Rioja wine is changing rapidly. Just a few years ago, the Spanish winegrowing region was known for producing easy-drinking Tempranillo and Garnacha (Grenache) blends. While these wines were pleasant—filled with sweet strawberry flavors and the scent of baking spices—most weren’t particularly complex or valuable. However, in 2017 the region’s governing body introduced a new classification system that sets Rioja’s finest wines apart from its table wines. The wines in the highest classifications are intense, tannic, and multidimensional, a far cry from the region’s softer, more simplistic offerings.
Now that this classification system is in place, it’s much easier for collectors to identify the most valuable, age-worthy, and complex wines from this region. In this comprehensive guide to Rioja wine, you’ll learn how to use the new classification system as well as which subregions and producers craft the best wines. If you’ve always wanted to try Rioja wine or you’d like to diversify your Spanish wine collection, the wines in this guide are wise investments.
What Is Rioja Wine and Is It Collectible?
Rioja wine is any wine made in the Rioja region of northern Spain. The main varieties of red grapes grown here are Tempranillo, Garnacha Tinta (red Grenache), Graciano, and Mazuelo (sometimes called Cariñena). The region is also known for producing high-quality white grapes of varieties like Garnacha Blanca (white Grenache), Viura (sometimes called Macabeo), and Malvasía. Recently, the region’s producers have also started experimenting with other varieties like Tempranillo Blanco (white Tempranillo), Chardonnay, Verdejo, and Sauvignon Blanc. According to the Rioja classification system, producers are limited to using the following percentages of each grape variety in their blends:
|Red Wines||White Wines (Still & Sparkling)||Rosé Wines (Still & Sparkling)|
|95 percent or more Tempranillo and less than five percent Garnacha Tinta, Graciano, or Mazuelo.||Any amount of Garnacha Blanca, Viura, Malvasía, or Tempranillo Blanco. Very small amounts of Chardonnay, Verdejo, or Sauvignon Blanc.||25 percent or more Tempranillo, Garnacha Tinta, Graciano, or Mazuelo. Very small amounts of white grapes like Chardonnay, Verdejo, or Sauvignon Blanc.|
Rioja wines are best known for being heavily oaked, as even the white wines spend a significant amount of time in new American oak barrels. Originally, producers in the region used American oak instead of French oak because the casks were cheaper. However, producers today continue to use American oak because it adds sweeter vanilla notes to the wine. The extra time in new oak gives these wines a characteristic warm, creamy vanilla flavor. Baking spices is another common tasting note that accompanies oak aging and these spice flavors perfectly complement and even emphasize the natural spiciness of Rioja’s Tempranillo grapes and the peppery qualities of the Garnacha.
The most collectible Rioja wines are those that have some mature flavors in their youth but that have the potential to develop in flavor over time.
Oak aging can also make Rioja wine more collectible. Their time in oak gives many of these wines great aging potential and some will take 20 or 30 years to reach peak maturity. As a result, the finest of these wines, like 2003 Benjamin Romeo Contador, often gain in value over time. However, despite this long aging potential, Rioja wines are also famously approachable in their youth. Even the finest of these wines have soft, integrated tannins and more mature flavors than you would expect from a young wine.
But greater approachability can also be a weakness of Rioja wine. In some cases, if a Rioja wine is too approachable in its youth, it won’t evolve much in flavor over time. This impacts its value on the secondary market, as wines that are designed to be drunk young usually don’t gain in value with age. The most collectible Rioja wines are those that have some mature flavors in their youth but that have the potential to develop in flavor over time. To find wines like this, you should consider where the wine was made and how long winemakers aged it in oak. Our guide to Rioja wine subregions below describes the areas known for producing the most compelling and well-structured wines.
A Guide to Rioja Subregions
The Rioja wine region consists of three different subregions (or zones): Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Oriental. We’ll go into more detail on each of these regions below:
Located in the northwestern zone of Rioja, this region produces the most age-worthy, complex, and collectible wines. Vineyards here are planted atop the Sierra Cantabria hills, and at these high elevations, temperatures tend to be much cooler than they are on the lower slopes. As a result, the wines ripen very slowly, which encourages them to develop deeply complex flavors. The cooler temperatures also contribute to high acidity in the grapes, allowing these wines to age for many decades.
Located in the northeastern part of Rioja, this subregion produces wines that are nearly as high in quality as those made in Rioja Alta. High elevations and relatively cool temperatures give the wines great complexity, however, this area generally receives more direct sunlight than Rioja Alta. As a result, the wines are slightly more fruit-forward. They are also extremely aromatic. The heady bouquet is so alluring that some collectors prefer wines from Rioja Alavesa over those made in Rioja Alta.
Rioja Oriental (Formerly Rioja Baja)
The largest zone of Rioja is located in the southeastern area of the region and produces wines of generally lower quality than those made in the other two zones. The climate is much hotter, as the elevation is lower. For this reason, Rioja Oriental wines tend to be very fruity, round, and approachable. Oak barreling allows them to age for a few years, but most collectors choose to drink them young because they don’t evolve much in flavor. Most of Rioja’s Garnacha is made here because this variety thrives in hotter climates.
Finding the best Rioja wines to invest in requires taking into consideration a number of factors, not just the region in which the grapes were grown. While it’s generally true that Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa wines are the highest in quality, the wine’s specific age classification also determines how collectible, valuable, and age-worthy it will be.
