Now that you are well-versed in all of the basics (need a refresher? how about this and this), it is time to further drill-down in our Spanish wine discourses. Our first wine to be discussed: none other than Rioja.
Before we dive right in, it is important to note that European wines, Spanish wines included, derive their names from the region in which the wine is from. On the other hand, in the United States, wines typically derive their names based on the grape. Therefore, Rioja does not refer to the type of grape that comprises the wine (we’ll talk about that in a second!), but rather the region La Rioja. La Rioja itself is composed of three very unique sub-regions, which we will discuss as well.
Rioja Alta: Rioja Alta is located closest to the mountains, and therefore temperatures are the coolest here. Proximity to the mountains also means a higher elevation, which translates into a shorter growing season. All of this translates to lower acidity wine and low tannins. My favorite wines from La Rioja come from this area – most particularly, the municipalities of San Vicente de La Sonsierra, Briones, and Fuenmayor.
Rioja Alavesa: Rioja Alavesa is also located very close to the mountains, although poorer soil conditions make for more acidic wines with higher tannins.
Rioja Baja: Rioja Baja has by far the highest temperatures and lowest rainfall of the area. Many of the vineyards in this area actually overlap with neighboring Navarra. Grapes from Rioja Baja are used in blends to give “weight” to lighter wines from Alta and Alavesa.
Now that you are familiar with the regions of La Rioja, it’s time to familiarize yourself with the grapes. Grapes are cultivated in the French Bordeaux style; interestingly enough, while parasites were destroying vineyards in France, Rioja was unaffected. Each grape in a Rioja blend serves a special purpose.
Tempranillo grapes – the primary component of Rioja wine.
Tempranillo: Tempranillo gives Rioja its spicy flavor and a deep ruby-red color.
Garnacha: This particular grape is found all over Europe, especially southern France. This grape boosts the alcohol content of the wine and can provide a peppery flavor.
Graciano: Graciano is native to Spain. It is very aromatic and characterizes the nose of a particular wine.
Mazuelo: Mazuelo is high in tannins, giving Rioja wine its acidity and color.
Viura: Viura is unique in that it takes well to oak (most white grapes do not) and develops a distinct grapefruit taste. It is usually blended with Malvasia Riojana and Garnacha Blanca grapes to create white Rioja.
All of these grapes are blended to create a wine that tastes of juicy red fruit (think: strawberries), dark red fruit (think: cherries), and red Riojas with a bit of aging will taste of oak. You’ll also taste hints of vanilla and pepper in a good Rioja.
Are you familiar with Rioja wines? Is there an area, bodega (Vega Sicilia, Marques de Riscal, Bodegas Muerza, etc.), or blend of grapes that you are most partial to? Or is Rioja not really your thing? Leave me a comment and let me know!