The eastern section of Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Alta
By Tom Perry
This Guide was last updated on 12 February 2010
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Red Rioja has undergone a dramatic stylistic revolution over the last 20 years. It was once known for producing light, silky wines with moderate alcoholic strength, rarely over 12%, and spicy, stewed red-fruit aromas coming from long ageing in older oak barrels. Today, Rioja is likely to be concentrated, with 13.5% alcohol, fresh ripe fruit and aged in new oak, often French. The new style, while popular abroad, is only just beginning to be accepted in the home market, which is still in love with softness and stewed fruit. Barrel-aged reds now account for about 60% of sales. Traditionally, Rioja wines were blends of different varieties from the three sub-regions, but in the 1980s producers began making wines from single varieties, notably from Tempranillo, and increasingly Garnacha or Graciano. In general, wines from Rioja Alta, which has more Atlantic influence, are full-bodied wines with high acidity that age well in cask, whereas wines from Rioja Alavesa, where climate influences are from both the Atlantic and the warmer Mediterranean, are more medium-bodied with moderate acidity. Garnacha dominates in the warmer and flatter Rioja Baja area making soft, more alcoholic wines. Another trend since the 1990s has been to make wines from single vineyards or estates to give producers a competitive advantage, as the number of wineries has increased dramatically to about 500 today.
A red wine style not often seen outside the region is cosechero, made with fermentation of whole berries in open vats, much like an adapted carbonic maceration method as used in Beaujolais. All Rioja reds were made in this way until the mid-19th century when Rioja turned to Bordeaux for winemaking techniques, notably better vineyard husbandry, de-stemming grapes, fermenting in closed vats and ageing in small oak barrels. These wines are widely consumed in bars and restaurants in northern Spain.
White winemaking has evolved from a style emphasising long oak ageing in older barrels, much like traditional red Rioja, to a crisp, fresh, cold-fermented style and, since the 1990s, fermentation in oak with the wine remaining on the lees for several months. In spite of these changes, sales of white Rioja are falling, recently leading the region to approve the use of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo alongside the traditional varieties. Some semi-sweet and sweet whites are also made.
Rosé is usually made with Garnacha or a blend of Garnacha or Tempranillo, with short skin contact to add colour, after which the wine is vinified like a white.
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