Rioja Rising – A Special Feature

An in-depth study and tasting from the region’s three distinct zones, progressive classifications and age-worthy wines impresses upon the notions of integrity, distinction and widespread value.

by Michael Godel

This feature was commissioned by DOCa Rioja.

Rioja is first and foremost a wine region of beautiful places hosting vineyards that produce wines at the pinnacle of excellence. As a matter of priority the quality of Rioja wines are derived from the talent of the vineyard. Winemakers know this and keep their promise to celebrate the place and less so themselves. They may be referred to as luchadores de uva, loosely translated as “grape fighters.” Their work in three zones of Rioja vineyards is often heroic, farming some of the world’s most difficult terroirs, where production costs are five times that of Grand Vin de Bordeaux but with prices that often sell for 10 times less. Rioja’s vineyards are more than special, they are treasure troves of soil and vine, considered with great reverence and “lost in the mists of time.”

BB Embalando

Rioja Wines are never one homogeneous set of wines. The very fact of their diverse upbringing through a multitude of styles and most importantly a deeply rooted tradition of barrel aging makes for wines that express their grape varieties that never abandon a fruity freshness and the aforementioned sense of place. Many newer and highly progressive wineries produce wines bred of innovation, increasing diversity and creativity out of a classic region. Though Rioja’s reputation has been built upon unforgettable, oak-aged reds, the region’s diverse terroirs, grape varieties, and winemaking practices also create a broad spectrum of easy-to-drink red, white, and rosé wines that consumers can turn to for excellent value. Each bottle is marked with the distinctive Rioja trust seal of guaranteed authenticity which accurately represents the meaning and significance of this certification.

Once marketable, now at the cutting edge

The first document to make reference to protecting and ensuring the quality of Rioja wines dates back to 1650 but even before in 1102, King Sancho of Navarra legally recognized the prestigious wines. As a wine producing region Rioja’s location became one of marketable importance between the later Middle Ages and the advent of the  French Revolution and so more than five hundred years have passed since it first rose to major European prominence. In 1787 the Real Junta de Cosecheros (Royal Board of Winegrowers) was established with an objective to promote grape growing, improve wine quality and facilitate trade in northern markets. The improvement of roads and bridges to link Rioja wine towns to Vitoria and the port of Santander led to a new era. By the end of the 19th century Rioja had become a modern player for winemaking, cellaring and “quality wines aged in the Médoc style and sold in bottles.” Historic wineries born in the XIXth century produce iconic top world wines so worth knowing for any wine lover interested in Spanish wines or simply the concept of old world reds.

Vineyard Workers

The official recognition of the Rioja D.O. or Denominacion de Origen (Designation of Origin) was on 6 June 1925 and since 1991 Rioja wines have been protected by the first Calificada DO in Spain. The D.O. specifications establish the most significant regulations; borders of the production area, the grape varieties that may be grown, maximum allowable yields, approved vinification and ageing techniques, among other details. Due to Rioja’s long history, tradition and constant quality, they are one of the two DOCa out of 69 DO in Spain. In the pantheon of red wine producing regions it resides in the dually effective realm where both quantity and quality are recognized with unequivocal certainty as being in the top five in the world.

Badaran in Rioja Alta

Rioja in three zones

Located in northwest Spain, Rioja’s defining geographical reference point is the River Ebro across which it straddles for much of its northwest to southeast orientation. Far to the north is the Bay of Biscay and the three Spanish cities of Bilbao, San Sebastian and Pamplona to which it looks towards. Further southeast is the large city of Zaragoza.  DOCa Rioja is split into three distinct zones: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental (formerly known as Rioja Baja until 2017). Wines are sometimes a blend of fruit from all three, although specific zonas, village (municipios) and vineyard (viñedo singular) wines can now be labeled. If Rioja is Rioja then so too can it be said that Rioja Alta is Rioja Alta because each zone features geographical specificities that contribute towards defining a natural entity that is perfectly delimited and differentiated from the other two. The 65,326 hectares of vineyards protected by the Designation of Origin are distributed among Rioja Alta (27,347 ha), Rioja Oriental (24,590 ha) and Rioja Alavesa (13,389 ha). A hundred kilometres separate the westernmost town, Haro from the easternmost, Alfaro. The maximum width of the valley area where grapes are grown is about 40 km. The vineyards are planted on successive terraces and some grow as high as 700 metres above sea level. In total 144 municipalities are part of the DOCa (118 in La Rioja, 18 in Álava and 8 in Navarre) as their land is suitable for the production of grapes with the necessary quality.

