Spain’s most famous wine region might have centuries of heritage behind it, but it’s always evolving. What does that mean? That there are some real treasures out there for the bounty-hunting sommeliers among you.
There are advantages to being one of the oldest and most well-known wine regions in the world. Rioja, after all, is known and loved by diners, shoppers, wine experts and sommeliers from Beijing to Buenos Aires. That affection is built on a reputation that has been established over centuries. Rioja’s winemaking history dates back to long before Roman times, making it one of the oldest wine regions; it also has a long-established 'classic style’ and no shortage of globally recognised centenarian wineries.
The key point about Rioja, though, is that it is not a region that is so in love with its past that it is encased in amber, like a museum exhibit. It is a region that prefers to look forwards rather than backwards – and indeed, it always has been.It was also a pioneer in creating a clearly defined ageing system for wine (crianza, reserva, gran reserva) that delineates how long each particular wine should spend ageing in barrel and bottle.
The thinking behind the ageing system is that wines are released only when they’re ready. So younger, more fruit-driven wines, such as crianzas, are put on sale before more intense expressions like reserva or gran reserva that benefit from longer ageing.
As a guarantee of drinkability, it’s good for consumers – and even better for restaurants who want wines that are ready to drink now.Yet, the changes don’t stop there. As José Luis Lapuente, general manager of the region’s Consejo Regulador (regulating council) says: 'Rioja is constantly improving, reviewing its definitions and strengthening what it offers.’ In the last 18 months, it has created a series of new classifications that recognise the various sub-zones and villages of the region.
The Viños de Zona take in Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental; the Viños de Municipio will see the appearance on the label of the region’s better-known winegrowing towns and villages, such as Elciego, Cenicero or Tudelilla.There is even a new single-vineyard classification – viñedos singulares – for estates that adhere to tough rules regarding sustainability, yield levels, traceability and quality control.
Rioja is constantly improving, reviewing its definitions and strengthening what it offers
The point is that however well-established Rioja might be, it’s always been open to change. Indeed, it has often led it. It was the first wine-growing area in Spain to be awarded Denominación de Origen (DO) status in 1928, and the first to be granted Denominación de Origen Califi cada (DOCa) status in 1991. Given that Rioja doesn’t rest on its laurels, it’s no surprise that it has a constantly evolving range of wines on offer. Of course, there are the classic styles – the crianzas, reservas, gran reservas and blancos in particular. But there is much more to it than that.
Most Riojan reds might be Tempranillo-based, but there are fabulous old-vine Garnachas as well (especially in Rioja Oriental) and it is well worth looking out for wines majoring on Graciano and Mazuelo, too. Whites run the full spectrum, from light and refreshing, to richer and barrel-fermented, to the golden traditional expressions that spend years in old oak barrels. There are organic wines and natural wines; single-vineyard wines and single-varietal wines.
Thanks to more new legislation, there are even espumosos de calidad (sparkling wines) now as well. Not to mention that there’s probably a lot more rosé than you think.
Even within the established ageing classifications, there is a wide variety of styles to explore. There are rich, intense crianzas and more medium-bodied, elegant reservas. Gran reservas that could go with fish, and generic crianzas that cry out for a leg of roast lamb.
Rioja is a thrilling region of contrasts and classics, of discovery and old friends. It’s a region that consumers love to try and that sommeliers think they know but are always surprised by. It’s a region where imagination on the list is rewarded by excited customers and extra sales, where past and future meet and where there is always something new to try. You owe it to yourself to start exploring.
Drink RIOJA this autumn
There is no better way to open up your customers to the exciting range of wine styles on offer from their favourite region than by some carefully curated Rioja-themed promotional activity.
From Edinburgh to Cardiff to London, this October a number of venues/restaurant groups across the UK will be taking part in the Drink Rioja Promotion. Camino, Bar 44, Bon Vivant and D&D group have worked with Wines from Rioja to select a range of Rioja wines. Then each has come up with a two-week promotion that will show off the diversity of wine styles available and prove to their customers just how amazing Rioja can be. You can expect everything from ticketed events, dedicated Rioja wine menus, and even Rioja loyalty cards. Social media will also play a big role as well, as the restaurants use it to engage with their customers.