Notes on Northern Spain #1: Rioja

Spain is an absolutely vast country, well, in European terms anyway. (As far as I’m concerned any country you can’t drive from one side to the other in a day is massive!) And in keeping with that, there’s no way off the back of one blog I can start explaining Spanish wines. So Northern Spain it is. And when you start with Northern Spain, you’ve got to start really at arguably the most famous area for wines in Spain; Rioja.

You're looking up the top in the middle, with the Ebro flowing through it
You’re looking up the top in the middle, with the Ebro flowing through it

The word Rioja is now synonymous (almost interchangeable) with red wines from Spain, from inexpensive entry level wines, to some massive premium wines. But in a country so big and diverse as Spain, how has Rioja managed to take such a big share of the fame?

Rioja is a fairly diverse region in the middle of Northern Spain. There are three main areas, one of which is high up on slopes, one of which is half way down these slopes, and the last of which is down on the plains. This means that growers can get three different styles from the same grape, making varietal blending (blending the same grape, but grown in different areas) a bit more interesting. It also means that the two famous red wine grapes of Spain have found a home;

Tempranillo – Is a thick skinned grape, with low acidity. So the wines will
be low in acidity, they will be high in colour and tannin (extracted from the thick skins). If it’s too hot then what little acidity is there will disappear. So the slightly cooler sloped areas of Rioja are spot on to deliver enough heat to ripen, but not mess up the structure.

Garnacha – Known as Grenache (the French word) in the rest of the world, it’s a lot thinner skinned as a grape, but tends to have much higher acidity and it’s a big fat berry, with lots of sugars. So it tends to give high alcohol, highly structured wines, with enough acidity to balance it out. It needs a lot of heat to ripen, and luckily Rioja’s flatter plains are seriously warm and get sheltered by the hills from the bad weather at the end of the growing season. Perfect.

So Rioja has the climate and terrain to be successful with these two powerhouse grapes of Spanish wines. It was also a bit of a first footer on the marketing scene. Rioja was the first region in Spain to be granted a DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada). This is the highest quality assurance granted to Spanish wine regions (think in terms of AOCs in France and DOCGs in Italy etc.) Also Rioja is full of small plots, with smaller growers, and a fairly well planted co-op system. That’s not to say the wines are not cared for in the production, I’m just saying that from a marketing point of view, the co-ops know how to get their product out there.

Things only stay famous and well liked if they’re genuinely good. Especially in today’s wine market where global production gives us all so many amazing choices. Not only is Tempranillo a very good blending grape, it gives lots of choices for different oak barrel ageing processes before its release. Remember oak ageing can really settle flavours down a bit and smooth out the taste and tannins and the rest. The Spanish have registered terms for the consumer to be aware of;

Joven – unlikely to have had much barrel ageing, usually well managed tannins for early drinking.

Crianza – minimum of 24 months ageing, at least 6 months of that are in oak barrels.

Reserva – usually from better vintages, minimum 36 months ageing, of which 12 months must have been in barrels.

Gran Reserva – usually only exceptional vintages, minimum of 5 years ageing, of which 18 months must be in barrels.

You ever wonder what would happen if you took one of the bottom ones out first?
You ever wonder what would happen if you took one of the bottom ones out first?

Now I’m not going to bang on anymore about that. It’s a labeling thing that I think it helps to understand. So hopefully next time you pick up a bottle, you’ll see “Crianza” on the label and think “ah right, yeah!”

So there it is, Rioja has the territory, the weather, the grapes, the options, and the marketing force behind it. It’s now a brand in itself, and as anyone in the business world will tell you, that can be a fairly unstoppable force.

It’s helpful too that they produce some outstanding wines.




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