Wine 101: RiojaVinePair
This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by Las Rocas Wine. Las Rocas Wines hail from an arid, hilly region in the northeast of Spain, where the air is dry and the terrain is unforgiving. Against all odds, Garnacha vines thrive here on these steep, rocky slopes, producing grapes with a signature palate of spice and minerality. These robust vines, some more than a hundred years old, lend their lively spirit and character to all Las Rocas wines. Sample the rich and full-bodied flavors of Spain: Las Rocas Wine.
In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses all things Rioja. Listeners will learn about the very small region that produces some of Spain’s finest wine. That region, a province called La Rioja, has a rich, unique history dating back to the mid-19th century.
Rioja made a name for itself because of French winemakers and the barrels they brought to the region. Beavers also explains that Rioja is unique in that it is not defined by any political boundaries. That freedom, Beavers says, has resulted in wines with a prominent place on the American market.
Tune in to become an expert on wines from Rioja.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. And beavers, how cool are beavers? They’re awesome.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 11 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast, Season 2. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tasting director of VinePair. How are you? Now we’re getting famous. We’re talking about the most well-known wine region in Spain, it’s called Rioja. It’s not that big, but it has a lot of interesting stuff. Let’s get to know Rioja. What do you say?
Rioja is a word that I believe, if you’re into wine in the United States, you’ve heard. It might actually be the only word or the only wine from Spain that you may have heard of. Wines from the Rioja region of Spain are the most prominent Spanish wines on our market. That’s changing dramatically. There have always been other Spanish wines on our market. But as far as getting eyeballs on it and understanding it, Rioja has had a place on the American market that other Spanish wines haven’t. This is not an official statement, but I personally believe that Rioja is Spain’s fine-wine region. There’s other amazing wine all over, don’t get me wrong: Priorat, Ribera Del Duero. There are great wines all over Spain. I’m just saying there’s a reputation that Rioja has that other wine regions in Spain don’t. That reputation is what we know on the American market, but what do we really know about Rioja? We get that it’s from Spain. Some of us might know that it’s Tempranillo and maybe some other varieties. Some of us may know words like Crianza, and Gran Reserva. What does it all mean? Let’s break down Rioja because it’s on our market, and it’s great stuff. It’s awesome wine. Let’s understand a little bit more so when you do go and buy a Rioja wine, you know what you’re looking at.
Just inland from the coast of northeast Spain is a range of mountains called Sierra de Cantabria. If you cross the Cantabrian Mountain range, you go into a valley, of course, and that valley has a river that is called the Ebro River. If you keep on going even further south through the valley, you’ll see another mountain range called Sierra de la Demanda. This valley, guided by the geological history of the Ebro River, flowing from the Cantabrian Mountains through this valley towards the Mediterranean, runs northwest to southeast. It’s on an angle, if you will. The mountain ranges on either side of this valley, as you go southeast, those mountains start to get lower and you move into a lower-elevation area, which will eventually go into the Mediterranean. In the northwestern corner of this valley, all the way towards the foothills of the Cantabrian Mountains, is a town called Haro. There is a small tributary of the Ebro River that flows into the city of Haro. That river is called Oja. That river is what lends its name to the province that it exists in and the wine region that exists within the province. La Rioja. Rio Oja is basically what it means.
From the town of Haro, the Ebro River runs southeast through the capital of the region or province called Logroño. Then, it passes and goes even further south, then we get into the lower-lying areas. It passes a major town called Calahorra. Then, it ends in Alfaro, the town of Alfaro. You basically have 60-plus miles of the Ebro River. Spanning out from the banks of those rivers are vineyards. The vineyards basically just run along the river, and they spread out. If you go to the northwestern part of the river, it’s more mountainous. They spread out into the foothills of the Cantabrians. As you get down towards the Mediterranean, the vineyards spread out towards the Mediterranean geography. That’s the wine region of Rioja. We’re going to get into the boundaries in a second because it is interesting that the majority of this wine region is in the province of La Rioja, but it also dips into other places like the Basque region in a place called Navarre, which we’ll get into.
This little pocket, one of the smallest regions in Spain, the second smallest region in Spain — this little pocket of awesome right here has been making wine for a very long time. Yet, this is the thing talking about European wine regions, it gets a little bit repetitive after a while — especially with France, England, and Spain because of the similarities during antiquity and the Medieval times. When modern times come around, that’s when things start getting different.
In Spain, typically in this region, you would have had Roman rule and the wine was being made then. Then there was Moorish rule, which was Muslim, and they tolerated winemaking but they weren’t allowed to drink it. Then after that, you would go into Medieval times. We all know what happened in Medieval times, the monks making wine in isolation, recording things fully funded by the church, doing their thing, saving wine all over Europe. The thing about this place is during all those times, the Rioja region was pretty isolated. It’s between two mountains. It’s very hard to get to the most populated areas on the other side of the Cantabrian mountains towards the coast, going north. However, when a trade route was created to Bilbao, which is a port town in the Basque region on the north coast of Spain, that is how the floodgates opened up with Rioja. That wasn’t how Rioja made itself Rioja. Rioja made itself Rioja because of French winemakers. Not really, but kind of. OK, let me explain.
