For a long time, Rioja could be described by a simple image: vast cellars filled with wine barrels as far as the eye could see, a quantity that would make even the great estates of Napa and Bordeaux blush. Spain’s most aristocratic wine-producing region defines fine wine by how long it has been aged in wood (gran reserva tops the list, taking a minimum of five years before sale). That being said, things are changing around here…and muy rapidamente.
With young and unwooded wines, rosés, sparklings, an increased focus on the characteristics of each of its terroirs, plus an appreciation of long-forgotten varietals, Rioja is leaning into time-honoured traditions while pushing the envelope and diversifying. Basically, now’s a good time to discover Rioja wines — or rediscover them, for that matter.
Recent changes in appellation rules specifically aim to support Spain’s wine-producing
regions by way of three levels of designation. First, there’s the Vinos de Zona designation, highlighting the three sub-regions of Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental (formerly known as Rioja Baja), whose climates and soils are fairly diverse. Then, there’s the Vinos de Municipio designation, which is for wine produced in one village only. Lastly, there’s the Viñedos Singulares designation, which identifies wine coming from one specific vineyard focussed on quality-based production with at least 35-year-old vines and volumes that fall below at least 20 percent of the regional average.
Will Rioja vintages become as sought after as Burgundy’s? The answer will take several years yet. Approved back in 2017, these designations will begin to appear on shelves in the coming months — and finer vintages in two to four years.
The importance of these changes is all the more striking when you consider the weight this region pulls in the world of Spanish wine. Rioja represents about one-third of all Spain’s appellation wine exports (31.4 percent in 2016) by volume, with prices easily exceeding the average. It’s all the more impressive when you factor in that Spain is the world’s top wine exporter.
Palacios La Vendimia 2018
$18.05Red wine750 mlSpain, Vallée de l'EbreSAQ code : 10360317
- Grape variety(ies):
Note: For vintage products, the vintage in stock may differ from the one displayed.
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In with the new!
Despite the deeply rooted tradition of wine-aging Rioja in barrels, an increasing number of vintages skip this step altogether, opting to express their grape varieties and fruity freshness instead. This joven style — young, in English — makes for accessible, fun wine that, of course, should be enjoyed young!
Riojano winemakers also want to make their mark on the world of sparkling wines. Until 2017, sparklings from the region bore the Cava appellation, which can come from just about anywhere in Spain. The Rioja Espumos de Calidad, whose first bottles hit shelves this year, come exclusively from the region and must abide by strict guidelines, notably that the wine must age in a cellar for a minimum of 15 months (like Champagne) compared to 9 months for Cava.
A lengthy history
The quality wines from Rioja have garnered much attention for a very long time now. As far back as 1102, King Sancho of Navarre bestowed protected legal status upon them. In 1787, a “royal economic society of vintners” was formed to foster development in viticulture, boost quality, and promote sales. Today’s protected designation of origin dates back to 1902.
Tapas with that?
The Rioja region is quite fond of tapas. In Logroño, the region’s charming capital city, there’s an entire street dedicated to them. It’s called Calle de Laurel, and it’s lined with stalls that each offer their own speciality. Fiesta is in the air here, especially when you make your way through a boisterous crowd with a bite to eat in one hand and a fun young wine in the other.