Rioja is perhaps the most well-known and renowned of Spanish wine regions. The numerous Bodegas dotting the landscape produce a number of wines in an approachable style and price point that everyday consumers love, as well as high-end wines that add to the prestige of the region. There is something for everyone! This month we’ll go over the history and geography of Rioja, look how the winemaking shapes the finished wines, and showcase two bottles that are (in our opinion) outstanding examples of Tinto & Blanco Rioja.
Geography & History
Rioja is located in Northern-Central Spain, directly south of the Basque city of Bilbao. It is about 2,000 square miles in size (w/ ~10% planted to vine) and located primarily in the autonomous region of La Rioja, with small parts in Navarra and Basque Country. The wine region is situated along the Ebro River Valley and its tributaries. To the North lies the Cantabrian Mountains and to the South, the Demanda Mountains. The name comes from the portmanteau or Rio - river - and Haro - the main town along the Ebro river. Rio Haro… Rioja.
There are three sub-regions of Rioja - Oriental, Alta, and Alavesa. Quality producers can be found in all three regions, however they each have different climatic and geographical characteristics that allow for different expressions of the finished wine.
Rioja Alta is located on the furthest North west part of the region. The soil structure tends to be iron-rich clay mixed with limestone. It is mid-sized as far as acreage goes, and generally has the highest elevation vineyards along the Sierra de la Demanda mountains. Coupled with the cooler Atlantic climate, this results in wines that are higher in acidity and more elegantly styled.
Rioja Alavesa, named for the Basque province of Álava in which it lies, is the only region of Rioja entirely outside of the La Rioja political region. The soils here are chalky clay and often terraced. It is the smallest, coldest, and wettest of the three regions, resulting in lighter-bodied wines.
Rioja Oriental (formerly Rioja Baja) is the large eastern flank of the region. This area is primarily alluvial soils, with a warmer Mediterranean climate and lower elevations. Rioja Baja tends to produce bigger, fuller wines with deep extract and higher alcohol.
Rioja has a long and interesting history, dating all the way back to the Phonecians in the 11th century BC, three thousand years ago. Like many Roman and Medieval European regions, it saw moderate amounts of winegrowing without any official structure or unordinary success for thousands of years. In the mid 1700s to late 1800s, Rioja started gaining more notoriety due to the employment of oak aging (learned from the French) as well as trade routes opening up in the old and new world (England, Cuba, Mexico, to name a few).
It wasn’t until a fortuitous spell of diseases came to Europe from the New World that Rioja wine growing really took off. First, it was powdery mildew. This leaf-destroying fungal disease arrived in damp Galicia to the west, and ravaged vineyards there, opening up the local market for other Spanish wines. Rioja quickly gained a foothold and sales started to boom. Shortly after, phylloxera invaded vineyards in France (and eventually all of Europe), causing rampant devastation to the industry.
The positive effect on Rioja was twofold, though. First, the effect on French vineyards was so drastic that in a few years there was a massive shortage of wine in the country. They turned their insatiable demand to their nearby neighbors and bought up all the wine that they could. Second, there was a large number of vintners and viticulturists in neighboring Bordeaux who were suddenly out of work. These tradesmen traveled to Spain and set up their own wineries, bringing extensive knowledge of farming and winemaking with them. In a few short years Rioja went from a fairly isolated, backwater wine region to one of the most prolific and high quality areas in all of Europe.
By the time that the phylloxera louse reached Rioja some 20 years after it had invaded France, the technology of grafting European budstock to American rootstock was already common knowledge. The Spaniards were able to quickly re-plant most of their vineyards with minimal loss.
Winemaking & Varieties
One distinct feature of Rioja wines is the employment of oak aging, particularly in American Oak. The Bodegas had used French oak for roughly 100 years before the costs became prohibitive and more enterprising houses began to import cheaper American oak and fashion them into barrels in their own cooperages. They followed the same techniques as French coopers, however the natural grain and qualities of American oak lead to a much more pronounced presence in the wine than French oak. Whereas French oak imparts soft flavors of baking spice like cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg, American oak imparts rich flavors of vanilla, coconut, and dill, as well as more tannins and a richer mouthfeel. Today, some Bodegas have embraced French oak again, but most still use entirely American, or a combination of the two.
Additionally, the wines are often aged in barrel for longer than nearly any other region. This leads to the second distinct feature of Rioja - rather than ranking quality levels of wine based on Bodega / Château (like Bordeaux) or Village / Terroir (like Burgundy), wines are categorized by their time spent in Oak. This structure is broken down into several categories:
Genérico (formerly Joven): This is the youngest and quickest to market, guaranteeing just the vintage and provenance as Rioja. These wines have no aging requirements and are generally released immediately. Comprising between 40-50% of the market, these wines are fresh and fruity with limited complexity and oak flavors. Sometimes these wines will be produced with Carbonic Maceration to emphasize the fruitiness and impart a light spice without extended oak use.
Crianza: These wines must be aged for 2 years total, with 1 year in cask before release. These are the most commonly exported wines and are generally a nice balance of fresh fruit with ample acidity, as well as some aged characteristics like dried fruit and leather. Often, higher quality producers will go well beyond the aging requirements, so it is common to see Crianza wines that are 10+ years old at release.
