Your Guide to Rioja

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines

Town square in Rioja capital of HaroWhen it comes to Spanish wines, Rioja is one of the first that often comes to mind. Rioja wines come from the Rioja region in the northern part of Spain. The Rioja region is home to several varieties of red and white grapes, most notably Tempranillo, Garnacha Tinta, Mazuelo, Graciano, Viura, and Garnacha Blanca. ‌

Wine production in the Rioja region is heavily regulated, and there are several specific guidelines for the different styles. Every variety offers big flavors and high tannins. In this Rioja wine guide, you’ll learn more about the wines from the Rioja region, including how the wines are classified, what they taste like, the best foods to pair them with, and more.

Rioja Subregions

Situated in the northern-central region of Spain, the Rioja region actually has three different subregions or zones:‌

  • Rioja Alta: Located in the northwestern part of the Rioja region, Rioja Alta’s vineyards sit on the Sierra Cantabria hills. The cooler temperatures produce grapes that are high in acidity, making them ideal for long-term aging. The wine grapes in this area also ripen more gradually, leading to more complex flavors. 
  • Rioja Alavesa: Rioja Alavesa is in the northeastern part of the Rioja region. Like in Rioja Alta, the vineyards sit at higher elevations where temperatures are cooler. The main difference between Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa is that the latter receives more sunlight. As such, the wines are complex but more fruit forward. 
  • Rioja Oriental: Formerly known as Rioja Baja, Rioja Oriental is the largest zone in the region. It sits at a lower elevation and has warmer weather, which yields round, fruity wines. Garnacha grapes, in particular, thrive here.

Rioja Wine Classifications

There are four main classifications for Rioja wine. These classifications provide insight into the quality of the wine and the length of aging:‌

Generic Rioja (Joven)

Generic Rioja wines have no aging requirements. In fact, they don’t need to be aged at all. They’re young wines that you should drink within two years of their release. As young wines, generic Rioja wines don’t have much tannin structure. And, without aging, they don’t have the same oakiness that other Rioja wines do. They do, however, feature a zippy fruit flavor. ‌


Red Crianza gets aged in a barrel for at least one year and spends at least a year in the bottle. On the other hand, white Crianza requires a minimum of six months in oak barrels and at least a year in the bottle. Because it spends relatively little time in barrels, Crianza wines don’t have a strong oak flavor. The black fruit flavors (cherry, currant, and plum) shine. Overall, Crianzas aren’t rich, but they do make excellent quality daily drinking wines. ‌


Red Reserva wines are aged for at least one year in barrels and for at least two in bottles. Whites spend at least six months in barrels and a minimum of another two years in bottles. Because Reservas are considered some of Rioja’s finest wines, winemakers often age them for longer than the minimum requirements and choose higher quality grapes.‌‌

Due to the longer time they spend aging, Reservas take on more of the flavors of the oak barrels, including vanilla, tobacco leaf, and spice. You’ll also get notes of cherry and plum. 

Gran Reserva

When it comes to Gran Reserva wines, reds must spend a minimum of one year in oak, while whites require a minimum of six months. Both require at least two years in bottle, as well. In total, they must age for a bare minimum of five years. Of the Rioja wines, they generally make the best vintages because the fruit quality is suited to a longer aging process.‌

As the highest quality Rioja wines, Gran Reservas are long and lean. They also feature complex textures that evolve over time. Longer oak aging gives them the most tannin structure. They’re also the most age-worthy of all the classifications. Winemakers typically age Gran Reservas as long as they need. So, while they require a minimum of five years total, some may age as long as ten years before they’re available for sale.‌

New Regulations for Rioja

The newest regulations for Rioja wine now permit sparkling wine, albeit only white and rosé. Winemakers can use any of the fourteen varieties of grapes in the Rioja region, and they have to use the same traditional method used for Champagne.‌

For sparkling Rioja wines, winemakers can make Brut, Extra Brut, and Brut Nature styles. Any rosé wines must contain at least 25% red grapes.

The new regulations also introduced a location-based labeling system. If a winemaker uses grapes from one village or vineyard, they can put the name of the location on their bottles. The location-based labeling helps to further establish the quality of a wine since aging alone isn’t the only factor at play. For instance, Rioja Alta wines are typically higher quality than wines from Rioja Oriental. Winemakers can still use grapes from multiple vineyards, but if they do blend from multiple regions they can’t specify a vineyard on their bottles.‌‌

The Taste of Rioja

Rioja wine flavors depend on several factors, including where the grapes were grown and the length of time the wine ages (particularly the length of oak aging). The younger wines are much more fruit forward. You’ll get notes of plums and cherries. The longer the wines age, the more complex they become. They also take on the flavors of the oak barrels, picking up notes of vanilla, spice, leather, and tobacco leaves.‌‌

Pairing Food with Rioja Wine

In general, Rioja wines do well with high-fat meats like roast pork, lamb, and sausage. Wines from the northern subregions (Alta and Alavesa) are the perfect complement to tomato-based dishes. Wines from the southernmost region (Oriental), on the other hand, pair nicely with spicy or rich dishes. And the older wines are a delight with hard cheeses.‌‌

Notable Rioja Producers

Looking for some notable Rioja wine producers? Here are a few worth investigating:‌‌

  • Artadi
  • La Rioja Alta
  • Muga
  • Finca Allende 
  • Marques de Murrieta
  • Vincola Real

The first three on this list are known for producing oakier wines, while the last three are known for their fruitier wines.‌

Find a Rioja Wine You’ll Be Sure to Love

When it comes to Rioja wines, you have your pick. If you like more fruit-forward wines, you can select a generic Rioja or Crianza. Or, if you prefer oakier, more complex flavors (or if you want a bottle you can age for a while), Reserva or Gran Reserva may be the way to go. With so much variety, you’re sure to find a Rioja you love.‌‌

If you’re looking for a Rioja wine to drink alone or to feature at your next gathering, JJ Buckley Fine Wines has you covered. We also carry a broad selection of other wines, so you’ll find everything you need in one place. Visit JJ Buckley today to check out our selection!‌‌