After driving some 500km’s from Barcelona to Logrono across some of the hottest, driest and dramatic scenery, I thought it time for a glass of Rioja and Tapas.
There are few places better in Spain than the main street through Logrono's old quarter, Calle Portales, and the surrounding streets, for great tapas bars and a local glass of typical Rioja wine. Yes - you can imagine I was in my oven version of heaven.
Rioja is a wine, with Denominación de Origen Calificada (Protected designation of origin), from a region named after the Rio Oja in Spain, a tributary of the Ebro. Rioja is made from grapes grown in the autonomous communities of La Rioja, Navarre and the Basque province of Alava. La Rioja is further subdivided into three zones Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja.
Located south of the Cantabrian Mountains, Rioja benefits from a continental climate. The mountains help to isolate the region, moderate the climate, plus protect the vineyards from the fierce winds typical of northern Spain. Most of the region is situated on a plateau, approx 1500ft above sea level. The Rioja Alavesa and Alta, located closer to the mountains are at slightly higher elevations and have a cooler climate. The Rioja Baja to the southeast is warmer and drier.
Rioja wines are normally a blend of various grape varieties, and can be either red (tinto) - of which 85% of the wine produced is red, white (blanco) or rose (rosado).
Marques de Caceres over several days introduced me to this stunning wine region of Spain, showing me an array of vineyards, including some ‘old vines’ 100+ years of age - which produce very concentrated grapes with low yields.
Among the Tintos, the most widely-used variety is Tempranillo. Other grapes used include Garnacha Tinta, Graciano, and Mazuelo. A typical blend will consist of approx 60% Tempranillo and up to 20% Garnacha, with much smaller proportions of Mazuelo and Graciano. Each grape adds a unique component to the wine with Tempranillo contributing the main flavours and aging potential to the wine; Garnache adding body and alcohol; Mazuelo adding seasoning flavours and Graciano adding additional aromas.
With Rioja Blanco, Viura is the prominent grape (a.k.a Macabeo) and is normally blended with some Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca. In the white wines the Viura contributes mild fruitiness, acidity and some aroma to the blend with Garnacha Blanca adding body and Malvasia adding aroma. Rosados are mostly derived from Garnacha grapes. The ‘international varieties’ of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have gained some attention and use through experimental plantings by some bodegas but their use has created wines distinctly different from the typical Rioja.
A distinct characteristic of Rioja wine is the effect of oak aging. In the past, it was not uncommon for some bodegas to age their red wines for 15-20 years or even more before their release. One notable example of this was Marqués de Caceres which owns up to 40,000 oak barrels.
Rioja red wines are classified into four categories. The first, simply labeled ‘Rioja’, is the youngest, spending less than a year in an oak barrel.
A ‘crianza’ is wine aged for at least two years, at least one of which was in oak.
‘Rioja Reserva’ is aged for at least three years, of which at least one year is in oak.
Finally, ‘Rioja Gran Reserva’ wines have been aged at least two years in oak and three years in bottle. Reserva and Gran Reserva wines are not necessarily produced each year.
Also produced are wines in a semi-crianza style, those that have had a couple of months oak influence but not enough to be called a full crianza. The designation of crianza, Reserva etc might not always appear on the front label but may appear on a neck or back label in the form of a stamp designation known as Consejo.