Beer & Wine Wine

Rioja: What to Know and 5 Bottles to Try

Get to know these rich, robust wines.

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Rioja bottles / Laura Sant

Can’t get enough Northern Rhône syrah or Napa Valley cabernet in your life? The red wines of Rioja are definitely for you. Produced mainly from tempranillo, these dark-hued wines are rich, robust and undeniably satisfying when sipped alongside equally hearty cuisines. Best of all, in addition to tasting great, these bottles generally cost significantly less than their international counterparts—a win all around.

What Is Rioja?

The name Rioja refers to the region in northern Spain where these wines are produced. Although red, white and rosé wines are made here, the region is best known for its full-bodied red wines. Rioja is a designated DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada), which is the highest category of Spanish wine classification. The main red grape varieties cultivated in Rioja are tempranillo, garnacha, mazuelo (cariñena) and graciano. White varieties grown in Rioja include garnacha blanca, malvasía and viura (macabeo).

Where Does Rioja Come From?

Rioja is located west of Navarra and south of the Basque region in northern Spain. The region is divided into three subzones: Rioja alavesa, Rioja alta and Rioja oriental (baja). In the past, Rioja wines were generally produced from a blend of fruit from these regions, though an emphasis on single-vineyard and single-region bottlings is on the rise. 

How Is Rioja Made?

Wines from Rioja are vinified in a variety of styles, and their final flavors depend on where the fruit was grown, the exact blend and how the wine was vinified. Most winemakers in Rioja use some form of wood (new and/or used) during their fermentation and aging, though steel-vinified expressions can be found. 

However, for Rioja wines to be designated with a DOCa labeling, certain rules and regulations must be followed, including grape variety requirements. For example, red wines must be produced from at least 95% tempranillo, garnacha tinta, graciano, mazuelo and/or maturana tinta. For whites wines, at least 51% of the blend must come from viura, while garnacha blanca, malvasía, maturana blanca, tempranillo blanco turruntés, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and verdejo can make up the rest of the blend.

The classification system is a bit intricate too. Crianza, reserva and gran reserva are the best-known designations, and similar to the above, certain requirements must be followed, mostly pertaining to age. Rioja wines generally age in 225-liter oak barrels for one to three years, followed by additional bottle-aging for up to six years. Crianza red wines must age for two years, at least one in bottle, to receive said designation, while reserva reds must age for three years, with a minimum of 12 months in oak, prior to bottling. For gran reserva reds, wines must be aged for a minimum of two years in oak and three years in bottle prior to release. White Rioja aging requirements for these designations are similar to those of red wines, just slightly less. 

What Does Rioja Taste Like?

As with most regions, Rioja wines’ flavor profiles are heavily dependent on where the fruit is grown, how it is vinified and aged, and which producer is making it. Based on grape variety and simple aging requirements alone, it’s safe to say that most red Rioja wines are rather full-bodied and dark-hued, due to the high amounts of tempranillo used, and notes of ripe red and black fruits, ripe cherries, leather and baking spice are usually present. 

Whites from Rioja are also on the fuller side, often marked by flavors of yellow stone fruit, honeycomb and salty melon. This is mostly due to the high levels of viura used in the region’s blends. Oak notes, such as baking spice, dill or coconut, can be present, if a wine is aged in oak vessels, though steel vinification is often used in the production of white Rioja wines to preserve the wines’ acidity and natural freshness. 

Which Foods Should I Pair with Rioja?

Because of their dark fruit flavors, muscular nature and solid backbones, red wines from Rioja beg to be sipped with robust dishes. Drink them alongside barbecued meats, smoked sausages or roasted game. Lentil-based stews and grilled veggies make for equally savory vegetable-based substitutes. White and rosé wines from Rioja make excellent happy-hour options, pairing perfectly with Spanish-inspired tapas, especially croquetas, cured ham and salty chunks of Manchego cheese. 

These are five bottles to try.

Bodegas Muga Rosado

Bodegas Muga Rosado / Laura Sant

This fruit-driven wine is everything you want from rosé. It is fresh and fruit-forward and pairs well with nearly every happy-hour snack you can think of. Flavors of strawberry, watermelon, citrus peel and a touch of honey lead to a zesty finish that promises to keep your palate wanting more.

Cune (CVNE) Gran Reserva

Cune (CVNE) Gran Reserva / Laura Sant

This full-bodied, flavor-packed gran reserva offers one of the best quality-to-price ratios in all of Rioja. Notes of ripe dark fruits, cherries, tobacco, cocoa powder and baking spice lead to a velvety, lasting finish. If you love big, bold and seriously delicious reds (Napa Cab fans, we’re looking at you), this bottle is definitely worth a try.

Hermanos Peciña Señorío de P. Peciña Crianza

Hermanos Peciña Señorío de P. Peciña Crianza / Laura Sant

This ripe yet restrained crianza comes from one of the region’s most respected producers and seriously overdelivers for the price. Expect flavors of dark berries, plums, leather, damp earth and cigar box to collide on the wine’s harmoniously integrated palate.

Ostatu Rioja Blanco

Ostatu Rioja Blanco / Laura Sant

This refreshing white Rioja (Rioja blanco) hails from the subzone of Rioja alavesa and is crafted from a blend of old-vine (30 to 80 years) viura and malvasia. Notes of tropical fruit, green apple skin, guava and citrus collide on the wine’s medium- to full-bodied palate. Sip it with savory seafood dishes or croquetas with garlic aioli.

R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Reserva

R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Reserva / Laura Sant

Regarded as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) producers in all of Rioja, López de Heredia offers astounding quality in its cellar-worthy reds. The fruit for Viña Tondonia comes from its eponymous 100-hectare vineyard, located on the right bank of the Ebro River. On the palate, notes of red and black fruits, currants, pencil shavings and ample sweet spice lead to a textured, complex finish.

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