Let me first start this class by saying that I had my syllabus in line to do a class on Rioja before Mr. Eric Asimov’s (who’s online wine school in the New York Times was an inspiration for our own virtual wine school) latest installment on said region. You’re welcome for the inspiration Eric!
In this blog, we will be touching on a few key topics to take away from this special region. Mainly the geography (climate, soil, topography) , grape varieties, classifications for labeling, and the difference between traditional versus modern winemaking. In discussing the wines we have on hand for this class, we will be focusing in on different levels and bottlings of Tempranillo.
Rioja, sitting directly north of Madrid, is roughly 60 miles in length, and is divided into three subregions, Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja. The region is divided in half by the Ebro River, running north to south, while providing nutrients for a variety of soil types throughout the region. The Sierra de Cantabria mountain range sits above Rioja Alavesa, and provides ample protection from heat and wind, and allows for cooling temps throughout a region, that during summer months, can be scorching hot day in day out. With different wind currents coming from all directions surrounding Rioja, a true microclimate is formed. You have the dry air coming up from the southeast in the Mediterranean, and much needed moisture coming off the Atlantic from the northwest, along with the river and mountains, allow for a truly balanced grape growing cycle.
Rioja Alta is the westernmost of the three subregions and is south of the Ebro. It contains the most total hectares, twice as large in land mass as Rioja Alavesa. Here we find more soils rich in clay, and a climate mainly influenced by the Atlantic. Rioja Alta is know for producing full bodied wines with medium alcohol that are suitable for aging.
Rioja Alavesa sits north of the Ebro and is nestled right up against the Sierra de Cantabria. With its sloping landscape, we find more soils containing limestone. While it also draws strong influence from the Atlantic, it also receives heat and moisture from the Mediterranean. Rioja Alavesa is known for lighter colored, aromatic wines, but produces lots of high alcohol wines with high acidity suitable for aging.
Rioja Baja is the hottest and driest of the three sub regions. It’s climate is Mediterranean, with vineyards at much lower elevations. With its gravely, stony soils, the region produces lots of rose wines and has widespread plantings of Garnacha.
As it relates to grape varieties, four red grapes are allowed in Rioja with Tempranillo comprising 65% of all plantings, the other allowed red grapes include Graciano, Mazuelo (Carinena) and Garnacha. Three white grapes are allowed, Viura, Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca.
As a consumer, it’s important to understand the different classification system put forth in Rioja for how a wine is labeled. Their are three levels of aging requirements to determine which designation gets put on the bottle. There is Crianza (1 year in oak barrel, 1 year in bottle before release), Reserva (1 year in oak, 2 years in bottle) , and Gran Reserva (2 years in oak, and 3-5 in bottle). Usually, the longer the wine is aged, the higher the price.
There is a variety of winemaking techniques throughout the region, dividing producers into two camps. Old school (traditionalists) and new school (modernists). The traditionalist winemakers age their wines primarily in American oak, where the modernist winemakers go heavy on new French oak. The old schoolers tend to source fruit from the three subregions, where the new kids in school want to focus on single vineyards to express their terroir or terruno. The stylistic differences are night and day. The traditional wines take on a more rustic flavor profile, a bit more elegant, with aromas of leather and earth, and boast great structure and tannin. The modern wines deliver lush ripe fruit,with bright colors and a silky smooth mouthfeel. Depending on which might prefer, there is a style of Rioja for everyone.
Below I’ve listed links to our website for the three wines I’ve presented in my video. Please try these wines and report back on your tasting experience.
I’ll leave the class with an image of the Sierra de Cantabria from Valserrano’s vineyards, from my trip to Spain back in May of 2012.
Until next time!