Rioja Alavesa, La Demanda al fondo

Rioja Alta is the westernmost area of the DOCa Rioja. An Atlantic climate combines with diverse soils of clay-limestone, ferrous-clay and alluvial. It is here where the largest concentration of century-old wineries are found, in Europe and the world in and around the towns of Haro, Ollauri, Briones, Cuzcurrita del Río Tirón, San Asensio, Cenicero, San Vicente de la Sonsierra, Logroño and Fuenmayor. Rioja Alavesa extends over little more than 300 square kilometres in the south of the province of Álava on the north bank of the River Ebro. It consists of 18 municipalities. Its land with mainly clay-limestone soils is divided into terraces and small plots. The climate also has a dry and sunny Atlantic influence. The towns in Rioja Alavesa are Baños de Ebro, Barriobusto, Cripán, Elciego, Elvillar de Álava, Labastida, Labraza, Laguardia, Lanciego, Lapuebla de Labarca, Leza, Moreda de Álava, Navaridas, Oyón, Salinillas de Buradón, Samaniego, Villabuena de Álava and Yécora. Rioja Oriental is the easternmost zone in the DOCa Rioja. The geography, climate and soils of Rioja Oriental, formerly known as the Rioja Baja sub-area, make it a privileged land for growing grapes. There are 37 villages in Rioja Oriental.

Rioja Oriental, Autol, Penasolbas, Yerga

Designation specifications, aging and labeling system

There are four levels on the categorized Rioja wine pyramid; Rioja, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. The generic Rioja (formerly called Joven) spends up to one year in oak, or none at all. Crianzas are wines which are at least in their third year, having spent a minimum of one year in oak barrels. For white wines, the minimum barrel ageing period is six months. Reserva are meticulously selected wines with a minimum ageing between oak barrels and the bottle of three years, of which at least one has to be in barrels, followed and complemented by a minimum six months ageing in the bottle. For white wines, the minimum ageing period is two years, with at least six months in barrels. Gran Reserva are wines of great vintages that have been painstakingly aged for a total of sixty months with at least two years in oak barrels and two years in the bottle. For white wines, the minimum ageing period is four years, with at least six months in barrels.

French and American oak are used mostly and in fact no other European region makes use of American oak to the extent that is found in Rioja. That said there is a recent movement towards more French oak. Aspects relating to viticulture are protected by the Designation Specifications or by standards issued on matters such as planting density, which must range be no less than 2,850 and no more than 10,000 vines per hectare. Permitted vine training and pruning systems are as follows: Traditional bush or gobelet and its variants, Double cordon, Rod and spur, Single or unilateral cordon. Double Guyot is used exclusively for the white varieties: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Verdejo, White Maturana Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco and Turruntés. For the white varieties the maximum load is 16 buds per vine. Garnacha is allowed 14 buds. All the other varieties are pruned to a maximum 12 buds per vine.

Fall in Rioja

Minimum alcohol levels In Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa are Red (11.5), White (11.0) and Rosé (10.5). In Rioja Oriental Red (12.0,) White (11.5) and Rosé (11.0). As an exception a wine may be considered to come from the area or from the municipality if its vinification includes no more than 15 per cent of grapes from registered vineyards in municipalities bordering the area or municipality where the operator is located and provided that it is accredited by legally valid title, that such operator has had that 15 per cent of grapes at its disposal for no less than 10 years. The wines with the right to Reserva and Gran Reserva indications must have a minimum actual alcoholic strength of 12 per cent by volume in the case of red wines, and 11 per cent by volume in the case of whites and rosés. For more designation specifications please click here.

The Consejo Regulador DOCa Rioja inspects the quality of producers to ensure consistency. The Control Board employs a security system, a first in the world of wine, in order to guarantee the authenticity of Rioja wine back labels and seals. This system involves an optically variable device (Rioja Trustseal) which consists of a small (7×22 mm) metallic-looking strip depicting parts of the logo and the word Rioja. Its exclusive design, glossy sheen, sharply-defined edges and optical effects enable consumers to identify the label as genuine, even under poor lighting conditions. The system, which is widely used on European banknotes, has been developed by a world leader in security systems. It makes Rioja back labels and seals virtually impossible to forge. Rioja pioneered the guarantee of origin seal in 1926 and brought out the first ageing-specific back labels in 1974. Since 2000, this guarantee of authenticity provides yet another guarantee for consumers worldwide, together with those of quality, origin, vintage and ageing category, which are reflected on each back label and seal. Ultimately aging label information is easy to read and more than any other wine region the bodegas cellar and age their wines until they are ready to drink. 

