Well , as it turns out it is ‘Ree-oy-yuh’ and if you really want to pronounce it like a true Spaniard you need to roll the ‘R’ , emphasise the ‘eeee’ , make the ‘oy’ sound like ‘oh’ and push out the ‘yuh’ like it is ‘chah’. But there is one thing for certain, however you decide to pronounce it, and that’s that it is not a grape variety!! Yes, says Oz Clarke in his excellent recent book ‘Red & White’, in a 2017 consumer survey most people actually thought Rioja was a type of grape. Code red…..deploy wine educators immediately!!
No, Rioja, is of course one of the worlds most well known wine regions and almost certainly the best known of those in Spain. A ( surprisingly enjoyable …..will explain later ) recent venture into a bottle of Reserva Rioja gave me the urge to explore a little more and revealed a long and interesting history, diverse wine styles and an important French influence on the Rioja wines we enjoy today.
So what factors influence the styles of wine that come from Rioja? Well that would be grape variety, climate and topography and of course wine making practices.
When it comes to grapes the star of the show is Tempranillo. Think smooth red fruit characteristics and a lovely deep purple colour. However, due to it’s low sugar and acidity content Tempranillo is most often blended with an important supporting cast of grapes including Garnacha, Mazuela and Graciano. This little row of backing singers, with their higher sugar, acidity and peppery denseness combine to produce some wonderfully complex wines with great ageing potential.
So what about climate and topography then? Well, Rioja is in fact divided into three sub regions. Rioja Alta, Alavesa and Baja. Alta and Alavesa , being nearer to the Atlantic have a cooler continental climate, which , in addition to their higher altitudes makes them great sub regions for growing Tempranillo. Wines from Alta are generally the lightest whilst wines from Alavesa have more body due to lower planting density. Baja on the other hand is further inland and has a more Mediterranean climate making it very warm and dry. Traditionally Baja has been planted with the heat loving Garnacha producing rich, deeply coloured wines with high alcohol.
It is then winemaking practices in Rioja that, arguably, contribute most to the unique but varied personality of the wines. I’ve already mentioned blending and most wines from Rioja are multi sub-region blends. Whilst there is a more recent movement towards single sub-region wines it is this blending that to me probably creates one of Rioja’s great advantages which is consistency. Winemakers can blend a number of different wines from different varieties to create a balanced end product. However , the use of oak ageing and particularly American oak , provides the most distinct characteristic of Rioja wine and this is where our French influence plays it’s part.
By the mid 19th century French wine and wine making was very famous and particularly in Bordeaux. French wines , made from grapes including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot , were aged in wooden barrels to soften the tannins. Now unfortunately the mid 19th century also brought some serious bad luck for the French. Firstly the vineyards were hit by powdery mildew and then along came the dreaded Phylloxera, a vine munching aphid, that proceeded to pretty much destroy every vineyard in France. Bordeaux faced total collapse and so looked to Spain for an alternative source of black grapes. They found them in Rioja, which is actually closer to Bordeaux than it is to Madrid, and so French merchants de-camped there in large numbers. The key thing they took with them was their wine making methods and the 225 litre oak barrel. By the end of the 19th century Rioja was sending huge amounts of wine back to France where it was sold under French labels. Once the French wine industry recovered these techniques remained in use in Spain where they happily continued producing Bordeaux style oak aged wines but using their own grape varieties.
So if the French were such an influence why is American Oak used so much with Rioja? Well this came down to trading relationships and economics. As Spain had good trading relationships with America it found that it could import whole tree’s and make them into barrels at home more cheaply. Where used, American oak gives Rioja that lovely creamy , coconut and vanilla characteristic. Time in oak also makes Rioja wines very drinkable on release unlike top Bordeaux where extended bottle ageing is needed before the wines will be approachable. Some Rioja wine makers are experimenting with use of French Oak or a mix for a more subtle impact.
Rioja wines are classified by how much ageing they have had. Joven Rioja is not aged in oak but may be aged in bottle for 1 to 2 years. Crianza must spend one year in oak and one year in bottle, Reserva is also aged for 1 year in oak but then 2 years in bottle and finally Gran Reserva must be aged for 2 years in oak and a further three in bottle. It’s also worth noting that some wine makers, especially the more traditional , age their wines for longer than these minimum periods.
The final word I will associate with Rioja is value. Whilst the region does produce some very fine , and expensive wines, I think it is noticeable how good the wines can be at lower price points. This is borne out for me with a couple of recent examples. Firstly , Navajas Rioja Crianza ( £8.99 , http://www.thewinesociety.com ) on taste at a recent tasting I hosted for Birmingham Wine School. This was very popular with the group with it’s smooth red fruit and coconut nose and felt to be great value. I then tried the below from http://www.Aldi.co.uk.
Given a price point of less than £6 I think this is a good buy. Fairly light bodied for a Reserva, and slightly harsh on the back palate, but nice aromas of Blackcurrant, Red Cherry , Spices and Vanilla made for a pleasant glass of wine that would be great with a Paella or Spanish tortilla with Chorizo!. Give it a whirl.