Rioja is Spain’s most famous winemaking region, in the north of the country. It predominantly produces red wines (although more white wines are being produced now). It is named after the River Oja (Rio-Oja) which is a tributary of the River Ebro. It is centred on the regional capital, Logrono and divides into three zones along the Ebro river - Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. There is archeological evidence that wine was made here in the Roman times. Under Moorish occupation, wine trade was tolerated rather than encouraged but viticulture flourished again under Christian rule at the end of the 15th Century.
Rioja is situated in a rather enviable position geographically. It is sheltered somewhat to the north and west from the Atlantic winds by the Sierra de Cantabria and tends not to suffer from the intense heat of winemaking areas in the centre and south of Spain.
The main grape variety for red wines in Rioja is the Tempranillo grape, although Garnacha (Grenache) and Mazuelo (Carinena/Carignan) can be used and some producers are allowed dispensation to use Cabernet Sauvignon. For white wines, the main variety is Viura (Macabeo) although Malvasia was used, historically.
One of the most important points for Rioja wines is their ageing in both barrel and bottle. For white wines, many are now being produced in stainless steel and aged in bottle for 6 months prior to release to maintain freshness and purity of fruit. Some are aged in oak barrels and then bottle prior to release. These take on a richer complexity. Some of the older Rioja producers still produce white Riojas which have been aged in barrel for a couple of years, then in bottle for another year prior to release. These are not to everyone’s taste as they can be a little oxidative in style. For the red wines, styles can be called Tinto, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. Each one is an ever increasing use of oak and bottle ageing prior to release, from just 6 months in bottle and no oak for Tinto wines to up to 4 years in barrel and 2 years in bottle prior to reaching the marketplace.
Here are some lovely Rioja wines covering a number of styles mentioned above...
Gatito Loco Blanco £13.95
Fresh and ever so fruity, this crazy kitty is great bang for your Buck! Lashings of stone fruit and honey on both nose and palate.
Vallemayor Rioja Tinto £10.95
A lovely, firmly fruity, stainless steel fermented red. Redcurrant and strawberry notes abound and smooth tannins
El Coto de Imaz Rioja Reserva £19.50
A more serious style of Rioja. Notes of vanilla, coconut, wild strawberry and raspberry fruit supported by smooth tannins and a lingering finish.
Vallemayor Gran Reserva £26.95
A grand old dame of a wine. Elegant and classy with notes of leather, spice and wild red berried fruit on the nose. Smooth tannins, balance and poise on the palate.