Ireland loves Rioja. With its signature style of approachable yet food-friendly red wines, this flagship region from Spain’s gastronomic heartland has proven a reliable friend to the Irish wine drinker. The Rioja wine region has a celebrated and illustrious past, yet continues to develop its premium offerings as our taste in wine evolves.
Today, Rioja fans enjoy a broad choice of styles thanks to diverse grape varieties, geographical zones and winemaking approaches.
While this world-class region is famed for its age-worthy red wines produced from the noble Tempranillo grape, often blended with juicy Garnacha, fragrant Graciano or grippy Mazuelo, it also boasts elegant rosés and a variety of white grape varieties from fresh Viura to aromatic Malvasia.
At more than 66,000ha, the region is vast and varied, cooled by the Atlantic and high altitudes to the north and warmed by a clement Mediterranean influence from the south. It is divided into three distinct geographical zones, with Rioja Alavesa dominated by the Basque mountain range of the Sierra de Cantabria in the north, Rioja Alta perched as high as 700m above the Atlantic in the north-west and the lower-lying Rioja Oriental (formerly Rioja Baja) in the south where higher temperatures ripen a range of grape varieties.
Travelling through these zones, you will come across tiny and ancient family-run bodegas alongside soaring examples of modern architecture designed by masters like Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava. That happy marriage of historic tradition and pioneering spirit is reflected in a diversity of winemaking styles, from the vibrant, fruit-forward modern styles akin to Burgundy which focus on the vineyard as much as the barrels, to the oak-aged, Bordeaux-influenced wines that put the region on the map in the late-19th century.
This great diversity is easy to navigate thanks to a classification system which indicates how long the wines have been aged. Some are bottled young (‘joven’) to capture fresh berry characteristics, while ‘Crianza’, ‘Reserva’ or ‘Gran Reserva’ wines have been aged in casks, often a mix of French and American oak. Crianza wines are aged for a year in oak and another in the bottle, producing fresh and juicy wine with a hint of vanilla and spice. Reserva wines are aged for at least three years, including at least one year in oak although most Reserva wines spend longer, providing greater depth, character and complexity. Gran Reserva spends five years or more at the winery, including at least two years ageing in oak, and ranks among the finest wines in the world.
Given this range of choice, the question is less whether you love Rioja but rather which style of Rioja you want to drink today?
We’ve gathered ten of the region’s finest to help get your Rioja adventure started.
1. Horizonte de Exopto Rioja Blanco
This dry white wine is a rich and intense blend of barrel-fermented Garnacha Blanca, Viura and Malvasia, aged on its lees (spent yeast) to bring a creamy quality to its ripe stone fruit and sweet spice notes.
2. Aduna Rioja Blanco
A fresh and crisp white wine based on Viura grapes with bright notes of citrus and apple underlaid by freshly cut grass and fragrant fennel.
3. Ramón Bilbao Lalomba Rosé
Combining a Provencal-style delicacy with the fragrance of high-altitude Garnacha and brightness of Viura, this is a sophisticated, creamy yet fresh and bone-dry wine that happens to be a rosé – and one with great ageing capacity to boot.
4. Bodegas Artuke Maceración 2019, Rioja DOCa
A fresh and juicy Rioja Alavesa example of what modern unoaked Tempranillo can offer if its fruity, floral character is handled well, yielding wild violets, ripe cherry, vibrant black fruit and fresh herbs.
5. Viña Ilusión Rioja DOCa
From organic vineyards of a tiny farm-based winery perched high in the wilds of Rioja Oriental comes this energetic unoaked wine, juicy with pomegranate and plum, peppery spice and Mediterranean herbs, supported by sweet, ripe tannins.
6. Rondan Vendemia Seleccionada Crianza Rioja
A classic Rioja Alta take on Tempranillo with expressive, complex aromas of vanilla and spice-stewed red fruits leading to ripe bramble berries and plum on the generous, silky textured palate.
7. Ontañón Crianza
An approachable Crianza from a fifth-generation winery in Rioja Oriental, in which the addition of a little Garnacha brings juicy fruit aromas to the black cherry character of old-vine Tempranillo, accented by oak spice and lifted by natural acidity.
8. Hacienda Grimon Rioja Crianza
Based on hand-harvested, estate-grown Tempranillo and Graciano grapes in Rioja Alta with organic principles, this aromatic, full-bodied but elegant Crianza balances toasted ripe fruits with sweet balsamic notes thanks to 16 months barrel-ageing in French and American oak.
9. Viña Pomal Rioja Reserva
Estate-grown Tempranillo from Rioja Alta is aged for 18 months in American oak barrels resulting in sweet vanilla-hued notes of toasted red and black fruits, with ripe tannins and a long savoury finish.
10. Hacienda López de Haro Gran Reserva
Extensive oak-ageing gives this velvety and full-bodied Gran Reserva wonderful complexity, layering its rich confit fruit character with complex notes of vanilla, coffee, roast spices and balsamic.