Simple enough, Rioja is a region in north central Spain and it is also a name used for the wines which come from that region. It's a great spot for growing wine grapes because it sits on a plateau 1500 feet above sea level, has a moderate continental climate, is segmented by the Ebro river (providing hydration) and is protected from northern Spain's typical harsh winds by the Cantabrian Mountains.
The wine region is also divided into three different subregions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. Rioja Alta lies to the west at the highest elevation, creating a shorter growing season. It's dominated by clay soils and gives more secondary "Old World" aroma and flavor along with lighter body to the wines. Rioja Alavesa brings you to Basque country with local law and traditions granting new bodegas (spanish wineries) just north of the river. Soil is comprised of limestone and the grapes grown here have higher acidity and allow for fuller body. Tempranillo is the main grape grown in the two regions. Rioja Baja is to the east, sits at lower altitude and has a more Mediterranean warmer climate. Other grape varietals like Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano flourish here and are used to blend with Tempranillo from Alta and Alavesa. In recent years they've allowed Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to be planted here for blending as well.
Mostly red wines (85%) are made in the region, though rosé and whites are produced. Red and rosé wine is comprised mostly of Tempranillo, 60% or more, and combined with the blending varietals from Rioja Baja. White wine is made primarily from Viura (also known as Macabeo) blended with Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca. The whites are made in two distinct styles, either light and fruity or barrel-fermented and full bodied.
As far as aging is concerned, Rioja wines can be unoaked or aged in a barrel, along with being released immediately or after 5 or more years. Age can be indicated on the label:
- Joven/Consecha: These wines are released immediately, unoaked and meant to be consumed within 2 years. They are fresh, fruity and really express the vintage.
- Roble/Media Crianza: Aged 2-6 months in new oak. Imparts alot of oak flavor and influence on the young wine.
- Crianza: The wine spends at least 1 year in oak and 1 year in the bottle before release.
- Reserva: These are specially selected wines aged at least 1 year in oak and 2 years in the bottle.
- Gran Reserva: These are made during special vintages only and aged at least 2 years in oak and 3 years in the bottle.
Many of these wines exhibit high acidity, ripe red fruit, earthiness and a decent amount of tannins, making them good food wines. They pair well with charcuterie (sliced cured meats and sausages), goat and sheep milk cheeses, grilled fish and meats.
Do yourself a favor and get exotic, prep some tapas, drink Rioja and imagine yourself in Spain. It's like a mini-vacation!