In the mid-19th century, around the 1840s, a disease from North America made its way into the vineyards of Europe, specifically France. It’s called powdery mildew. It’s a disease that attacks the green parts of vines and creates these spores that look like spider webs. It retards the growth of the plant. It interferes with certain growth processes of a plant so that it doesn’t fully form. It’s bad. It was so bad in the 1840s in Europe, especially in France, that wine merchants left France and actually came to the Rioja region of Spain. They began collaborating with winemakers in Rioja to make wine along with French ideas and French lines to sell wine that way. Basically, leaving the people in France saying, “You guys figure out your powdery mold stuff. We wine merchants are going to go over the Pyrenees to hang out with the Spanish over in La Rioja and make things happen.”
Well, by the time the French were over there doing this, there were already commercial wineries opening up in the region that were selling to colonies. The Spanish colonies, actually, and enjoying that trade route to Bilbao. This time period defined the standard of wines being made in Rioja going forward.
Then in 1901, the first document of Phylloxera in Rioja happened. By that time, the French are back over the Pyrenees and back dealing with their situation over there. Phylloxera did come to Spain, to Rioja. From that period until about the 1970s, so much happens with politics, economics, and it goes up and down. What’s important about the Rioja region is to understand what it is today, because the thing is, it’s a region that is changing. There are things changing in Rioja, and in the future, we’re going to start seeing more nuances, more details on wine labels. I am not really sure, but they’re talking about it.
Let’s get an idea of what Rioja looks like and just understand it so wine shopping could be fun again. As I said before, the wine region of Rioja is mostly in the province of La Rioja. But part of the northern borders of this wine region dip into other places. Part of it dips into Álava, which is an autonomous region in the Basque country. Part of it dips into Navarre, which is another province. As far as terroir is concerned, the Rioja region is split into three sections, which is very interesting because those three sections don’t define what you see on labels so much. However, it does define what kind of wine is in your bottle. It’s a little bit confusing, and that’s why there are some things going on in this wine region that they’re trying to update.
Imagine a diagonal line. In the middle of that line, just above it, Logroño, which is the capital of this region, is an axis point where you can see where the wine regions are. On the eastern side of Logroño, on that diagonal line going southeast, that entire section to the end of that line is Rioja Baja. It was formerly known as Rioja Baja, but it’s now called Rioja Oriental. I’m telling you both because you’re going to hear them both. This is the region that you’re going away from the elevation of the mountain towards the Mediterranean, a more low-lying, fertile area. Back to the dot, that is Logroño, the capital. The majority of the land to the west of Logroño is a wine-growing region called Rioja Alta. Alta, meaning tall. We’re getting into the foothills of the Cantabrians. It’s a more hilly region, with poorer soils. Those are the two big regions in Rioja. Now, just northwest of the town of Logroño is a separate wine region that is cut out of the Rioja Alta. Then, there’s another little section that is bisected on the other side, which is a small region they call Rioja Alavesa. The reason they call it Alavesa is that this is the wine region that goes across the border and into the Basque region, into a town called Álava. Alavesa, Álava. We have Rioja Baja, Rioja Alta, and Rioja Alavesa. Those are the three main regions of the Rioja wine-growing region.
Rioja is unique and stands aside from other wine regions because this wine region is not defined by political boundaries, it is defined by geography alone. Dare I say terroir. When a wine region dips into other autonomous regions, it’s mostly about that. The other unique thing about this region is how they classify their wine, which we’ll talk about in a second. White wine is made in Rioja. But when you’re at a wine shop looking in the Rioja section, you’re going to see a lot of red. It’s primarily a red wine region and it’s often blended. There are more mono-varietal wines being made these days. I believe that it is because of the French influence, there’s a blending culture going on here. The No. 1 variety in Rioja is a red grape called Tempranillo. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. If you listened to the Spanish episode last season, you’ll know this. It’s the country’s most ubiquitous grape variety or red. I believe that’s over 80 percent of the vines in Rioja. They also grow Garnacha or Grenache, they grow a grape called Mazuelo, which in other parts of Spain is called Cariñena and in other parts of the world called Carignane. There’s the red grape Graciano, which is often blended with Tempranillo. Then, there’s this new one. It’s not new, it’s very old, but it’s emerging. Winemakers are trying to bring it out of obscurity and back into the world of Rioja.
The grape is called Maturana Tinta. I’ve never tried wines made from just that grape. I don’t know about how it’s being blended, but there’s a lot of talk about this grape in this area. In Rioja, 85 percent of the blend needs to be made up of these grapes, which is really cool. These are all indigenous varieties. We’re not talking about Cabernet or Syrah. If they wanted to put that in, it’s fine. But it’s very interesting that it’s not. It’s specifically these grapes from this region. It’s pretty cool. Yes, there is Merlot, there is Cabernet Sauvignon, but from what I understand, they’re mostly experimental vines, not prominent in the blends. It is mostly just these indigenous varieties.
