Aging Rioja Wine: Making the Most Out of This Underrated Region

Aging Rioja wine from different vintages

The best method for aging Rioja wine varies depending on the wine’s quality classification. Image Credit: Pixabay user Sadival

When I purchased a few bottles of R. Lopez de Heredia to lay down more than a decade ago, I wasn’t sure how long to cellar them or what to expect after they had aged for a few years; the wine was so wonderfully rounded and charming in its youth that I worried it wouldn’t age well over a long period of time. I’d had more experience with Bordeaux, which is typically unapproachable until it has aged in a cellar for a number of years. However, more than ten years after buying the Rioja, I’ve found that these bottles are still aging beautifully and taste even better than they did in their youth.

While you certainly have the option to drink Rioja while it’s young, the best Rioja gran reserva reaches its peak 20 years or more after release. That’s part of what makes aging Rioja wine so worthwhile and exciting; young Rioja is already delicious but becomes even more so over time, making it possible to open a bottle every couple of years as the wine ages and always have a delicious drinking experience. If you’re looking for a wine of high quality and excellent value that will last for decades in your cellar, consider adding a few cases of Rioja to your collection.

Why You Should Age Rioja Wine

Many collectors forget how age-worthy and delicious Rioja can be. That’s because, although the wines are and have always been mature-tasting and finessed, Rioja has been outshined recently by wines from other up-and-coming regions, like Argentina, Chile, and Australia. However, Rioja is poised for a comeback and collectors are beginning to invest more in these Spanish wines. According to a recent study, approximately four out of ten wine consumers say that they regularly buy Rioja wines—that’s an estimated 38 million people. Moreover, the average price of Rioja has risen by 2.2 percent in the past year, which is a sign that these wines are becoming more sought-after and valuable on the secondary market

That’s one good reason to invest in Rioja. Another reason is this wine’s unique aging process. The finest Rioja wines, those with the gran reserva designation, go through an extensive aging period before bottles are released on the market. To make red gran reserva, the wine must be aged in oak for a minimum of two years and then spend an additional three years in the bottle. Some producers choose to age their wine for five years or longer–sometimes much longer–in the bottle before release. This extended aging and oaking period applies to both red and white styles of Rioja, though Rioja blanco spends slightly less time in oak barrels than Rioja’s red wines.

Oak fermentation and bottle aging make Rioja taste far more mature in its youth than you would expect. Not long ago I tasted a new bottle of Muga Gran Reserva alongside a bottle of 2010 Lynch-Bages and was intrigued to find that the young Rioja shared many of the same mature, refined flavors as the older Bordeaux. Winemaker Victor Urrutia, who owns Compañia Vinícola del Norte de España, explains that this is what sets fine Rioja apart from many other styles of wine. He says, “When you buy a good red Rioja, even though it can age in your cellar for decades more, it’s far more ready to drink, far more along in its evolution, than almost any fine red wine from anywhere else.” This makes aging red and white Rioja a unique experience and makes it possible to drink a fine Rioja at almost any point during the aging process.

Aging Rioja Wine by Classification

Because Rioja varies significantly in quality depending on the classification listed on the label, aging Rioja wine requires a solid understanding of the region’s four main classifications. The vast majority of Rioja isn’t built for long-term aging, and while these wines are still worth drinking young, it’s not wise to keep them in storage for more than five years. Meanwhile, a handful of Rioja wines (namely, gran reserva and reserva) have excellent aging potential that you’ll want to take advantage of whenever possible.

The following are the best timelines for aging Rioja wine based on classification:

  • Rioja: The red versions of these wines spend just a few months in oak and are sold on the market shortly after bottling. Meanwhile, white Rioja wines typically aren’t fermented in oak at all—most winemakers use steel vats instead. You’ll find that Rioja with this basic classification tastes fruit-forward and lacks some of the finesse and maturity of higher-quality classifications. However, these are still great table wines and they pair well with food. Basic Rioja wine shouldn’t be aged; if you buy these wines, drink them immediately.
  • Crianza: The red wines in this classification are aged in oak for a minimum of one year, followed by a few months of aging in the bottle before release. The white wines spend only six months in an oak cask and age for an additional six months in the bottle before release. You’ll likely find plenty of Rioja Crianza bottles anywhere wine is sold, as it’s the most widely-distributed classification. Crianza has an excellent quality-to-price ratio; you’ll get some of the mature flavors of fine Rioja for less than $15 per bottle, on average. Like basic Rioja, however, Crianza isn’t considered an age-worthy wine. You can keep these wines in storage for up to five years, but it’s best to drink them young.
  • Reserva: Producers are highly selective when they pick grapes for a reserva label. This classification is made from high-quality grapes during years when the growing season was favorable. Estates don’t produce a reserva label every year. In addition to selectivity, producers also have to age red Rioja reserva for at least one year in oak and two more years in the bottle. Similarly, reserva blanco must be aged for at least six months in oak and two years in the bottle. For this reason, these wines are potentially worth storing long-term. While not all Rioja reserva will age for decades, most of these wines drink well ten to 15 years after release. Aging reserva comes down to personal preference. If you enjoy fruit-forward, lively wines, try to drink your reserva immediately. If you prefer wines with a bit more complexity, or if the vintage tastes a little too closed-off, try keeping your reserva in storage for a longer period of time.
  • Gran Reserva: This is the highest classification of Rioja and it has the greatest aging potential. Like reserva, gran reserva is made from only the most selective grape harvests. Producers are even more selective when they make gran reserva, however, choosing to label their wine with this classification only if the growing season was near-perfect. Red Rioja gran reserva must also spend a minimum of two years in oak and an additional three years in the bottle before it’s released on the market. Likewise, gran reserva blanco spends six months in oak barrels and an additional two years in the bottle. Estates like Contino, Marques de Murrieta, and Fernando Ramirez de Ganuza occasionally extend this aging process in order to bring out the best flavors in the wine. If you have a bottle of gran reserva in your cellar, treat it like royalty; these wines are exceptionally rare and are only released once every few years, on average. You’ll want to cellar the bottle for a minimum of ten years; however, most gran reserva drinks beautifully 20 or even 30 years after release.

The classification listed on your wine’s label can offer you valuable insight into its aging potential. By aging Rioja wine for the appropriate amount of time based on its classification, you’ll get the best tasting experience.

Build Your Rioja Collection

If you love Rioja, it can be enjoyable to buy it in a range of classifications. I usually keep a bottle or two of basic Rioja in my wine fridge, as well as a few bottles of Rioja Crianza for dinner parties or times when I’m in the mood for Spanish wine. Longer-aging reserva and gran reserva wines stay in professional storage, as I don’t want to be tempted to open these bottles too soon. While excellent Rioja wine will taste mature and refined no matter when you uncork it, it’s worth giving reserva and gran reserva the opportunity to develop in flavor and depth. The finest Rioja rewards collectors who are patient, and when you take the time to age these bottles over the decades, you can experience the true potential of this incredible variety.

Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buyingselling, and professional storageContact us today to get access to the world’s finest wine.

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