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Beyond Rioja DOC

The Ebro River Valley is a sub-appellation that runs primarily along the banks of the Ebro River where it runs through a portion of north central Spain, and includes area in La Rioja, Navarra, Zaragoza, Huesca and Álava. Though the region as a whole is better known more for the quantity of wine produced as opposed to the quality, some excellent wines come from Rioja and Navarra, and quality-minded producers in the small subregions of Calatayud, Cariñena, Campo de Borja and Somontano are starting to make their mark. Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Moristrel, Merlot and Chardonnay do well here, as does Tempranillo, though the latter is an early ripener, which excels on the cool mountain slopes of the Systema Iberica in the province of Rioja. Cariñena grape, has been historically popular due to its ability to produce a highly alcoholic wine in great quantity. During the 1800’s and 1900’s, it found its way onto the global bulk wine market and into cheap and unidentifiable blended imports on shelves all over Europe and probably the rest of the world – a trend that has been widely traded for smaller yields as the region looks toward raising the bar in favour of quality.

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Located along the banks of the Ebro River, Rioja wines have been praised for centuries, with documents dating to 1650 that were entered into law to protect and ensure the quality of the wines produced there. The allowed grape for red is Tempranillo, which can be blended with Garnacha, Mazuelo, Graciano, Maturana Tinta and a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon. For whites, Viura is the main grape, followed by Malvasia, Garnache Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Blanca and Turruntes of Rioja. We also find Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo.

There are three distinct regions within Rioja:

Rioja Alta is characterized by its higher elevation, and as such has a shorter, cooler growing season. Wines from Rioja Alta have a brighter fruit character and are lighter bodied.

Rioja Alavesa wines are more full-bodied than those of Rioja Alta and often have higher acidity and tannins.

Rioja Baja is the hottest and driest area of the Rioja, and potential alcohol can be very high. Flavour profiles of these wines may tend toward prune, leather and raisin due to the high heat in the growing season.

Rioja has a specific set of regulations and designations that define them:

Young wines are designated under the general Rioja DO, and are aged less than one year before release. The term Joven has been used in the past, most often reserved for wines released within six months of the vintage. Statistically, more than ninety percent of white and rosado falls into this category.

Crianza requires a total of two years of ageing prior to release, with one of those years being spent in barrel. White Crianza has a minimum barrel age of six months.

Reserva wines are made from selected lots in the best vintages. Reds are aged a total of three years, which includes one year in barrel, while white and rosado reservas are aged two years with six months in barrel.

Gran Reservas are aged at least two years in barrel and three in bottle before release. White and Rosado are aged a minimum of four years with at least six months in oak.

Producers often exceed these ageing specifications, but this is the baseline. Oddly enough, the bulk of Rioja produced uses American oak, though many ‘modernist’ winemakers choose to use French oak to provide slightly more refined notes of vanilla, caramel and spice, as opposed to more the typically tropical notes of coconut that is imparted by American oak. There is a definite divide between ‘traditionalist’ and ‘modernist’ wine making philosophy, but more often than not we find a combination of the two at play.

Other DO’s include Somontano, Campo de Borja, Pago Prado de Irachel, Cariñena, Navarra, Calatayud, Pago de Arinzano and Pago de Otazu

© Picture: Bodegas Baigorri

by Rafael Segovia, Wine Enthusiast