Rioja
: Winemaking

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Wine

Oxford Companion to Wine

By Jancis Robinson

Published 2006

  • About

Grapes are usually delivered to large, central wineries belonging either to one of the co-operatives or to a merchant’s bodega. Most wineries in Rioja are reasonably well equipped with a modern stainless steel plant and facilities for temperature control.

Rioja winemaking is characterized not by fermentation techniques but by barrel maturation, however, and the shape and size of the 225-l barrica bordelesa introduced by the French in the mid 19th century is laid down by law. The regulations also specify the minimum ageing period for each officially recognized category of wine. In Rioja, red wines labelled crianza and reserva must spend at least a year in oak, while a gran reserva must spend at least two years. In common with other Spanish wine regions, American oak has been the favoured wood type for wine maturation. New American oak barrels give the soft, vanilla flavour that has become accepted as typical of Rioja, but a similar effect can also be achieved by slow, oxidative maturation in older barrels. French oak is used increasingly, however. Over 40% of all Rioja falls into one of the three oak-aged categories above (the rest is either white, rosé, or sold as young, unoaked joven red, much of it within Spain), and the larger bodegas therefore need tens of thousands of casks. Most bodegas renew their barricas on a regular basis; new oak use is on the increase and the number of traditional producers who pride themselves on the age of their casks is dwindling. Some new producers are also spurning the tradional categories and bottling their oak-aged wine with a basic, generic Rioja back label. This enables them, among other things, to use different sized barrels or larger oak vats.