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A Taste of Rioja Wine

Rioja Wine Taste

The grape variety, the region, the soil, the method, and ageing period, as well as many other nuances, influence the taste of the wine. Understanding what a Rioja wine tastes like, it is worth finding out how and where this legendary wine is made.


What is Rioja wine?

Rioja wine is a wine produced within the wine-producing region of the same name in northern Spain. Wines produced outside this region cannot be named or labelled as Rioja. There are rules that determine where Rioja wine is made and from which grapes, the yield from a single vine, viticultural methods, and winemaking techniques.

Where is Rioja wine made?

La Rioja is a region in northern Spain with a long and illustrious history of viticulture that offers a signature flavour spectrum rarely found in other wines. It is one of the most historic and vaunted regions of the Old World, often considered on a par with France and Italy.

The region of La Rioja is located in the 3 administrative regions of Spain: Navarra, Rioja, and the Basque Country. In northern Spain, in the Rio Ebro River Valley, Rioja is bounded by the northern boundary of the Sierra de Cantabria Mountain range and the Sierra de la Demanda range to the south. As a result, the geographical position creates conditions favourable to vineyards.

The La Rioja wine region is divided into 3 sub-regions:

1. Rioja Alta – located from Logrono to Haro, south of the Ebro River.

2. Rioja Alavesa – located north of the Ebro River and coincides with the part of Rioja that belongs to the Spanish Basque Country.

3. Rioja Oriental (this name has recently been changed from Rioja Baja) – located south-east of Logrono.

The main difference between these subregions is the microclimate and terroir, where many soil types are diverse.


Rioja wines

Grape varieties

Rioja is a famous blend of two native Spanish varieties, Tempranillo and Garnacha (Grenache), produced in various styles, from easy-drinking to well-aged. Other types, such as Graciano, Mazuelo (Carignan), and even some white varieties, play a supporting role.

Rioja is the only Spanish wine that can use the term Calificada on its label. Therefore, all wines from the Rioja region are generally labelled as “Rioja Calificada”. There are now seven varieties permitted in the Rioja Calificada appellation rules:

Red grapes:

• Tempranillo – delicate, berry-like flavour.

• Garnacha Tinta – peppery.

• Graciano – blackberry.

• Masuelo – tannin.

White grapes:

◦ Viura (Viura) – tart.

◦ Malvasia – nutty.

◦ Garnacha (Garnacha Blanca) – heavy.

Most Rioja wines are usually the result of a harmonious combination, in varying proportions, of the different varieties grown in the region and the various plots within them.

Tempranillo is one of Spain’s signature grape varieties, and although it can be found in other Spanish wine regions, it shines in wines from Rioja Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa). This variety, which produces large, structured wines with a high tannin content, forms the basis of this blend. It is the most commonly grown grape in Rioja (about 75%), but most wines are blended with small amounts of Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo.

Rioja has improved considerably in recent years in all aspects of grape selection, attention and care in the vineyard. Today, the wines undergo a more extended maceration to extract more tannins. The result is wines with a deeper aroma and a more concentrated flavour.


Types of Rioja wines

The Rioja denomination of origin covers around 57,000 hectares of Calificada in 3 autonomous communities located in La Rioja, the Basque Country and Navarra. They produce approximately 250 million litres of Rioja wine a year, of which 85% is red and the rest white or rosé.

– Red wines. Classic, bold, these wines mostly taste of tempranillo and have a bright, fresh aroma and medium alcohol content. Tempranillo is the predominant variety for these wines.

– Pink wines. A bright pink wine with a strong aroma. They are light and fresh, with medium alcohol content. Garnacha is the predominant variety used in the production of these wines.

– White wines. They are more of a greenish-yellow than white, with a delicate aroma and light flavour and relatively low alcohol content. Viura is the predominant variety.

Aging Rioja wines

Rioja wines are regularly aged in 225-litre oak barrels. This is followed by a period of maturation in the bottle. The duration of the ageing process varies between the different Rioja wine categories. It can range from a year to 3 years in barrel and from 6 months to 6 months in bottle, depending on the Reserva Crianza, Reserva and Gran varieties. Today, more than 270 bodegas of Rioja with more than 900,000 barrels of ageing are handed over.


Classification of Rioja wines

Rioja is labelled by quality according to the type of ageing the wine has undergone. Rioja wines are classified according to their ageing period:

– Crianzas are the youngest, with at least two years of ageing.

– Riservas are aged for at least 36 months. 

– Gran Reservas are aged the longest: at least two years in oak casks and at least three years in the bottle before release.

These blends are also known for the four different styles in which they are produced and have very specific requirements in order to be classified as one of these wines:

– Joven – these are wines explicitly produced for consumption at a young age, are usually the fruitiest, with the least amount of barrel ageing.

– Crianza is a wine that must be aged for at least 1 year. This allows the wine to remain relatively easy-drinking and with fruity notes.

– Reserva and Gran Reserva – considered the highest point of quality, where wines must be aged for several years in barrels and bottles before being released for sale. These wines are powerful, with intense oak features, but the taste of these Rioja wines still resembles typical fruit characteristics.


So, what does Rioja wine taste like? And which wine should you choose?

Rioja wine is a dry wine and can be made in a fruity, easy-drinking style. The taste of Rioja wine is usually filled with aromas of red fruit, spice and a slight burning sensation due to the high alcohol content of the wine.

Rioja Alavesa, however, was one of the first to produce late harvest dessert wines, known locally as supurados. However, these sweet wines are not very common and are not what classic Rioja wines are famous for.

Rioja wines are characterised by great aromatic complexity. They are fresh, medium-bodied, with a balanced structure and better flavour. Rioja is similar to the red blends of Bordeaux.

Blends based on the Tempranillo variety have similar characteristics and tannins to the Cabernet Sauvignon. Garnacha acts as a softening, fruity component, as does the Merlot in Bordeaux.

The taste of Rioja wine depends a great deal on its ageing. 

You should therefore choose according to the flavour you expect and want:

The younger Joven or Crianza wines are best for those looking for a fruitier and lighter wine.

To get the most enjoyment from Rioja, it is better to choose well-aged and mature wines – these are blends that have been aged for at least 10 years.