It is Spain’s best-known region, synonymous with the Tempranillo grape variety, but also famous for its oak-ageing traditions.
Where is it?
What are the main grapes grown?
The region is famous for the (red) Tempranillo grape variety, which in taste terms is something of a cross between Grenache (more red fruit-like) and Cabernet Sauvignon (more black fruit-like). Tempranillo is often blended with Grenache (Garnacha in Spanish).
In taste terms, Tempranillo is a cross between Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon
What is distinctive about it?
Rioja avoids the climatic extremes of heat, or rain and cold, with which other regions contend. It is Spain’s best-known but also most successful region. Critically, it uses oak.
This used to be American but French oak is now used, too, and oak-ageing is used to age these wines.
Oak-ageing softens the tannins and adds attractive aromas of dill, spice and vanilla.
How do you spot a good bottle?
Rioja DO is the standard classification that you will find on the label, though a few top wines now write DOCa on their labels. More significant are these terms which indicate how long a wine has been aged: Rioja, Crianza (1 year on oak), Reserva (1 year on oak and 2 in bottle), and Gran Reserva (2 years on oak and 3 in bottle).
What are its classic dishes?
This part of Spain is famous for the quality of its vegetables, and the cuisine has Basque influence, but perhaps the most famous dish is caramelised lamb from a wood-fired oven. A brilliant match with Rioja!
Imagine yourself there...
Marqués de Riscal is probably the most famous producer, and the impressive Frank Gehry-designed Hotel Marqués de Riscal is truly eye-catching – so open a bottle of Riscal to enjoy with Padron peppers and lamb meatballs.