What's the Difference Between Rioja Spain's Three Sub-Regions

An In-depth Look at the Wine Region of Rioja Spain

Rioja’s three sub-regions enjoy a diversity of soils, terroirs and micro-climates, each making wines of unique personality and character.

Rioja Alta: Located on the western side of Rioja, this sub-region has an Atlantic climate and its soils are mostly iron-rich clay mixed with limestone. Due to the sub-region’s varying elevations, the wines produced here can have great structure and high acidity.

Rioja Alavesa: The smallest of the sub-regions, it also experiences an Atlantic climate. In fact, it is the wettest and coolest of the three. The soils are predominantly chalky clay and are situated in terraces. The wines from this region tend to be lighter-bodied.

Rioja Baja: This eastern sub-region experiences a much warmer, drier climate due to the Mediterranean influence and its lower elevation. This area, composed mainly of alluvial soils, produces wines with high extract and alcohol, lower in acidity.

Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa rightfully enjoy the reputation of producing quality-oriented wines in terms of climate, soil and style; on the other hand Rioja Baja, perhaps unjustly, has not been so lucky due to its flatter terrain and warmer climate. It should be noted that there are some excellent wines being produced in this sub-region as well, be mindful of producers and vintages.

Useful tip: List your favorite Rioja producers and find out where they are located. This will allow you to spot the different styles of each sub-region, while also helping you figure out your preferred type.

The Grape Varieties of Rioja Spain
The main grape variety in Rioja is Tempranillo. Other grape varieties grown here include Graciano, Mazuelo and Garnacha.

What Wines Are Being Made in Rioja?

Rioja red wines are predominantly a blend of various indigenous grape varieties, with Tempranillo being the star. It the most planted red grape in Rioja, occupying 75% of the region and it thrives in Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. Due to the cooler Atlantic climate in these sub-regions, Tempranillo ripens less, vital for creating the “classic Rioja style”: elegant, earthy wines with good color, structure and high acidity. Other important grapes are Graciano, Mazuelo (known as Cariňena in Priorat and Carignan in France) and Garnacha; this grape is enjoying a revival in Rioja Baja, as the warmer conditions are perfect for the drought-resistant, late-ripening grape. Garnacha provides color, aroma and alcoholic strength to Rioja blends.

Mainly a red wine region, there are wonderful whites and rosés (rosados) being produced in Rioja. Viura (known as Macabeo in Penedes) is the most widely used grape for white wines, often blended with Garnacha Blanca, Malvasia and international varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Rosados, mainly made from Tempranillo and Garnacha grapes, can be quiet phenomenal. They are often made in the sangrado (better known as saignée) technique, which results in deep colored, richer wines with gorgeous strawberry and citrus notes.

There are strict requirements in this region and depending on the ageing process, Rioja wines can be put in one of four categories:

Cosecha: These wines are typically released in their first or second year and they are fresh, fruity with no ageing capability, they should be enjoyed immediately. Note that this category may also include wines that didn’t meet the certification requirements for Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva.

Crianza: Aged a minimum of one year in casks and some months in bottle. White wines have to be aged a minimum of 6 months in casks. Most commonly aged in old oak, lighter in body than Reservas and Gran Reservas. Crianzas are high-quality, accessible wines that are meant for every day drinking.

Reserva: Wines from the best vintages, have to be aged for a minimum of 3 years and at least one year in casks. For white wines, a minimum ageing period of 2 years is required, with at least 6 months in casks. Better grapes are selected at this level, producing wines of excellent quality and cellar capability.

Gran Reserva: Only in exceptional vintages, these wines must have spent at least two years in casks and three years in the bottle. White wines must be aged a minimum of four years, with at least one year in casks. Expect these wines to require additional cellar time as they are highly tannic upon release.

It is important to mention that Rioja is on the verge of reinvention. A new wave of modern producers are now trading the traditional American oak for used French oak, resulting in smoother and less oaky, fruit-driven wines. Expect to find these two different styles of Rioja in the market.

The Three Sub Regions (Appellations) of La Rioja include Rioja Baja, Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa.
The Three Sub Regions (Appellations) of La Rioja include Rioja Baja, Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa.

What Makes the Wine of La Rioja Unique?

Rioja is a privileged region for grape growing and winemaking because of the diversity of sub-regions, soils and terroirs it offers. Each sub-region produces quality wines with distinct characteristics. In 1991, it was the first region in Spain to carry the DOCa designation; this status is awarded to regions that meet the highest standards of vini and viticultural practices. Aside from Rioja, the only other DOCa region granted this status is Priorat.

In terms of quality vs. value, Rioja wines, particularly Gran Reserva, are arguably among the best deals in the world. It is next to impossible to find another type of long-aged wine at its price point.

What Foods Pair Best With Rioja Wines?

While answering this question, I remembered a quote written by Ernest Hemingway, a huge Rioja fan, in his memoir A Moveable Feast:

In Europe then we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also as a great giver of happiness and well-being and delight. Drinking wines was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary.

Rioja is the ultimate food wine and its multiple styles cater to a wide range of dishes.

Reds:

Cosecha: Fruity and easy to drink, these wines are pretty versatile and pair well with just about anything from sausages (think chorizo!), cheeses to chili, stews and pastas.

Crianza: These wines present a light tannin structure, good acidity and fruity character, which makes them perfect for a wide variety of dishes such as creamy pastas, chicken, burgers (including veggie), pork, cheese/charcuterie platters, roasted fish and tomato-based sauce dishes.

Reserva and Gran Reserva: Firmer tannins need fatty dishes to soften. Think protein: steaks, lamb chops, veal and foie gras.

For Whites and Rosados:

These are a perfect match for fresh salads, fried dishes, paellas and seafood. 

What Wineries and/or Vineyards Would you Recommend Trying and/or Visiting in Rioja?

There are around 400 producers in the Rioja region, which is a lot of ground to cover (and taste!). I recommend the following quality-focused wineries: El Coto, Bordon, Beronia, CVNE, Viñedos Del Contino, Viña Real, Imperial, Palacios Remondo, Viña Pomal and Lopez de Heredia.

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Lydia Richards
Originally from Panama, Lydia’s love affair with wine began while living in Paris and having the opportunity to travel to multiple French wine regions. After moving to New York, she worked in Marketing and PR for multiple industries before pursuing her dream of transitioning to the wine industry. Lydia worked as a Marketing Manager for the Wine Cellarage, a fine wine online retailer, and currently works at Colangelo & Partners, an integrated communications agency focusing on wine, food and spirits, working with their Spanish and Italian accounts. She is a Certified Sommelier from the Sommelier Society of America and is currently pursuing her WSET Advanced Level Certification.

Lydia is the owner and founder of Vino Concierge, a NYC-based wine consulting and private events company. Her wine expertise and travel experiences have been featured in media outlets such as Vinepair.

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