Understanding Rioja is as easy as one, two, three. There are three wine-growing regions—Rioja Alta, Alavesa, and Rioja Baja; three types of wine—white or “blanco,” rosé or “rosado,” and red or “tinto.” And there are three main grape varieties for the red Rioja—Tempranillo, Garnacha and Mazuelo. There are three quality levels for red rioja as well, based on minimum aging required by the Consejo Regulador. Crianza, which translates loosely to “cradle,” refers to the youngest style and must be aged a minimum of one year in barrel and one in bottle. Reserva indicates a minimum of one year in barrel and two in bottle; while Gran Reserva indicates a minimum of two years in barrel plus three in bottle. Aging requirements are stricter in Rioja than any other region in
Immediately south of the Cordillera Cantábrica on the Ebro is an area which has achieved most in the export market for
over the last century and more. The climate here is continental and the clay soil is rich in chalk. Rioja was classified under the new system in 1926 and is going through radical changes. Spain
For Rioja, the best grapes - Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo, Graciano and Maturana Tinta—tend to come from the Alta and Alavesa areas; Mazuelo and Garnacha used to come from the warmer, drier Rioja Baja but much of what is planted there now is Tempranillo. Famous-name wines consist of a mixture of most or all of these varieties. The old Reservas, at their best, have a wonderful mellow softness and age with grace. In the Alavesa region, however, they often make delicious red wines from pure Tempranillo and drink them young. White and pink Rioja are also made, of which the white, made usually from Viura (Macabeo) and Malvasíá Riojana, is most prominent. Traditional whites are rich, spicy, oaky, and aromatic. Modern styles may have just a touch of oak or none at all to maintain the natural freshness of the grape. Occasionally you may come across a Rioja that is 100% Garnacha.
Classic Rioja is medium-bodied with the oak structure and weight of Bordeaux, though its tannins are more gentle, and it will have notes of black cherry, violet, occasionally anise, and mushrooms.