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Rioja Wine: From Crianza to Gran Reserva

If you love the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon but the fruitiness of Grenache then you’ll love Tempranillo.

Tempranillo is a big wine with high tannin that buddies up to any piece of rich meat. This grape is hugely popular around the world but its true homeland is on the Iberian Peninsula.

In Spain, the region famous for Tempranillo is Rioja. Unlike American wine, Rioja uses a system of qualifying their wines making it pretty easy to find what you like.

2018 UPDATE: See the new Rioja Rules here.

Rioja Wine Styles

Rioja has a wine control board, called the Consejo Regulador DOCa Rioja, who inspects the quality of producers to ensure consistency. This is a benefit because wines from Rioja labeled ‘Crianza’ will have a similar taste profile. There are 4 different main styles of Rioja wine. The best way to taste the range would be to taste all 4 next to each other – perhaps a perfect excuse to host a wine tasting party.

4 Styles of Rioja Wine

Rioja formerly “Vin Joven”

Wines in their first or second year, which keep their primary freshness and fruitiness. –riojawine.com

Rioja used to be called “vin joven” which literally means “young wine.” Now when a wine is labeled Rioja you can assume it’s a base-model Tempranillo. These wines don’t have the tannin structure or oak flavors that are common in the higher end wines.

What they don’t have in structure they make up for in zippy fruit. Try this level of Rioja as a great example of the true varietal characteristics of Tempranillo wine.

Crianza

A minimum of one year in casks and a few months in the bottle. For white wines, the minimum cask aging period is 6 months. –riojawine.com

Crianza is perhaps the most accessible level of Rioja wines, especially since most can be found for less than $15. At the Crianza level, the wines are most commonly aged in used oak, so the oak flavors are not as strong. The goal of Crianza is a high-quality daily drinking wine. It’s not too rich, but with Tempranillo’s natural high tannin it has quite a bit more body than Merlot. It’s like a great valued Cabernet Sauvignon.

Reserva

Selected 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 casks. For white wines, the minimum aging period is 2 years, with at least 6 months in casks. –riojawine.com

This is where Rioja tastes serious. At the Reserva level, winemakers often age their wines longer than the minimum and select better grapes. Many Rioja wine enthusiasts swear by Reserva level because they are a medium between super fruity Crianza and oakey-bottle-aged Gran Reserva.

Gran Reserva

Selected wines from exceptional vintages which have spent 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 casks. –riojawine.com

The Gran Reserva level of Rioja experiences the most oak-aging. This gives Rioja wine the most tannin structure and age-worthy potential. What’s interesting about Gran Reserva is that most winemakers select the best grapes for this level and age them for as long as the wine needs. This means most of the new release Gran Reservas are around 10 years old or older when you first see them available. Gran Reserva Rioja are ideal wines to cellar up to 30 years.

Different styles of Red, Rosé and Red Rioja wines. Taken at Don Jacobo

A Move Towards Modern Rioja

There’s a new style of winemaking happening in Rioja. Modern Rioja wines use more French or Hungarian oak (instead of American oak) to make a smoother and rounder wine – usually with less acidity. While these wines are often touted as lacking Rioja’s traditional earthiness, they are a growing category because of high ratings.

Need a few recommendations for modern styled Rioja producers?

We enjoyed Vivanco , in Rioja Alta; Baron de Ley , in Rioja Oriental and Izadi , in Rioja Alavesa.


Rioja Wine: In Depth

A castle on a hill in front of the Cantabria Mountains in Rioja Alta.

Rioja is in North Central Spain. It’s about 2 hours drive from Bilbao in a valley along the Ebro River. The entire valley is moderated by the Sierra Cantabria, a small but jagged mountain range that stops clouds from coming into the Rioja valley. Besides wine, the area is known for its delicious tiny artichokes, white asparagus and piquillo peppers.

For wine, the area is split into 3 sections: there’s Rioja Baja, Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa (next to Alava). Most people will tell you that Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa are better than Rioja Baja but that’s not always the case. You can find great Rioja wines from all over, just pay attention to producer and vintage.

The eastern portion of Rioja is now called “Rioja Oriental.”

In Rioja Alta the temperatures are cooler and the elevation is about 300m higher than Rioja Baja. Because of the elevation and cool temperatures, wines from Rioja Alta have higher tannin and acidity than Rioja Baja – they also tend to be more elegant. The soils in parts of Rioja Alta have a lot of iron oxide giving them a red hue with a high proportion of clay.

Rioja Alavesa is next to the neighboring region Alava and also next to Rioja Alta. The wines in Alavesa are more similar to Rioja Alta. There are more rolling hills in these two regions and the best vineyards are on south facing slopes. Around Rioja Alta and Alavesa you can find many ancient fortified castles and monasteries on hilltops.

In Rioja Baja the vineyards are on the flatlands going towards the Ebro river. The soil is more consistent with mostly calcareous soils called Cascajo with stones from ancient floods. The wines from this region are more fruit-forward and the new wineries in the region focus on a richer style wine that’s rounder and more lush. You can still find the characteristic fig flavors in older wines from this region, but generally the wines form Rioja Baja are designed to drink right away.

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About Madeline Puckette

I'm a certified sommelier and creator of the NYT Bestseller, Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine. Find me out there in the wine world @WineFolly