The newest and progressive regional classifications

In 2017 new regulations allowed for producers to “make their region more identifiable to the consumer.” The first change was to allow for a larger typeface that covers more surface area on the label and Rioja moved to three regional categories. Viñedos Singulares set out to identify geographically distinct, hand-harvested single vineyards registered as a brand and appearing on the label. The vineyard can be the property of either a  producer or a grower (with whom the producer must have a long-standing relationship), established for a minimum of 35 years and of yields a minimum 20 percent lower than those permitted for the Rioja DOC. Vinos de Municipio is the villages category from grapes of a village or municipality indicated on the label (with up to 15 percent permitted to come from a neighbouring village). Vinos de Zona concerns the labelling of wines from the larger of Rioja’s subregions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Oriental and again, up to 15 percent of the grapes can be sourced from a neighbouring zone.

Key grape varieties and one signature: Tempranillo

There is no secret that Rioja’s greatest triumph, most notable calling card and ticket to its greatest success comes from its most planted grape at over 75 percent of the region’s total. Rioja’s mild and cool climate gives Tempranillo in Rioja more intensity and complexity than elsewhere in Spain or Portugal. Tempranillo is intrinsic to the identity of Rioja wines which are exceptionally well-balanced, smooth in mouthfeel, lifting acidity and persistent fruit flavours. The range is versatile, from fresh an easy-drinking to complex and age-worthy. In Reserva form Tempranillo garners the greatest reach with more than one third of sales in Canada in a category acclaimed by the consumer for allowing an easy entry to the world of fine and complex wines. Some of the finest recent vintages include 2001, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2015 and 2016.

Garnacha is a natural complement to Tempranillo, a drought-resistant Spanish grape which produces aromatic wines with freshness in cool climates, balancing its full body and tendency towards high alcohol. It is also an important component in rosé Rioja wines. Graciano is native to Rioja, thrives in clay-limestone soils and cool climates. Plantings are increasing due to the grape’s resistance to mildew and excellent structure. Mazuelo is known elsewhere as Carignan and has likely been grown in Rioja for centuries. Though it comprises a small portion of the region’s vines, the grape’s high acidity and tannic structure add longevity to Tempranillo-based reds. Maturana Tinta is intensely coloured and high in acidity, highly unique to Rioja. Though it comprises a small proportion of plantings, it highlights the heritage and diversity of the region.

Viura is the most important white variety in Rioja, (known as Macabeo elsewhere in Spain) and produces fruity and floral wines with bright acidity. Viura can make for vibrant, young wines to complex, aged ones. Malvasía de Rioja  is distinct from the many other Malvasias found around the world, Malvasía de Rioja was once the most-planted white grape in Rioja and today is responsible for intense aromas and rich textures. Garnacha Blanca best growns in cool areas, can produce fresh and easy-drinking white wines. Tempranillo Blanco is cultivated from a single vine mutation discovered in 1988, found only in Rioja. It produces fruity and aromatic wines with mouthwatering acidity. Other white grape varieties include Turruntés, Verdejo, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.

The Rioja Wines Academy

It is not easy to explain Rioja and less if you want to do it in a professional way. That’s why Rioja is committed in transmission and decided to create in 2019. Since then, The Rioja Wines Academy has trained over 12000 students from 60 countries.

Buyers’ Guide to Rioja

Wines available at the LCBO will have their LCBO number indicated. For information on where to purchase these and the other wines, please contact the agent listed.

Rioja Alavesa

Marques De Riscal Reserva 2016, DOCa Rioja ($27.70, LCBO 32656, Churchill Cellars) 
John Szabo – Complex and classy Rioja Reserva here from the historically significant Marqués de Riscal, still a regional leader after 150 years. Enjoyable now, but will hold a decade or more quite comfortably.
Michael Godel – Every aspect of arch classic Rioja Reserva is contained in the Marqués De Riscal, inclusive of a bottle style that is just so recognizable and knowable. Not just the oak-driven depth of aromatic exotica but also this texture that speaks to stark Rioja realities. Silky but textural, fibrous and fluid. A good vintage to boot and a liquidity of elasticity that speaks the language of Reserva.

