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What is Rioja?

By: Wine Text Staff

Rioja is one of the most popular and sought after wines coming out of Spain. This is an in depth description of what Rioja is and what kind of wine is made there.

People ask for Rioja on a regular basis, but after talking to them, they rarely know exactly what they are getting. That is okay, we are here to bring you an in depth look into what Rioja is, and what makes a great Rioja wine.

The first thing you should know is that Rioja is not a grape or a style of wine, like many people believe. Rioja is a town located almost directly centered in Northern Spain. This is one of the most historic wine regions in all of Europe. The first to settle and grow vines were the Phoenicians. While we may not be certain exactly when they got there, we do know that early in the 2nd century BC, it was controlled by the Ancient Romans which are most credited with the expansion of grape production. Some say that some of the first cuttings brought to Bordeaux, France, were cuttings from Rioja when the Ancient Romans brought them there.

Now thousands of years later, Rioja is the leading region in Spain when it comes to producing their top quality wines. Rioja can be made of a few different grapes. The traditional varieties authorized to make red wine are Tempranillo, Garnacha Tinta, Mazuelo, Graciano, and Maturana Tinta. There are a couple other red grapes that were approved recently, but haven’t made a huge impact just yet. The whites can be made of a bunch of grapes but most traditional are Viura, Malvasia, Garnacha Blanca, and Verdejo.

The production is very controlled in this region to guarantee the quality of a wine labeled with Rioja. To be a red wine, most productions have to be at least 85% of the red grapes mentioned above. The white wines can be called Rioja as long as the grapes mentioned above are the predominant grape used to make the wine.


The most confusing detail when it comes to picking out a Rioja, is the classification system. While a wine can be unclassified, which means there are no aging requirements, there are three different premium classifications, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva. Each one will let you know how long the wine has been aged, and normally it is an indication of the quality of the grapes.

Crianza is the first of the three. To be a Crianza wine, red wines must be aged minimum of 2 years before release. One year in a barrel and one year in bottle. For whites and rose wine, it must age 6 months in barrel before release.

A Reserva Rioja is slightly longer. The red must age 3 years before release with a minimum of 1 year in a barrel and 6 months in the bottle. The whites and rose must age 2 years on their lees to be considered a Riserva level Rioja.

Lastly, the best of the best, which is the Gran Reserva classification. It requires 5 years of age with at least 2 years in a barrel and 2 years in a bottle. White and rose wines also must age 5 years with a minimum of 6 months in barrel.

The aging requirements are the reason you see most wines from Rioja with a little bit of age on them. Many producers like Lopez de Heredia, and La Rioja Alta, will age their wines even longer than the minimums to make sure that it is ready to be consumed upon release. It isn’t uncommon for a current release of a wine from Rioja to be 10, 15, or in some cases, 20 years old.

If you aren’t familiar with the style of wine, Rioja can be super fruit forward and fresh, especially in the unclassified level wines. When you start reaching for the Reserva and Gran Reserva wines though, they are extremely full bodied. The wines have the structure and balance of a great Bordeaux, but in their youth you will find that they have a lot of fruit notes similar to wine from California. The required wood aging also adds complexities of vanilla, spice, and oak. You will want a pretty hardy meal to enjoy with wines from Rioja.

The last thing to talk about is the aging process. Many of these wines can age for very long periods of time. Some of the best producers of Rioja make wines that can age 30, 40, or even 50 years! Structure is everything when it comes to aging wine, and there is no lack of it in Rioja.

Now that you are versed in the great wines of Rioja, you can confidently pick out your next great bottle of Spanish Wine!

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