It’s pretty much the same with white wine. Even though there’s not a lot of white wine being made in the Rioja region, they are very cool if you get a chance to check them out. They’re primarily blended with grapes like Viura, which is also called Macabeo in other parts of Spain. There’s Garnacha Blanca, a grape called Malvasia, also the Maturana Blanca, which is the white version of the Maturana Tinta. The majority of the blends are made up of these varieties, but of course there is also Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, but like Cabernet and Merlot, they’re not predominantly part of these blends.
As a major wine region in the world, the way Rioja does wine is very interesting. First of all, there’s the geographic thing where it’s not political, it’s geographical. That’s one very interesting thing. The other interesting thing is that the majority of the wine being made in Rioja historically was that you’d have these merchant bodegas. Bodega is a winery. There would be vine growers or grape growers that would supply these bodegas with wine. That’s how it was done. There were also co-ops where you had a large winemaking facility with multiple members, and usually, that wine goes from the vineyard and funnels into these merchant bodegas. All these labels are created, and that’s how Rioja works or has worked. Now, there are wineries that have estates and can make their own wine. However, the merchant bodegas are how unique it is in Rioja because this happened even through into modern times.
The other thing that’s unique to this area is how they classify their wine. For now — and things are changing as I actually say this — but the wines of Rioja are classified specifically by how much time they age in the barrel and in oak. It is classified into three categories, actually four, but three major categories. The blending is very loose. 85 percent has to be these grapes, but do whatever you want. It’s the aging that defines.
These are the aging categories. You have crianza, reserva, and gran reserva. Crianza, which is loosely translated to “upbringing” or “to bring up.” For wines that are labeled crianza, you’ll see it on the wine label. And on the back, you’ll see a red sticker. That’s new. These wines have to be released in their third year. For at least 12 months of that time, the wine needs to be in oak barrels. For white wines, it’s only six months. These are the youngish wines that are soft, supple, fruity, and awesome. They can be very leathery at times, too, depending on the blend, but they’re a little softer and younger. If the wine says reserva on the label, on the back of the wine bottle you’ll see a burgundy-colored sticker. These wines also have a minimum aging of three years, but one of those years needs to be in barrel and six months need to be in bottle before release. If you see gran reserva on the label, and it has a blue sticker on the back, these wines need to be aged a total of 60 months, with a minimum of two years in oak and another two years in bottle. Every other wine from Rioja that you see that is not in those categories is considered generic. I know it’s a weird word, but it doesn’t mean it’s bad. You’ll look in the back of the label and the sticker will be green, almost avocado green. That’s wines that do not adhere to these aging requirements.
My thought is that the benefit to this is the blending of these wines is very individual to the winemaker or the person building the blends. I believe the blends are built to be crianza, reserva, or gran reserva. The amount of time that you age these wines in, you want to have certain varieties that are bigger than other varieties. The majority of the red wines you get from Rioja, even if it’s gran reserva, Tempranillo is a beautiful, medium-bodied type wine. It has good acidity. It’s soft fruit. It gives me a Sangiovese vibe because it has that acidity in medium fruit, and it’s good with food. That’s why it’s really great when it’s blended with Graciano, Garnacha, Cariñena, or Mazuelo to give it a bit more body, structure, and color.
Another interesting thing about Rioja is when the French were there helping out, they brought French barrels. French barrels have been in the Rioja region since the late 1800s. However, at some point, they started favoring American oak. American oak is much more influential on the wine than French oak. French oak is a little more subtle. American oak is big, and it really adds a lot of heft to a wine. These wines in Rioja are very elegant. They are built based on how the winemaker wants to age them. A gran reserva aged in American oak is going to be a nice medium- to full-bodied red wine, but they are using French oak as well.
I need to close out with this, because it’s happening and already happened but Rioja is focusing as we speak. Over the past couple of years, they’ve redefined some of the things they’re doing. They’re trying to focus more on terroir. In the Alavesa region, you’re allowed now to attach a village to your label, similar to what they do in Burgundy. There are over 100 of them. And they are doing single-vineyard stuff now. They’re having designations for single vineyards. All these new things are not as prominent on wine labels on our market. I just want everyone to know about it, because this is where Rioja is going. They’re getting more focused on terroir. We’re going to start seeing more things on labels to help us understand where the wine is from. When we get there, of course, VinePair will let you know all about it.
That’s Rioja in a nutshell. Next time you are at a wine shop and you’re looking at the Rioja section, you’ll know what you’re looking at. Oh, and don’t worry about the netting. Some wine bottles have netting around them. It’s just an aesthetic thing. Don’t worry about that. But enjoy Rioja. I hope you can dig it. I hope this helps you understand it more, and I will see you, wine lovers, next week.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast, wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there. And now, for some totally awesome credits.
“Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.