Luberri Las Salinas Zuri 2018, DOCa Rioja($31.70, Le Sommelier)
John Szabo – An old vines (90 years) blend of viura and malvasía, that is certainly impressive. I wouldn’t call this a classic beauty, but there’s something intriguing here that will draw you back in for another sip, like the saline finish. Take the time to get to know this wine – it really grows on you.
David Lawrason – This is pale, quite intense and almost crunchy white Rioja with lifted aromas of pear, lemon, light spice and sense of minerality. It is medium bodied, nicely firm and dry with minerality on the finish. The length is excellent with lemon pith on the finish. Understated yet impressive.
Michael Godel – From the famille Monje Amestoy and a white Rioja called “Zuri” meaning “white” in a Basque tongue. This by way of Bodegas Luberri just outside the city of Elciego. The idea is a white that’s to be lenient and giving but equally strong and with some tension so the dualistic idea is a real one. The aromas are made of white flower, honeysuckle, orange and honey while the wine is just sharp enough to really grab hold of your attention. Really composed and precise, not unnecessarily complex but a high quality white glass of temperament and class.

Rioja Alta

Montecillo Crianza 2016, DOCa Rioja ($14.95, LCBO 144493, PMA Canada)
Michael Godel – Montecillo’s resides with a foot in both worlds, one being a centuries old Rioja and the other stepping forward with a new generation. This has been a century-plus long process solidified by the Osborne family who took over Bodegas Montecillo in 1973. Their work extols the virtues of the Fuenmayor winery embodied modestly and correctly in a red lightning, fruit first, wood second wine like this Crianza. Some cedar, vanilla and smoke join the fruit for an inside out Rioja well-positioned in 2020.

Muga Rosé 2019, DOCa Rioja ($15.95, LCBO 603795, Vinexx)
John Szabo – Very pale, bone dry, sharp and crisp, crunchy and saline rosé from Muga (garnacha-tempranillo-viura)
Marques De Caceres Excellens Cuvee Especial 2016, DOCa Rioja, Vegan Friendly ($17.95, LCBO 10684, Dionysus Wines & Spirits)
John Szabo – This pure tempranillo is a departure from the traditional, oxidative, American oak-aged style. Instead, it’s deep purple, fruity, aged in French oak but well integrated. I must say, there’s a lot of stuffing here for $18, and complexity and structure are well above the norm in the price category from this classic and historic producer. I’d suggest cellaring another 2-3 years for a more complete experience.

Señorío De P. Peciña Tinto Cosecha 2019, DOCa Rioja ($20.48, Le Sommelier)
Michael Godel – Sumptuous to the nth Rioja degree for Rioja and anywhere deeply felt red wines might be. Notably swarthy and hairy in its youth, in fighting mode, liqueur swirling and the barrel in charge, so don’t be fooled by any lesser or lowly appellative designation. In other words this tempranillo is punchy, punches above its weight and will need some time before considering switching gears into reverse. 

Bodegas Valle Mayor Fuenmayor Rioja Vina Encineda Coleccion Vallemayor 2016, DOCa Rioja ($21.61, Abcon International Wine Merchants)
Michael Godel – Luis Pérez Foncea’s children run the 1984 built winery in Fuenmayor, in the heart of Rioja Alta. This is classic and I mean classic Rioja styling though it could never be accused of being old school because it acts really quite modern. Solo effort, single-varietal tempranillo made with grapes from La Encineda and vines over 40 years old. A volupté parfait of fruit and wood just now beginning to work silently and shadowy together. A sweet touch of grace and balance mark this oh so chic present day Rioja.

Hacienda Lopez De Haro Reserva 2015, DOCa Rioja ($19.95, LCBO 357335, WineOnline Marketing Company)
John Szabo – Killer value for fans of traditional Rioja.

Lealtanza Reserva 2015, DOCa Rioja ($23.95, LCBO 208223, Profile Wine Group)
David Lawrason – This has a lovely, smooth texture yet a lively fruit ambiance. The nose shows lifted redcurrant/sour cherry fruit, with roasted herbs (rosemary), pepper, cedary spice. There is also a meaty/chorizo note. It is medium bodied, almost svelte, plush and well balanced with fine tannin. The length is excellent.

