The Truth about Rioja

Rioja is one of Spain’s best known and most popular wines.  But, based on comments made to me, it’s also one of the most misunderstood.  Over the years, I’ve been told that Rioja is a brand name, a grape variety, that it can only be red and that it’s always very oaky in taste.  If you agree with any of those statements (or even if you don’t), then please read on!

In fact, Rioja is a wine region.  It’s in northern Spain starting about an hour and a half drive south of Bilbao and running roughly south-east in a wide swathe on both sides of the River Ebro ending a way short of the town of Zaragoza.  Climatically, it’s quite a diverse region with the north-west being relatively cool with a continental climate while, further east, there is a distinct Mediterranean influence making that part of the region much warmer.

The wine is usually made from a blend of grape varieties: Tempranillo and Garnacha (aka Grenache) are the main grapes for the reds and rosados (rosés) while Viura and Malvasia are used for the whites.

So, if Rioja isn’t a grape variety and doesn’t have to be red, how about the suggestion that its wines are always very oaky?  Well, that’s not true either as you can easily discover by taking a quick look at the label. 

If it says ‘Reserva’ or ‘Gran Reserva’, the wine will, by law, have spent some time in oak barrels – at least 2 years for Gran Reservas, but even they are not necessarily very oaky in taste.  The Marqués de Cáceres Gran Reserva I opened recently (Majestic, £17.99) had plenty of red and black fruit flavours and was beautifully rounded and soft.  Yes, there was some oak influence as you might expect – hints of vanilla and leather – but this was in no way a wine dominated by its oak character.

But, if this isn’t your style, look for wines labelled ‘Crianza’, (which will, admittedly, have spent a few months in a barrel, but not long enough to impart any real oaky flavour) or, perhaps better, a wine with none of these designations on their label which will, very likely, have been aged entirely in stainless steel tanks to preserve their full fruit character.

And, as for Rioja being a brand?  Well, I suppose it’s well enough known to be described as such, but that’s not the truth of the name.

Spain’s Best Grape

Momo Ribera del Duero

If you’ve ever drunk a glass of Rioja – and most wine lovers will at some time – then you’ve tasted Tempranillo. It’s the main grape variety used in almost every red Rioja, sometimes standing alone, more often blended with Garnacha (aka Grenache) and other local varieties. Tempranillo isn’t limited to this one region, it’s grown in several countries across the world. There’s plenty in Portugal (where it’s known as Tinta Roriz or Aragonez) and a little in France. California, Argentina and Australia have some, too, but it’s native to Spain and that’s where we find the majority of the plantings.

Few would dispute that it’s Spain’s best as well as their most popular grape – and not just in Rioja. For example, 60 miles (100km) south-west of Rioja, on Spain’s high central plateau, is the region of Ribera del Duero where the red wines are made from Tinto Fino or Tinto del Pais, both synonyms for Tempranillo. Here, in vineyards at altitudes averaging 2800 ft (850m) above sea level, conditions are very different from Rioja and, as a result, you find an entirely different expression of Tempranillo. Momo’s Vendimia Seleccionada (Wine Society, £13.50) is typical. Rich and concentrated with lovely intense red fruits, a hint of spicy oak and a long savoury finish, this is fuller bodied than many Riojas as might be expected from the 14% alcohol.

Ribera del Duero tends to have hotter summer days than Rioja, allowing the grapes to become riper but, on the other hand, the altitude means that nights can be really cool, preserving precious acidity in the fruit and giving the wines the attractive freshness that was certainly a feature in this example.

As with many Spanish wines, the Momo is particularly food-friendly: team with grilled or roasted red meat or game or your Easter lamb to enjoy this delicious Tempranillo at its best.