Spotlight: Rioja

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Rioja undoubtedly comes to mind when talking about Spanish wine, but it can be a confusing topic. Is Rioja a place, grape or style of wine?

Firstly, Rioja is a region located in the northern central portion of Spain. It is one of two regions in Spain with the highest classification, D.O.C. (Denominación de Origen Calificada), the other region being Priorat. Rioja can be dissected into three sub regions: Rioja Alavesa to the north, Rioja Baja to the south and Rioja Alta in between. Many of the first vines were planted in 1825. López de Heredia, La Rioja Alta and CVNE began producing wines in the late 1800s and continue to make benchmark wines. The families began to grow grapes and produce wine in the railroad town of Haro, Rioja Alta.

Tempranillo is the predominant grape grown in Rioja and much of Spain. The grape is known for its affinity for oak and oxidative aging. A common misconception of Rioja is that all the wines consist of the Tempranillo grape but, traditionally speaking, Tempranillo is blended with Garnacha, Graciano, Mazuelo, and sometimes, even Viura, a white grape. All the grapes play a prudent role when the bottle is ready to be opened and enjoyed: Garnacha gives the wine its rich red color and adds a ripe red fruit aroma; Graciano gives the wine acidity which Tempranillo generally lacks; Mazuelo is used for its deep color and tannic structure; and lastly, Viura, leading white grape of Rioja, gives a lifted finish.

Throughout the 20th century many notable producers emerged beyond the aforementioned. Winemakers and producers are often categorized by style: traditional and modern. In the 1970s and 1980s the classic Spanish winemaking techniques shifted to placate the consumers drinking full-bodied, dark and rich red wines in the Bordeaux style. These modern producers began making wines using solely Tempranillo and aging in new French oak barrels; whereas, traditional producers use a Tempranillo blend that is then aged in used American oak barrels. Generally, the modern reds smell and taste of ripe dark fruit, spices and tobacco with a full mouthfeel and then the traditional styles have notes of balsamic, forest floor, mushrooms and tart red fruit with a medium weight.

Both traditional and modern styles are bottled with a description of aging: joven, crianza, reserva and gran reserva. Joven wines have little to no oak aging. Crianza wine spends a minimum of a year in oak followed by a year in bottle. Reserva wine spends a minimum of a year in oak followed by two years in bottle. Lastly, Gran Reserva wine spends a minimum of two years in oak followed by three years in the bottle.

Some renowned modern producers that are featured on our list are Artadi, Roda, Benjamín Romeo, Remelluri and Castillo de Cuzcurrita. A few traditional producers such as Muga and CVNE produce modern wine in conjunction with their traditional styles. Bodegas Muga produces their classic Prado Enea Gran Reserva and also the bold, modern, Torre Muga. CVNE produces a triumvirate of wine, the flagship Imperial Gran Reserva and then the modern Contino and Viña Real bottlings.

Beyond red wine, Rioja does produce white wine. Sadly, they are often overlooked and disregarded but the whites of Rioja should not be ignored. Viura does not only play a minor role in red wines but is a star in its own right for white wines. The wines can be considered “esoteric” due to the long aging process in used American oak and in the bottle before release. They are characterized as rich, round, savory and oxidative. López de Heredia is one of the most notable producers for these wines. They are intended and built to age in the bottle for years if not decades before enjoying. López de Heredia Viña Gravonia 2005 Crianza is the most recent vintage and is released annually. They also produce whites under the moniker Viña Tondonia. 2000 Reserva and 1994 Gran Reserva are both the current releases for Viña Tondonia but, treasures like 1970 and 1968 can be found on our list. All the whites are aged in used large American oak barrels. Their crianza is aged for 4 years, the reserva for 6 years and the gran reserva 10 years. Modern white whites have also emerged; often they can be drank in lieu of Chardonnay because of the French oak influence but remains unique unto itself.

Rioja has plenty of pleasure to share; we’d love to pour you some at Casa Mono. Nos vemos pronto.

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