Muga Reserva 2016, DOCa Rioja ($26.95, LCBO 177345, Vinexx)
David Lawrason – This is a deeply coloured, very ripe Rioja with pretty aromas of blackberry/blueberry fruit finished in stylish cedary oak and vanilla. Muga ferments all its wines in large oak vats by the way – no stainless steel in the place for reds. And this is adding a textural sheen that adds to the gravitas and pleasure. Excellent length
Michael Godel – What do you do with a vintage that gives seemingly everything? You celebrate it and that is just the plan from Muga with us the great beneficiaries. The price and the appellative middle ground are all just for show. This will age dutifully and gracefully for 10 years easy. 

Bodegas Hilván Rioja Reserva 2011, DOCa Rioja ($37.65, Le Sommelier)
David Lawrason – This elegant, detailed and lively mature Rioja is drinking at prime but will stretch three or four years. The nose is complex with considerable cedar, leather, woodsy aroma, stewed cherry and olive fruit. It is medium-full bodied, smooth and soft and well balanced with fine tannin.


CM Prestigio 2015, DOCa Rioja ($40.20, LCBO 772913, United Stars)
John Szabo – Solid and compelling Rioja; I like how the palate remains fine and fresh, without tipping into over-extraction, but at the same time, delivers a significant wallop of flavour. Length and depth are excellent. While this is drinking well now, this also surely has scope for future development.
David Lawrason – This is a limited edition 2015 tempranillo shows deep colour and ripe nose of blackcurrant and black cherry, rosemary, cedar and leather. I like the energy, acidity and minerality on the palate – if still a bit tannic. The length is excellent.

R. Lopez De Heredia Viña Bosconia Reserva 2008, DOCa Rioja ($51.95, LCBO 529586, John Hanna & Sons)
David Lawrason – Bosconia is a classic blend of tempranillo, garnacha, mazuelo and graciano aged a whopping five years in American barrels deep in the cellars of this very traditional house. So the coconut, vanilla, wood grain and spice are very prevalent, but the ripe plum/prune fruits stand in. It is medium weight with firm acid and tannic structure, but not at all austere.
Michael Godel – El Bosque is by the river Ebro at an altitude of 465m on south-facing foothills of the Sierra Cantabria range of clay and limestone and the average age of the vines is 40 years. A firm vintage to say the least and this 2008 is just emerging from its thick skin. Like a tough as nails Volnay albeit with rugged tempranillo skin, rustic, acetic, intense acids and all that American barrel to shed, or integrate in a rendering chocolate way. 

Viña Pomal Gran Reserva 2011, DOCa Rioja ($55.00, The Small Winemakers Collection)
John Szabo – A really classy, maturing but far from old Rioja Gran Reserva, delivering a superb range of aromas and flavours. The texture, however, is perhaps the most impressive aspect, so fine and silky, with genuine flavour intensity, finesse and superb length. All class – a Burgundian expression of Rioja.

Rioja Oriental

Rioja Vega Tempranillo Blanco 2018, DOCa Rioja ($24.95, LCBO 433698, Azureau Wines & Spirits)
David Lawrason – This is a very fine, elegant lively and creamy white Rioja that has seen some barrel. It has a very generous nose of almost peachy fruit, lemon and fine spice. It is medium bodied, very well balanced and refined, with excellent focus and length.
Michael Godel – A single-vineyard, 100 per cent tempranillo blanco and made in relative small quantities (8,630 bottles). The oak is quite notable in lightly toasted nuts and a slight reductive quality. Not withstanding the honeyed aromas and buttery flavours there too is a level of freshness and liveliness that makes for a really complex white wine. A best of two worlds Rioja with a foot well positioned in each.

Barón De Ley Gran Reserva 2012, DOCa Rioja ($29.95, LCBO 642496, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits)
David Lawrason – This traditional producer does not use any stainless steel – even the fermentations are done in large wooden casks. And it shows on the nose with considerable oak resin, vanillin and cigar in the fore, and ripe almost dried cherry/fig fruit in the background. The texture is lovely – rolling, smooth and rich with fine tannin. There is some alcohol heat in complement. Flavours hit excellent length. Ready now but will age a decade.
Sara d’Amato – A high quality tempranillo, oak is integrated but still a bit cedary. Even more time in bottle would prove rewarding but the tannins are soft enough to enjoy now. Fresh and raising red fruit are both offered on the palate. Oak comes through on the finish as well. Representative but not the most refined example.


Good to go!


This feature was commissioned by Rioja DOCa. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, agent or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries, wine agents, or regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.