Reserva: These must be aged for 3 years total, with at least one year in oak. Some producers only make Riserva wines in the best years and will often utilize their oldest vines and most coveted vineyard sites. They show more signs of aging than Crianza wines, with just a touch of fresh fruit alongside notes of cigar box, leather, and dried fruit. As above, many producers will age their wines far beyond the 3 year requirement and release them 10, 15 or 20 years after the vintage.
Gran Reserva: These wines are made of the best grapes in the most exceptional of seasons. Wines must be aged 2 years in oak and another three years in bottle, however the same as mentioned above applied when looking at the best producers. Only 2% of Rioja is released as Gran Reserva. The wines are expensive, ageworthy, and collectible.
(Note - these numbers are for red wines, whites/rose have a similar hierarchy with different age requirements)
Another technique borrowed from the Bordelaise is the practice of blending varieties. While many of us associate Rioja with the Tempranillo grape, several other varieties are allowed and wines are rarely mono-variety. For red and rosado production, Tempranillo, Garnacha tinta, Mazuelo (aka Carignan) and Graciano are traditionally permitted. For whites, Viura (also known as Macabeo), Malvasía and Garnacha blanca are allowed. In 2007, new varieties were approved for use, however these have some requirements such as 1) no new acreage may be planted to these varieties, only substitution of existing acreage is allowed, and 2) if the grapes are ‘foreign’ varieties, then they are not allowed to be produced as a monovariety. These new grapes are: (red) Maturana tinta, (white) Maturana blanca, Tempranillo blanco, Turruntés, and (white, foreign) Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Verdejo.
All that said, one will most likely Red/Rose Riojas based off of primarily Tempranillo and whites based off of primarily Viura.
Abeulo Cayo, Tempranillo Blanco, Rioja Alta 2022
Bodegas Quiroga de Pablo is located in the village of Azofra, within Rioja Alta. Founded in 1850 and now in its 6th generation, the estate is run by Juan Luis, Diego, and Maite. The original bodega was built to be a deep underground cellar that is used to this day to produce and age the wines.
This wine is special because (according to the importer), this was the family that first found and propagated the Tempranillo Blanco grape. Much like Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, Tempranillo Blanco came about by a random mutation on one single vine. As the story goes, winegrower Jesus Galilea Esteban was walking through an old Tempranillo vineyard in 1988 when he noticed one vine that had several clusters of black Tempranillo grapes and one lonely bunch of white grapes. He called the CIDA (Center for Agricultural Research and Development in Spain) and they came by, took cuttings, and propagated the new vine. By 1993 there were 100 Tempranillo Blanco plants. Today, there are tens of thousands, all of which stem from this one single mutation.
This wine is 100% Tempranillo Blanco, made without the use of oak or extended aging. It sees just 24 hours of cold maceration on the skins before being pressed and fermented for less than two weeks. The resulting wine has lovely tropical notes of pineapple, guava, plantains, plus apple and stone fruits. There is a touch of creamy, lees-y notes and a little salty backbone. On the palate it is medium bodied, with driving acidity, plenty of texture and a pronounced apple Jolly-rancher / hard-candy flavor.
In Spain, this wine is used by the DOCa Consortium to cross-check the typicity of other Tempranillo Blanco wines that are allowed to be labeled as the mono-variety. We call that a reference-point. Another fun fact - this wine had not yet been imported into the US until we expressed interest in it for the club. I tasted it back in October and quickly had them load a pallet on a container for us (and others in the Oregon market) to sell. You’re some of the first Americans to taste this cuvee.
La Antigua Clásico, Crianza, Rioja Alta 2013
Alberto Orte was born in Madrid to a family of winemakers. He grew up in the vineyards picking grapes with his cousins and working in the family winery. But as reached adolescence, he took a change of course to study law at the University of Madrid. Shortly after graduation, age 24, his friend Patrick Mata called him up from Florida with a wild business proposition. Patrick had met a restaurateur that wanted a pallet of Tempranillo. However Patrick had no idea where to source the wine. Alberto set off to Ribera del Duero, north of Madrid, where he started asking around and eventually found a wine he approved of, which Patrick then got to Florida. This was the rather chance founding of Olé & Obrigado imports.
With his newfound passion for wine, Alberto went back to school and sought a masters degree in viticulture. Today, he resides in Cadiz, but makes wine all over Spain, both consulting with winemakers within his import portfolio and handcrafting his own labels in multiple regions throughout Spain.
This project, La Antigua Clásico, is Alberto’s love letter to old-school Rioja. It is sourced from the Sierra de la Demanda mountains, in the southern part of Rioja Alta and facing North to the Ebro River. This area within Rioja is markedly cooler and higher than other parts of the region, allowing for slower ripening and longer hang time (picking is done in early November, some of the latest in all of Europe). This both preserves acidity, lowers sugars (alcohol), and allows for more phenolic ripening of the grapes. Due to the extreme terroir of these wines, there is no mechanical harvesting or tilling, and everything must be done by hand.
The source material for this wine is 70-85 year old vines of Tempranillo (70%), Graciano (20%) and Garnacha (10%). In the winery, Alberto first ages the wine for 2 years in stainless steel, followed by 2 years in a mix of very old French (60%) and American (40%) barrels. Winemaking is hands off, with only interventions being mechanical and the judicious use of sulfur.
The resulting wine is lively yet robust at the same time - notes of red and black fruit, with a touch of vanilla, cigar box, and rose petals. The palate is medium to full bodied, with fine tannins that are well integrated. It has the acidity to make it a wonderful food wine, but also compelling enough aromatics to make it a pleasure to drink all on its own.