Understanding wine regions

Rioja: A love affair

Who doesn’t love a good Rioja? One of the most beloved wines of the British public, Rioja is what springs to mind for most when asked to think of a Spanish wine.

Traditional and reliable, Rioja has worked its way into our hearts and onto our dinner tables.  However, there’s a lot more to Rioja than the distinctive yellow labels of Faustino. Here’s my guide to Rioja:

LOCATION: Rioja, north east Spain

GRAPES:  Rioja is usually a blend. Tempranillo is the heart of the blend, but other grapes such as Grenache, Graciano and Mazuelo will often be used to. Each grape adds something a little different to the blend.


Although the region is famed for its reds, they also produce great whites and roses too. The whites are made from the Viura (a.k.a Macabeo) grape variety, and are great alternative to those partial to a Savvy B.


The history of Rioja is an interesting one, as it was actually shaped by the French. The winemakers of Bordeaux infiltrated the region over a century ago, and introduced their love of oak barrels to the region. The twist, is that nowadays they’ll often use American, not French, oak. This gives Rioja’s their distinctive sweet coconut and vanilla flavours.


To this day, Rioja’s have to adhere to a strict code of ageing which you can spot on the label:

Crianza: These wines will have spent the least amount of time in an oak barrel. This means that they still have lots of fruit flavours like strawberry, along with a touch of spice.

Reserva: These wines have to be aged for a minimum of a year longer than Crianza wines. They still have some fruit, but have a much heavier level of spice characteristics such as vanilla and smoky oak.

Gran Reserva:  The big daddy of all Rioja’s; Gran Reserva’s must be aged for at least 5 years before they are released. These wines generally be much less fruity, with a heavy dose of spice and savoury characteristics such as leather, earth and wet leaves.

Often  winemakers will exceed the minimum requirements stipulated for aging too.

Want to branch out a little?

If you’re a bit bored of Rioja… You’ll also probably love wines from the Ribera del Duero region, which produces wines in a similar style to Rioja.