Rioja’s most important river isn’t the diminutive, namesake Rio Oja, but the Ebro. Snaking between the Sierra Cantábrica and the Sierra Demanda, the Ebro and its tributaries have helped carve out vineyards that have been celebrated for at least two centuries. Rioja has traditionally carried Spain’s reputation for high quality wine, at least until the late twentieth century’s explosion of new regions and grapes.
There are three sub-regions—Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta, and Rioja Baja—and while many describe their distinct differences, the notion of a hierarchy between them is out of touch with reality. So too the fashion with grapes: Tempranillo is king, certainly, but Garnacha, Mazuelo (Carineña), Graciano and increasing numbers of other indigenous grapes are generating new ideas and styles in the region.
There are reds, whites and rosés here, but the reds account for the greater part of its fame. Aging classifications have, until recently, been the primary means for separating one wine from another: Joven (“young”) wines are for early drinking. Crianza wines are aged for two years (one of those in barrel) and are for early or mid-term enjoyment. Reserva wines (three years aging, with one of those years in barrel) can be age-worthy or offer serious immediate consumption.
Gran Reserva wines have been regarded as the region’s pinnacle; they are at least five years old and generally ready to drink. But they can age for years too; their long barrel aging often renders them gentle and complex, rather than big and rich. Today many top names are often eschewing long barrel times, and some of these Tempranillo based wines could stand in for Napa Cabernet in intensity and weight.