Rioja Rocks!


A region characterised by rich tradition and dynamic innovation.

We’ve all heard of Rioja, it is Spain’s most famous wine region, the Spanish fine wine capital, a region characterised by rich tradition and dynamic innovation. 

There is a wealth of historic and traditional producers, many of whom have been making wine for centuries, but recently the region has seen the arrival of a new wave of state of the art bodegas that are pushing the boundaries and taking the wines to even greater heights.

But how easy is it for us to get to grips with the region, grapes, classification system? The answer, mercifully, is relatively easily. Unlike many other old world producing regions, there is no mystique.  Classification has, until very recently, based on the ageing process but there are now regional classifications and indeed, in June this year, the first single vineyard Rioja was released.

The dominant grape used is normally tempranillo, which although native to Spain, now grows more widely. Garnacha (or grenache), mazuelo (carignan) and graciano make up the balance. Although Rioja is most commonly associated with red wine (red wine represents 90% of Rioja wine production), the region produces some excellent white and rosé wines.  The main permitted white grape varieties for these are Viura (Macabeo), Garnacha blanca and Malvasía.


Geographically the region lies in north central Spain, about two hours’ drive from Bilbao and is divided into three zones: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental (formerly known as Rioja Baja).

Rioja Alta

Located on the western edge of the region, and at higher elevations than the other areas, the Rioja Alta is known for more fruity and concentrated wines which can have very smooth texture and mouth feel.

Rioja Alavesa

Despite sharing a similar climate as the Alta region, the Rioja Alavesa produces wines with a fuller body and higher acidity. Vineyards in the area have a low vine density with large spacing between rows. This is due to the relatively poor conditions of the soil with the vines needing more distance from each other and less competition for the nutrients in the surrounding soil.

Rioja Oriental

Unlike the more continental climate of the Alta and Alavesa, the Rioja Oriental (formerly Rioja Baja) is strongly influenced by a Mediterranean climate which makes this area the warmest and driest of the Rioja. In the summer months, drought can be a significant, a viticultural hazard, though since the late 1990s irrigation has been permitted. Temperatures in the summer typically reach 95°F. Twenty percent of the vineyards actually fall within the Navarra appellation but the wine produced from the grapes is still allowed to claim the Rioja designation. The predominant grape here is the Garnacha which prefers the hot conditions, unlike the more aromatic Tempranillo. Consequently Oriental wines are very deeply coloured and can be highly alcoholic. The wines typically do not have much acidity or aroma and are generally used as blending components with wines from other parts of the Rioja.

Rioja Classification/ageing

The region embodies the traditional Spanish approach to aging red wines – aging in cask (traditionally US oak, but increasingly these days French is in the mix) coupled with gentle oxidation ensuring the wine is ready to drink on release. In fact, Rioja has the largest number of barrels of any wine region in the world, a staggering 1.3 million.

Rioja Classifications such as Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva have legally defined times spent in both cask and bottle before they are released. To this day Spain remains the only country that imposes such rigour upon its premium red wine aging and classification processes (and white in Rioja – as exemplified by the quite astonishing Murrieta Castillo Reserva Especial Blanco).

The different Rioja wine categories are based on minimum ageing periods, which can vary between 1 and 3 years in barrels and between 6 months and 6 years in the bottle, depending on whether the wine is to be a Crianza, a Reserva or a Gran Reserva.


Joven literally translates as ‘young’. This applies to the entry level bottles and often you’ll only see the word “rioja” on the label. Expect simple, inexpensive wines with little to no ageing.


  • Red wines: Aged for a total of two years with at least one year in oak barrels.
  • White and rosé wines: Aged for a total of two years with at least six months in barrels.

Expect more fruit forward flavours and a touch of spice with a Crianza; they can make for excellent every day wines, as they are highly quaffable, fruity and generally accessibly priced.


  • Red wines: Aged for a total of three years with at least one year in oak barrels and at least six months in bottles.
  • Sparkling wines (NEW): Wines must be aged “en tirage” (on the lees) for no less than 24 months. Vintage-dated espumosos must be hand-harvested.
  • White and rosé wines: Aged for a total of two years with at least six months in barrels.

Reserva is where things start to get serious with Rioja. We suspect this classification will continue to be the benchmark moving forward because it also includes the new sparkler, Espumosos de Calidad de Rioja.

Red wines in this classification typically have fantastic balance between fruit and structure (tannin and acidity) with more depth, complexity through oak ageing; expect flavours of baking spice and dried fruit.  They are generally preferred by some to the older the older Gran Reservas because they’re not quite as rich, and the oak can be a little more restrained.

Gran Reserva

  • Red wines: Aged for a total of five years with at least two years in oak barrels and two years in bottles.
  • White and rosé wines: Aged for a total of five years with at least six months in barrels.

These are not always “best”, depending on when you are planning to drink the wine.  If you’re looking to cellar age your wine than the Gran Reservas are your best bet thanks to the more structured tannins.  As ever, though, it just comes down to personal preference.

New Classification System

The wine world has always been a stable industry, it still adheres to and values a Bordeaux classification system introduced over 160 years ago, so when Rioja Consejo Regulador (wine commission) announced a new classification system, it felt like a big deal.

The new system moves Rioja wines away from oak-aging as the primary indication of quality. Instead, wineries are encouraged to champion regional microclimates and singular vineyard sites, ‘Vinedos Singulares’ in a similar vein to the lieu-dits of Burgundy. In fact the first single vineyard Rioja was released this year, a huge milestone in the rich history of Rioja.

Rioja and Food

Rioja also rocks the world of wine and food pairing. Red Rioja and roasted meats make an excellent match, especially lamb. Pork works well too, even better if it’s prepared tapas style – think meatballs, jamon or chorizo. This is a red that can take on spicy dishes as well which is no mean feat! Young, white Rioja goes well with scallops and seafood whereas barrel aged white Rioja can withstand more buttery, creamy fish and white meat dishes.

So, which Rioja to drink?

We hold a range of all styles of Rioja from the traditional houses to the more modern, from young to old of varying vintage, from red to white and rosé.

Below are two reds we recommend:

Bodegas Muga Rioja Reserva 2014 £19.00

Bodegas Muga is one of the finest traditional houses in Rioja. Founded by the Muga family in 1932, there is even an in-house cooperage to ensure quality barrels. If you want to taste traditional Rioja at its very best, you could fork out for the excellent Muga Prado Enea Gran Reserva 2009/19 (£50). For considerably less you can enjoy this delicious elegant Rioja with its lifted aromas and silky-smooth cherry fruits. Try it with steak and kidney pie.

Vendimia, Tempranillo, Herencia Remondo, Palacios Remondo 2017 £14.90 (Organic)

Alvaro Palacios is one of the best winemakers around, crafting some unique and very different wines in the Priorato and Bierzo regions of Spain. The family business, however, is based in Rioja Oriental. The Palacios family make exemplary versions of both kinds of Rioja. The La Montesa is more traditional, the Herencia Remondo more modern. This has ripe fruit, balanced vanilla oak, and a long finish. Serve with a leg of lamb.

Wright Wine Company Team - Gemma CrangleAuthor: self-confessed wine-geek, Gemma Crangle.

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