Rioja – What’s in a name? Breaking down the region(s) and quality that comes from this beautiful part of the world

My first encounter with Rioja came from reading an article written years ago about the age-worthiness of the wines from this region.  Specifically, what stood out to me was the observation by the writer about how bright and full of acid and fruit flavors the wines still had, even after decades in the bottle.  To me, this was something to experience for sure.  Many years later, after being lucky enough to travel throughout the region, and visit several producers, I can confirm that not only do the producers in Rioja make incredible wines at every price point, but it's actually rare to find a wine from the region that is not only unique, but qualified to compete with wines from all over the world.  Like a Napa, Bourgogne or Champagne, Rioja is part of the “club” of regions that require respect and further analysis as a wine enthusiast.  The wines are simply that good.  The regions’ wineries, farmers, as well as the Rioja DOC that helps govern the region’s production and oversee labeling laws, have done a great service in preserving the quality of the wines while production and distribution levels continue to expand.

Rioja can be from any one of three subregions that make up the broader, Rioja area – Rioja Alta, Rioja Orientale (formerly Baja) and Rioja Alavesa.  Each of these subregions have their own unique characteristics that impart different qualities and flavor to the wine.

Three distinct regions in one name

Rioja Alta

Rioja Alta is the westernmost region in Rioja, with a prevailing Atlantic climate.  This region is made up largely of clay and limestone, along with alluvial soils. At its center is the town Haro, which was first put into focus because it’s one of the first cities in Spain to receive electricity in the late 1800s.  Wineries sprung up around it due to this technological advancement as well as close proximity to the rail lines that ran through Haro, and lead to cities like Bordeaux, where at that time, was so heavily hit with phylloxera, they needed the wines from Rioja to help meet demand.

Rioja Alavesa

Rioja Alavesa is the smallest Rioja region, sitting along the Ebro River.  The soils here are mainly clay-limestone, as in Alta, but the topography is hilly, and many plots are terraced and smaller in scope and size

Rioja Orientale

Rioja Orientale was formerly known as Rioja Baja; the name changed in 2018, at the behest of producers who didn’t want the name to suggest potentially a “lesser” region within Rioja.  Orientale is the largest region by acreage and produces more than 40% of all the wine in Rioja.  As the region sits the furthest east, Orientale is much drier and hotter than either Alta or Alavesa and drought is a real threat.  Additionally, the soil content is dramatically different there, as it is largely made up of silt and ferrous clay, and is therefore far more fertile than either Alavesa or Alta.  One could characterize Orientale as being the “workhorse” for the region, historically producing a great deal of the Garnacha that is used to fatten up the wines from its cooler climate neighbors to the north and the west.

Definitions for labeling

Crianza

To be labeled a Crianza requires a minimum of one year in barrel and six months in bottle. For white wines, the minimum period in barrel/cask is 6 months.

Crianza is perhaps the most well distributed Rioja wine throughout the world but don’t let its accessibility and approachable price point (typically ~$15/bottle) dissuade into thinking this is anything but a high-quality wine.  Much the opposite in fact.  It’s our opinion that Crianza is pound for pound, dollar for dollar, one of the greatest wines made – not too different from your quality Côte du Rhône or Provençal rosé.  Most Crianza is aged in used oak which softens the fruit tannins without adding a lot of vanilla and oak tannin to the end wine. Crianza is a very high-quality “Wednesday” wine. It’s not too heavy, but with Tempranillo’s natural high tannin and acidity, it has quite a bit more punch than your average wine.

Reserva

Reservas are select wines of the best vintages with an excellent potential that have been aged for a minimum of 3 years, with at least one year in cask. For white wines, the minimum aging period is 2 years, with at least 6 months in casks.

 Reserva wines are often where Rioja winemakers receive their very best marks.  Winemakers typically age their very best wine, longer than the minimum required; using better grapes than what you’d find in Crianza. Many Rioja wine enthusiasts swear by the Reserva level because they are a happy middle ground between lighter, fruitier Crianza and oaky, longer bottle aged Gran Reserva wines.  Reserva wines range in price, but you can often find a solid bottle for $25-$45.

Gran Reserva

Gran Reserva are selected wines from only the best vintages, which then spend at least 2 years in oak casks and 3 years in the bottle. For white wines, the minimum aging period is 4 years, with at least one year in cask.

The Gran Reserva level of Rioja experiences the most oak aging. Typically, the best grapes are selected and only in vintages that warrant a Gran Reserva being made.  Such a high-quality wine going into barrel, and eventually bottle, gives wine the ability to age well, sometimes up to 30 years in bottle.  As they are quite limited in production and age for such a long time, Gran Reservas are a bit pricey, but when you figure that they are on par with, or even less expensive than many Napa Cabernets, I think as a consumer, parting ways with $45-$75 for a Gran Reserva that has seen upwards of 5-10 years of aging, is a bargain.

Grape varietals found in the region

While Tempranillo is the most widely planted by producers in Rioja, there is a great variety planted including but not limited to, Garnacha (Grenache), Graciano and Mazuelo (Carignan) to name just a handful of reds.  And while you will mostly find the reds marketed here in the US, there are a few whites that are worth sampling as well, including Viura, Malvasia and Tempranillo Blanco.

Please visit Mercantile & Co

You can find several wines from Rioja on our site here.  Please feel free to visit the shop or ask for an entrepreneur to reach out to you directly and help make a recommendation. [email protected]

For specific wines we have available now from Rioja, please check out: