Rioja wine is one of the most delicious, well-priced, and versatile wines available in the Irish market. You can get some delicious everyday bottles from €10-€12, but if you step up to the €18-€25 range, you can find incredible wines which make great gifts, or are perfect for when you just want a well-deserved treat for yourself!
When I started drinking wine first, I thought Rioja was the name of a grape! But, I couldn't have been more wrong. I've learned a lot about Riojo wines over the last few years, and when you finish reading this guide, you'll be able to walk into any wine store, off-license, or supermarket and pick out a bottle of Rioja with confidence, knowing exactly what you are getting and why it costs what it does!
Let's start at the beginning!
What is Rioja?
Rioja is a wine region in Northern Spain. They are famous for their red wines, but also produce some whites, sparking, and rosé wines in smaller quantities.
About 90% of the wines made in Rioja are red which is why they are more readily available and why most people would be more familiar with red wine from Rioja.
Rioja is a protectected wine reigion called a "denominación de origen calificada" or DOCa. This simply means that for wines to carry the "Rioja" name, they must meet certain conditions.
What grapes are used in Rioja wine?
As part of the DOCa
Rioja's Aging Classifications (for Red Wines)!
On a Rioja label, you might see some other works like "Crianza", "Reserva" or "Gran Reserva". These classifications indicated how long the wine has been aged for and give us a few other hints about the wine.
No aging requirements
Sometimes you'll see "Rioja" on it's own, other times "Rioja Joven". These are lighter, fruiter wines with little or no oak qualities.
Everyday wines. Perfect for a glass or 2 with most midweek dinners.
Aged for a minimum of 2 years with a minimum of 6 months in oak barrels.
The oak aging gives these wines a little more complexity. Still fruity, but with some secondary oak notes and spice.
People who want an every day drinker, but with a little more oak, complexity and body.
Aged for a minimum of 3 years with a minimum of 1 year in oak barrels.
These wines are generally made with good vintages. The oak starts to really come through, but with a good balance of fruits. Tend to be well rounded.
If you fancy treating yourself at the weekend, a Rioja Reserva will do the trick!
Aged for a minimum of 5 years with a minimum of 2 years in oak barrels
Made with only excellent vintages and with lots of oak aging, these wines will have an intense nose and palate. They'll need a little breathing, but then are smooth and very well balanced.
These make a lovely gift for a wine drinker and are perfect for special occasions.
Just because a Rioja has the Reserva or Gran Reserva label does not mean everyone will enjoy it. If you just don't like the qualities of a Tempranillo wine or a heavily oaked wine, then it might not be for you!
Does Rioja Reserva or Gran Reserva Guarantee it is a Quality Wine?
This is not a straightforward answer. There are no requirements on quality for these wines. However, if a wine-maker is going to go to the effort and cost of aging a wine for a minimum of 3 or 5 years, they will generally use grapes from better vintages and better quality. So for example, not every winemaker will produce a Gran Reserva every year.
So you have a higher chance of getting quality wine if you choose a Reserva or Gran Reserva, but it is not a guarantee.
Should I keep Rioja in my cellar to age longer?
Generally no! Most Rioja winemakers will release their wines when they are ready to drink. Although some wines may last for several more years in the bottle, they will not necessarily improve in quality. So it is not very common to find a Rioja Gran Reserva more than 10-12 years old for sale.
But like everything in wine, there are no absolutes and there are some examples of older Rioja vintages still drinking well now.