12 Riojas that will help you understand prized Spanish wine

  • Michael Austin
  • Chicago Tribune
6:00 a.m. Tuesday, March 6, 2018 Food
E. Jason Wambsgans/TNS
Two keys to the success of Rioja -- speaking specifically of the wine here -- have been oak barrels and time. For example, these two wines, from left, were aged 18 and 26 months in oak, respectively, imparting flavors like toast, chocolate, baking spices and vanilla. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Rioja, your reputation precedes you. As a region and a wine style, Rioja is as famous as it gets in Spain. This is the Spanish place, the wine, that most people can name even if they don’t know much about it. The wines have brand-ability and clear consumer recognition.

Although they are the pinnacle of prestige in their home country, they are maybe a little less intimidating and a little more approachable to outsiders because of the mere fact that they are from Spain. Spain has always been easy to like and get to know, hasn’t it? The best part of Rioja research is, the wines are generally affordable, considering how much goes into making them. Eight of the dozen bottles listed below ring up at $30 or less. 

Two keys to the success of Rioja — speaking specifically of the wine here — have been oak barrels and time. Made mostly of Spain’s signature red grape variety, tempranillo, Rioja also commonly relies on garnacha, graciano and mazuelo for blending. Although some 100 percent varietals are available, and some of them come from single vineyards, the tradition in Rioja has been to blend different grape varieties from different parts of the region. Tempranillo, of course, is the foundation. 

And then come the barrels. Combining those blends with long aging in oak barrels is what gives Rioja red wines their identity. The region does produce white wines and rosés, but classic reds are Rioja’s signature product. Depending on the wine’s categorization — based on its aging process — you can expect some combination of plum, cherry, strawberry, pomegranate, vanilla, caramel, spice, clove, cinnamon, cedar, toast, anise, chocolate, coffee, tobacco, earth or leather. 

Spaniards drink these wines with everything from paella to steak — again, depending on the wine’s category — and you could also pour Rioja as an accompaniment to ham, lamb, grilled meats, casseroles and game. And don’t miss a chance to sip a nice Rioja with Spain’s famous sheep’s milk cheese, Manchego. 

Now, those categories. Rioja red wines categorized as crianza must be aged for two years, and at least one of those years has to be in oak barrels (the other being in the bottle). Reserva wines — the next step up — are required to be aged for three years, with a minimum of one year in barrels. At the very top, gran reservas must be aged five years before release, with a minimum of two years in oak. These minimums (being, uh, minimums) are routinely surpassed by winemakers who opt to age their wines in oak even longer. They love their barrels in Rioja. The resulting wines can arrive with a medium dose of grippy tannins but can also be silky and supple. 

Winegrowing in the area reaches back for centuries, and in 1926, Rioja became Spain’s first official, government-protected wine region. The country’s DO (Denominacion de Origen) system evolved from there, and decades later, in 1991, Rioja received Spain’s first DOCa (Denominacion de Origen Calificada) status — the highest classification. Roughly a 3 ½-hour drive (northeast) from Madrid, Rioja stretches across about 75 miles of the autonomous regions of La Rioja and Navarra, while also spilling slightly into the province of Alava in Basque Country. Rioja’s three subregions are Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and the lower-elevation, warmer and drier Rioja Baja.



Below are notes on a dozen bottles from a recent tasting of Rioja wines in crianza, reserva and gran reserva styles. They are listed in ascending order, according to price.

2012 Bodegas de los Herederos del Marques de Riscal Reserva Rioja. With leafy herbal notes, cherry and spice, this likable wine clocked in at 14 percent alcohol. $18

2013 Bodegas Sierra Cantabria Crianza. Cherry and dark chocolate gave way to toasty smoke and coffee notes in this 100 percent tempranillo wine. $20

2012 Bodegas Bilbainas Vina Pomal Reserva Rioja. A decadent wine with notes of cherry and other red fruits, plus coffee, toast, smoke and a cocoa powder finish. $21

2012 La Rioja Alta Vina Arana Reserva Rioja. Dark dried fruits were joined by herbs, savory notes, ripe fig, caramel and a long, layered finish. $25

2013 Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana Cune Reserva Rioja. This 85 percent tempranillo blend offered plum, dates, toast, chocolate and a lip-smacking, clean finish. $28

2008 Alberto Orte Vinos La Antigua Clasico Reserva. Made of 60 percent garnacha and 30 percent tempranillo, this one was full of herbal and mineral notes, bright red fruit and spice. $28

2009 Hacienda Lopez de Haro Gran Reserva Rioja. Aged 30 months in French and American oak, this wine had cherry, herbs, incense, minerality, vanilla and a lingering finish. $29

2008 Bodegas Beronia Gran Reserva. This 90 percent tempranillo, aged 26 months in new French oak, offered notes of plum, blueberry, anise, clove, dates, baking spices and vanilla. $30

2013 Bodegas y Vinedos Artadi Valdegines Rioja. A single-vineyard, 100 percent tempranillo, this beauty was bursting with raspberry, black cherry and incense, leading to a long black-licorice finish. $45

2011 Bodegas Muga Seleccion Especial Reserva Rioja. This beautiful 70 percent tempranillo/20 percent garnacha blend offered violets, dark fruits, licorice, vanilla, smoke, incense and mocha. $47

2013 Senorio de San Vicente Rioja. Another single-vineyard offering, this silky wine offered ripe dark fruits and savory notes along with dates, licorice, incense and subtle notes of caramel. $61

2011 Marques de Murrieta Limited Edition Gran Reserva. Bright notes of raspberry and bubble gum led to pomegranate and other red fruits, plus anise, herbs and spice, all wrapped in a silky texture. $75