A Guide to Rioja Wine Classifications
If you’re shopping for Rioja wine, the fastest and easiest way to gauge a wine’s quality is by reading the classification on the label. In the past, there was only one way to classify Rioja wine: by oak and bottle aging times. These classifications are still being used, though now with the addition of the regional classifications described above. There are four age-based classifications: Generic Rioja (formerly called Vin Joven, or young wine), Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva.
Generic Rioja is typically best drunk young (within two years of release). Crianza is also meant for casual drinking, but it’s a step above what many people normally drink on a daily basis. Reserva and Gran Reserva are the only truly age-worthy classifications. However, it’s important to note that while age-based classifications are indicators of quality, they’re not the only determining factors. For example, generic Rioja made in Rioja Alta or Rioja Alavesa will be much higher in quality than that made in Rioja Oriental.
This is why Rioja’s governing body recently introduced the new location-based labeling system. The original age-based classification system is no longer the only way for consumers to assess the quality of a wine. According to the new regulations, if a producer only uses grapes from a single village or vineyard (called a viñedo singular), then the producer is allowed to put the name of the vineyard location on the bottle. Producers can still blend grapes from multiple villages and vineyards if they wish, but they won’t be able to label their bottles with a specific location.
Few wine regions in the world have classification systems that are as reliable as those in the Rioja region.
The new system is beneficial for both producers and consumers. In the past, the fact that there was no official labeling system for vineyards or villages meant that reputable producers with especially fine vineyards couldn’t distinguish their wines from others in the same aging classification. For example, in the past, two bottles of Gran Reserva might have been lumped together as equal in quality, even if one was made in Rioja Alta and the other was made in Rioja Alavesa. With these new labeling guidelines, consumers can now see which wines were made in top-quality vineyards.
The new classification system has also changed the way that Rioja producers approach winemaking. Rioja has historically been made from blends of grapes grown in multiple villages scattered around the region. Many of these wines weren’t terroir-driven or distinctive in flavor. Today, more producers are choosing to make wines from grapes grown in just one vineyard or village in order to showcase the terroir and take advantage of the new labeling system. These viñedo singular wines have incredible depth and character; we will likely see more producers embrace this practice in the future.
Rioja’s classification and labeling system tells you not only how and where the wine was made but also how long it aged and how much it is worth, on average, on the secondary market. Few wine regions in the world have classification systems that are as reliable as those in the Rioja region. And although Rioja’s regulations are quite strict, winemakers still have some freedom to experiment with different blends and aging times. This is why, when you shop for Rioja wine, you should consider the producer’s distinctive style in addition to the classification.
What Are the Best Rioja Wine Producers?
Not all Rioja wine is heavily oaked. Some producers choose to keep oak aging to a minimum so that the wine tastes purer. However, there are still a number of top-quality producers that embrace the tradition of extended oak aging. Likewise, some producers love to experiment with foreign grapes like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc while others prefer to stick with native Spanish grapes to preserve the wine’s sense of place. There isn’t one best way to craft delicious and age-worthy Rioja wine, and every producer approaches the task differently. That’s why you’ll want to select wines from producers that embrace the styles you most enjoy. The guide to Rioja wine producers below will help you with this process.
These top producers are known for making oaky wines:
The producers below are known for making wines with purer fruit flavors:
- Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España
- Finca Allende
- Marques de Murrieta
- Telmo Rodriguez
- Vinicola Real
In general, producers in the pure fruit list will make wines that taste less strongly of oak than those made by producers in the other list. For example, 2005 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 890 has more prominent oak flavors than 2007 Marques De Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial. However, keep in mind that there will still be significant differences in flavor between the generic, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva wines from each of these producers.
To find the best Rioja wine for your collection, first identify the type of wine you want to collect (oaky versus fruity). Pick a producer known for making that kind of wine, then try a few styles from that producer. If a wine tastes too oaky, move down in classification until you find a wine you like. Or, if the wine tastes too fruit-forward, try a style that’s been aged longer. With so many different types of Rioja wine to choose from, you’re bound to find a wine that strikes the perfect balance between oak and fruit.
How Long Should You Age Rioja Wine?
Once you’ve selected a few bottles for your collection, you’ll need to keep track of how each bottle is aging. This can be a complicated process. One of the greatest challenges of collecting Rioja wine is that some bottles take longer to reach maturity than expected whereas others mature very early. As a general rule, you should always drink generic and Crianza bottles within two years of release. Even the very best versions of these wines have a short shelf life. You also won’t gain anything from keeping them in storage, as most are not designed to evolve in flavor.
Fruitier Gran Reserva can also taste quite acidic and tannic when it’s young and may require some time to soften.
Reserva and Gran Reserva wines can be held for much longer periods of time (ten to 30 years, on average). What makes these wines unusual is that many of them will already taste fairly mature early on. Still, if you open these wines too early, you could miss out on some of the more complex and rich flavors they will develop with time. Some of the heavily-oaked versions of these wines are also simply too oaky in their youth, making them slightly unbalanced. With age, the oak integrates with the other flavors. Fruitier Gran Reserva can also taste quite acidic and tannic when it’s young and may require some time to soften.
To keep track of all of these drinking windows, you should upload information on your Rioja wines to a cellar management app. The app will automatically update drinking windows based on the latest tasting notes from critics and collectors and alert you when it’s time to open your bottles. Whether you have dozens of easy-drinking Crianza wines in your cellar or a prized collection of age-worthy Rioja Gran Reserva tucked away in a professional storage warehouse, keeping a close watch on your wines will ensure that you get to drink—or sell—them in their prime.
Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s finest wine.