Spain is one of the three main pillars of the Old-World and also lays claim to one of the top producing regions in the world in terms of overall volume. However, it is also a region that seems to get little attention and appreciation from many American consumers. We often find that our clients in the shop are either lovers of Spanish wine, or they simply never drink them. In the latter case, some have never even tasted a Spanish wine. We can speculate on reasons, but we would rather just put the juice front and center in our flight program and give you an opportunity to taste more Spanish wine!
The fact is that Spain has an incredibly deep history of wine making. From the eastern coastal wine region of Catalonia to the green Rias Baxias in the northwest or the southern Canary Islands, the country is diverse, unique, and rich in wine making history. You will come across still wines, sparkling Cava, fortified sherries and more. When you take the time to explore, you will not only find wonderful quality and value, but you will also discover an incredible range of possibilities to choose from. This month we are bringing you the most well-known of all Spanish regions, Rioja.
With a viticultural history dating back over 2,000 years to Roman times, Rioja is set in northeastern Spain and runs along the Ebro River between the towns of Haro and Alfaro. The region is considered a continental climate, yet it is just a short hour drive south from the coastal town of Bilbao. It is Spain’s second smallest region, but its most prestigious, holding the oldest Designation of Origin (DOC) in Spain dating back to 1925. In 1991, Rioja became the first winemaking region in Spain to be given the DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada) classification, which is the highest classification. This means that any wine holding the DOCa label follows the highest standards from vine to bottle. In fact, the DOCa carries the strictest wine regulations of any wine region in the entire world.
In the 16th century, Rioja began to enjoy an international reputation for quality wine, exporting as far as France, England, Italy, the Netherlands, and even the American colonies. In fact, it was these trade routes which established American oak as the preferred wood for barrels, a tradition which remains today. American oak of course differs from French oak and is known to contribute nuances of dill and coconut. In the mid-1850s, Rioja’s wine export levels jumped dramatically when phylloxera completely devastated most of the French wine production. Rioja was able to maintain its leading exporter status even when phylloxera hit Spain in the 1890s, rapidly copying the French solution of grafting resistant American root stock to native vines. Today, Rioja remains Spain’s top export region.
Rioja is dominated by red wine production. Tempranillo is the principal variety and is often blended with Garnacha (Grenache) in long-lived red wines. These are wines that often show bright red fruits, wet earth, leather, and firm tannins. Oak aging regiments can be extensive depending on the producer. In addition to the first two reds, you will also find Mazuelo (aka Cariñena), Graciano, and a nearly extinct grape called Maturana Tinta. The white wines primarily include Viura (aka Macabeo), Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca, but several others were approved by the DOCa in 2007. Historically, production of wine in the Rioja region has been comprised of blending, however more and more single varietal wines have become popular as winemakers focus on smaller yields and single vineyard sites. Styles vary from traditional barrel-aged reds to modern, fruity whites.
Rioja is divided into three sub-regions. Located on the western edge of the region and at higher elevations than the other two, Rioja Alta is known for more elegance in the wines. The higher elevation equates to a longer growing season, which in turn produces a brighter fruit profile that is light and lifted on the palate. Rioja Alavesa is on the north side of the Ebro and is also part of the province of Alava in the Basque Country. Alavesa is closest to the Atlantic and is most influenced by the coastal cooling effects. While it shares a somewhat similar climate to the Alta region, there is more limestone here. The Alavesa wines are typically more full-bodied and more prominent acidity. Vineyards in this area also tend to have a lower vine density with large spacing between rows. This is due to the relatively poor soil conditions with the vines needing more distance from each other and less competition for the nutrients in the soil. Lastly, there is Rioja Oriental, formerly known as Rioja Baja. Unlike the cooler climates of Alta and Alavesa, Oriental sits on the eastern border of Rioja in a more Mediterranean climate, making this the warmest and driest part of Rioja. These wines are more Garnacha driven, often darker in color with higher alcohol content and lower levels of acidity. The wines are typically blended with wines from the other two cooler climate areas to produce a more balanced wine.
DOCa aging classifications in Rioja are also notable and extensive. Vino Blanco and Vino Tinto describe normal table wines, but DOCa wines can be classified as Joven, Crianza, Reserva, and Grand Reserva with longer barrel and bottle aging requirements as you go down the respective list. For example, prior to being available for distribution and consumption Crianza red wines must be in their third year of aging, with a minimum of one year in oak barrels. For white wines, the minimum barrel aging period is six months. As you might imagine, Reserva and Grand Reserva have longer aging requirements. When looking around any wine shop, you may notice that wines from Rioja on the shelf are typically noticeably older than many of the other bottles. There is a tangible pride in the patience that it takes to wait for a wine to be in it's drinking window before you bring it to market.
Considering the history, perseverance, prestige, and elaborate winemaking of Rioja, its hard to believe they are still trying to find their place at the forefront of the wine consumption community. Rioja wines represent some of the best Old World winemaking in the world. If you have been sleeping on Rioja, it is time to wake up and sip the juice!
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