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Rioja: new & old…

By Julia Jenkins, 2nd October 2020

If you like robustly fruity red wines with a soft fruity spiciness, then Rioja is the wine for you.

Rioja is one of Spain’s main wine making regions and certainly is the best known. It is the go-to region when people are asked to recall a Spanish wine that they know and enjoy. Tempranillo is the main grape used and its natural home is here in Northern Spain though it grows well elsewhere. The region produces both red and white wines, from different grape varieties, though mostly red wines are made.

It is a region in north eastern with a long-established wine making tradition reflected in the well-known styles available in most wine shops. There is a great buzz in the region as it is currently experiencing much innovation in the vineyards and wineries with new grape varieties being grown successfully and new winemaking trends becoming established. In 2007 new varieties were permitted to be grown and included in Rioja wines including Maturano, a red grape and Maturana Blanc & Tempranillo Blanco. In addition, small quantities of Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Verdejo were added to the list of permitted grape varieties.

There is now a greater diversity of styles using the traditional classification of Rioja’s as a reference point either following them or consciously diverging from them. Many bodegas (producers) still label their wines according to the length of time the wine has spent aging in both oak and bottle before being released for sale. Thus, a Crianza must spend at least a year in barrel and a year in bottle, a Reserva, the category for some of the best Rioja’s, has a at least a year in oak and two years in bottle and Gran Reserva at least two in oak and three years in bottle.

More modern producers are using more French oak than the traditionally used American oak producing wines that are richer and deeper flavoured and keep longer. They also work outside the Crianza and Reserva classification allowing wines to age if they need to produce the preferred style of wine.

In addition to the individual bodegas’ winemaking changes another recent development has been the introduction of the single vineyard Rioja category or Vinedo Singulares by the Consejo Regulador de la Denominacion de Origen Calificada.  Producers must be able to define the strict boundaries of their vineyard and will be limited to 100% handpicking, 20% lower yields and full traceability to be able to use this category on their wines. The parameters define a wine of greater quality by more closely managing the production.

White Rioja is making a comeback with the use of new permitted grape varieties and production methods making them one of the world’s most improved wine categories. In addition to the Viura grape, which, at its best when young can be zesty and fresh, the Malvasia and Garnacha Blanco grapes are more widely used to make a more characterful wine.

Wines of Rioja are great with food too, they are also one of the easiest to match with meat dishes especially pork and lamb. The vibrant younger joven wines are great with curry whereas stronger gamey meats go well with the mature gran reservas.

The diversity of styles of Rioja means there is one to suit all tastes from the vibrantly fun and fruity to the deep full and complex. Give them a go to find your favourite.

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