Reds of Rioja

Terroir, fruit and oak in northern Spain



All Rioja is divided into three parts. Rioja Baja is the lowest of them, approximately 200 meters above sea level; Rioja Alta is the highest, rising to 800 meters; Rioja Alavesa is in between. The three Riojan zones hug the Ebro River for about 100 kilometers as it meanders down from the mountains in northern Spain toward the Mediterranean Sea.

The climate of Riojas Alta and Alavesa is determined by their altitudes and by cool winds that flow in from the Bay of Biscay about 150 kilometers to their north. The growing season in Rioja Alta is short, and its wines tend to be light, with bright fruit flavors. Wines grown in Rioja Alavesa, north of the Ebro in the Basque province of Álava, generally have more body and higher acidity than those from Rioja Alta. Bathed by toasty air that flows up the Ebro Valley from the Mediterranean, Rioja Baja is warm and dry. Its wines are darker in color and have higher alcohol levels than those from the cooler areas.

The principal red grape in Rioja is Tempranillo, an early-ripening varietal that has thrived in Spain for a thousand years. Probably indigenous to the Ebro Valley, Tempranillo travels under aliases in other regions—Tinto Fino, Tinto de Toro, Cencibel, Ull de Llebre, Tinto de País. Other red grapes in Rioja include Garnacha (known elsewhere as Grenache), Mazuelo (known elsewhere as Cariñena or Carignan) and Graciano. Some Rioja wines comprise Tempranillo alone. Many are blends of Tempranillo and one or more of the other authorized grapes.

Wine expert Karen MacNeil asserts that oak aging has “an almost magical ability to transform wine, to lift it out of simple “berryness” and give it depth, length, complexity and intensity.”


Rioja red wines traditionally have been oak aged. Wines marked Crianza and Reserva must spend at least a year in the barrel before bottling. They are released for sale two and three years after harvest respectively. Gran Reserva must be barrel aged at least 24 months. It may be released five years after harvest. Long aging in oak barrels—and in the bottle—defines the classic Rioja style we love. On the other hand, some Rioja wineries have begun releasing wines with little or no barrel aging. These precocious beverages may be labeled Joven, and are lighter, fruitier—and perhaps more pleasing to the international palate.

Taste Tests

My wife and I generally drink economical Rioja Crianzas, typically made from Tempranillo alone. We set out to broaden our horizons recently by tasting a range of wonderful Reserva blends.

Located near the town of Briones in Rioja Alta, Dinastía Vivanco (vivancoculturadevino. es) has been owned by the Vivanco family since 1915. In addition to Tempranillo, Vivanco also cultivates Graciano, Mazuelo, Garnacha—and “the experimental Cabernet Sauvignon variety.”

The Dinastía Vivanco Reserva 2007 ($19) is a blend of 90 percent Tempranillo and 10 percent Graciano. It was aged 30 months in 225-liter barrels of American oak, which imparted its deep maroon color with red brick highlights. A forceful bouquet of tart fruit and toasty oak introduces the Vivanco’s flavors of black cherries, black olives, leather and tea—with a touch of vanilla and suave tannin to boot. We began tossing around terms like “wonderful” and “glorious” the moment we sipped it.

Bodegas Faustino (, located in Rioja Álava near the town of Oyón, was founded in the 19th century by Eleuterio Martínez Arzok, who reportedly sold his wines “direct from the barrel, working from the back of a horse-drawn cart.”

Faustino I Gran Reserva 2001 ($29) is a blend of 86 percent Tempranillo, 9 percent Graciano and 5 percent Mazuelo that resided 26 months in barrels of French and American oak before its bottling. Dark in color, it offers a bouquet of cloves, pepper, cinnamon sticks, leather, cigar box and crushed green leaves. Its flavor is as alluring as its bouquet—dense and dark, melding elements of leather and oak with tart, transfigured fruit. Nuances of green olives, black coffee and pepper are evident as time passes. The lingering finish smacks of black cherries, pepper and tea. Altogether, this is an extraordinary wine.

Marqués de Murrieta (, founded in 1852 by Luciano de Murrieta, is the oldest winery in Rioja. The founder and his heirs operated the establishment until 1977, when they sold to Vicente Cebrián Sagarriga, Count of Creixell.

Grapes for the wondrous Marquès de Murrieta Castillo Ygay 2005 Rioja Gran Reserva Especial ($65) grew on Murrieta’s Castillo Ygay estate near the town of Logroño in Rioja Alta. The color of garnets or solemn rubies, this lush potion is barely translucent. Its bouquet of dusky fruit is bolstered by fragrances of burnished oak. Its flavor is opulent and uplifting—black raspberries, sour cherries and blood orange mingling with oak and vanilla. The wine comprises 89 percent Tempranillo embellished with 11 percent Mazuelo, and according to Marquès de Murrieta, it spent 30 months in 225-liter American oak barrels in order to achieve what can only be described as its “heavenly” state. A representative of the wine’s importer describes the Castillo Ygay as an “iconic” wine worthy to be enjoyed on “special occasions.” Just so.

Bodegas Muga ( is located in the Rioja Alta town of Haro in the Barrio de la Estación near the railroad station.

Muga includes all four of the authorized red varietals in its Muga Reserva Rioja 2009 ($32). Dark and dense, the wine has an inviting bouquet in which suave fruit consorts with subtle oak. The flavor is fruity and complex—sour cherries and black raspberries with hints of rhubarb, rosemary and mellow oak that lead to a long, smooth finish.


Rioja remains the best known of Spain’s wine regions, reflecting the continuing high quality of its wines. Reservas and Gran Reservas may be a tad expensive for everyday drinking, but they are good value, and they will make your everyday occasion special.

Robert Calvert drinks and writes in Chicago. Questions or comments? Email Robert at

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