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Rioja guide: Spain's most popular wine

Learn about the Spanish wines defined by their fruit-forward flavor and aging process in American oak casks.

Learn about the Spanish wines defined by their fruit-forward flavor and aging process in American oak casks.

Wine often embodies the culture where it’s created. Like the long siestas and rich flavors of Spain, Rioja wines are vibrant and indulgent. Aged in oak barrels for varying lengths of time, the Rioja’s signature notes include the vanilla and caramel flavors from the hardwood. Rioja wines are meticulously inspected for quality and consistency, earning the region the highest classification from the Denominación de Origen (DO) Control Board: Calificada. For those of us who slept through high school Spanish, the term calificada means “guaranteed.” Only two regions in the entire country of Spain have achieved such high marks and the Rioja Valley is one of them.

Rioja wines may be red, white or rosé, those most common Riojas are deep reds, featuring grapes such as tempranillo and garnacha. No matter what kind of Rioja you purchase, you can anticipate lots of fruity flavors and high acidity. It pairs well with practically anything, so if you haven’t yet explored this classic viticultural genre, you can confidently open a bottle at your next dinner party.

The Rioja Valley

Rioja wines must originate in the Rioja region of Spain, much like champagne should come from Champagne, France. The specifics of the region, such as the grape varieties, the terroir, the altitude and the climate contribute to the product’s incomparable flavor. Rioja’s wine is divided into three categories: Rioja Oriental, Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa.

The entire region is bordered by the Sierra de Cantabria and the Sierra de la Demanda mountains to the north and south, respectively. Rioja Oriental, to the east, is generally newer and fruitier on the palette. Rioja Alta’s characteristic acidity and lightness come from the region’s higher elevation and slightly colder temperatures. Finally, Rioja Alavesa wines from the north have even higher acidity than the former. In Spain’s Rioja region, wine dominates the culture.

Each summer, thousands of locals and tourists celebrate La Batalla del Vino — the Wine Fight. Hosted in the vineyard-laden town of Haro, wine lovers honor the annual tradition by hurling buckets of wine at one another, feasting and bullfighting.

Genérico to Gran Reserva

Beyond the denotations of regional varieties, Rioja wines truly differ from one another through the barrel-aging process. Categories include young wines, Crianza wines, Reserva wines and Gran Reserva wines.

Young wines (also called Genérico), unsurprisingly, are bottled and sold within two years of their grape harvest. Accordingly, the flavor profile of young Rioja wines is fresh and fruity, pairing well with strong cheeses and meats.

Crianza wines are aged for at least one year in oak barrels plus several more months once bottled. Crianza flavors are still rather fruity but have a deeper body and notes of leather. Serve Crianza with grilled meats and hardy vegetables.

Reserva wines are fussy. Made from only the best grapes during the most preferred growing seasons, Reserva wines age in oak for at least one year and must be at least a minimum of three years old. The wines correspondingly taste older and much less fruity. Its dense and dusty flavor profile includes dark cherry and smoke, pairing well with roasted lamb.

Finally, the Gran Reserva variety is the most select of all Rioja wines. Aged a minimum of two years in oak and five years in all, the Gran Reserva name is only assigned to the top 2% of the region’s vintages. Gran Reserva wine is earthy and still emulates the dark berries of its younger cousins, yet its flavor lingers and is much more complex. Save this bottle for celebrations and milestones.

Popular but not pricey

Gran Reservas, of course, have a higher price point, starting around $40 per bottle, though you’ll have no problem finding Genérico and Crianza Rioja varieties for well under $20 per bottle. Once you’ve sipped through the reds, don’t neglect the region’s Blanco and rosé wines, featuring the same oak-aging process. Some of Drizly’s more popular Rioja wines come from the Campo Viejo winery and Marqués de Cáceres winery. Here’s the top selling Riojas from Drizly:

Wine lovers may not have explored the Iberian Peninsula’s varieties with the same voracity as Napa Valley, France or Argentina. Rioja’s wines are an easy way to begin exploring Spanish wines when it comes to fruity, sweeter reds. Add another stamp to your wine passport and discover which Rioja wine is your new favorite.