is dedicated to the wineries very best wine must have fruit that can stand 5 years of ageing with 2 years in oak and 3 years in the bottle. This ageing takes place in 225-litre oak cask, ether in the traditional (believe or not) American oak, which the Spaniards love for its flavor of vanilla, coconut and dill, or the less assertive French barrels and even a combination of the two. To drink mature wine from most wine regions, you must age the wine yourself, but the long ageing of Rioja Reserva and Rioja Gran Reserva allows the consumer to purchase mature ready to drink Rioja. A very interesting tasting to do is getting a bottle of each of the ageing levels, preferably from the same producer, and taste side by side a Crianza, a Reserva and a Gran Reserva. This is a brilliant way to see the influence of oak barrel and bottle ageing of 3 wines from the same region, same grapes and in the case of the Reserve and Gran Reserve you can even get the same vintage. The oak ageing adds complexity of flavors such as, vanilla, smoke, oak, toast, spice, cocoa and dill among others. Oak barrel ageing can also change the texture making a wine suppler.

The Spanish government elevated Rioja to the highest classification of quality wine called (DOCa) Denominacion De Orgine Calificada meaning from a controlled, described, quality wine region in 1991. Rioja sat alone at the top of this wine hierarchy for 11 years before one other wine was added in 2002, Priorato. No other wine has been added since!

Hungarian wines

Two Mature examples of Fine Rioja:

Rioja Marquese De Caceres Reserva 1994
A medium red with an amber orange rim gives an indication of these wines 12 years. Flavors of dried roses, earth, strawberries, red cherries, vanilla, anise, cinnamon and oak enhance the supple texture and integrated tannins in this medium-bodied deliciously mature wine. Try it with roasted rack of lamb.

Rioja Marques Del Puerto Gran Reserva 1994
The color speaks of a mature wine; it has a medium dark red with a rim that is orange- amber- red. Flavors of vanilla, cocoa, strawberry, raspberry liqueur, saddle leather, dried violets and copious oak are enveloped by a very soft texture. It is medium-full-bodied, dry and complex. Try with pan seared beef filet.

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