#winequestions – What’s the deal with Rioja?

Riojan wines are some of the most popular, and oftentimes most confusing, wines on the shelf. Between confusing the region for a grape variety and not really knowing which age statements are preferred it can be a bit of a minefield from a customer point of view if you’re not confident in what you like.

In this week’s blog we’re going to be decyphering the labels a bit to help make Rioja a bit easier to understand.

Credit: wikimedia

Where is it?

The region, or rather 3 regions, which make up Rioja are in the north of Spain, near Logroño. The three regions, or zones, are Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa.

The three regions each play a different part in winemaking due to their different microclimates. For example Rioja Baja grows better Garnacha, Rioja Alavesa grows really pure fruit and Rioja Alta is known for wines that age well.

What’s in it?

One of the most common misconceptions we come across is when people as for “a red wine from the Rioja grape”. Rioja is a region where a handful of different varietals are grown.

Tempranillo accounts for the majority of plantings in the region. It is Spain’s most common black grape and produces fresh reds with strawberry flavours.

Graciano is often used to add depth of flavour and structure to the wines of rioja to help with ageing. Garnacha (Grenache) produces high alcohol reds but is also widely used for rosé wines.

These three make up the main black grapes in red rioja blends but, despite it only making up 10% of Rioja’s output, white rioja IS a thing. These depend on the Viura and, more popular, Garnacha Blanca varietals.


A huge part of the rating system for Rioja relies on the amount of time that the wine has been aged both in barrel and in bottle before release.

Joven are the youngest Riojas. They are bottled and released the year they are harvested for a fresh and fruity flavour.

Crianza is the next step. These wines require one year of aging in an oak barrel and then a further year in bottle before release.

This is similar to Reserva. Reserva also spends one year in barrel but stays in bottle for 2 years before release.

Finally we have Gran Reserva, which has to spend a minimum of two years in oak and three in bottle before it hits the bars and shelves.

Where should I start?

If you’re used to drinking light and fruity reds there is no point in jumping into bed with a Rioja Gran Reserva on your first go. As a general rule the older the wine the less apparent the fruit character will be.

If you prefer wines with more structure and weight, look higher up the scale but for fruitier and lighter wines Joven or Crianza are the wines for you.

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