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An Insider’s Guide to Buying Rioja Wines

Everything you need to know about this important Spanish region

Vicki Denig By March 15, 2022

In the realm of age-worthy Spanish wine, Rioja is the place to look. Produced mostly from Tempranillo-dominant blends, these hearty, full-bodied wines are perfect candidates for long-term aging in the cellar, and, best of all, they generally cost far less than their French and Italian counterparts.

Beyond its signature grape variety, there are a handful of other reasons why wines from Rioja are unique. Unusual for the world of wine, wines from Rioja are classified by their age, and not by their terroir. Additionally, wines from Rioja have longer aging requirements than many of their neighboring counterparts, meaning that most wines have already rested for significantly more time before release since their harvest than those from other countries.

Curious to learn more about this one-of-a-kind region? Check out our Buyer’s Guide below. 

Quick Facts

  • Location: Northern Spain.
  • Size: 160,550 acres. 
  • Main Grapes: Tempranillo, Viura. 
  • Benchmark Producers: R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, La Rioja Alta, Marques de Murrieta.

FAQs

Where is Rioja?

Rioja is a wine-producing region located in northern Spain, situated west of Navarre, south of the Basque Country, and north of Aragon. 

What kind of wine is made in Rioja?

Rioja is best known for its full-bodied red wines made mostly from Tempranillo. The region also makes rich, palate-coating white wines from Viura, along with small amounts of Rosato, the local name for rosé. 

What are the main grape varieties of Rioja?

In the realm of red wine, Tempranillo reigns king in Rioja. The majority of red wines are crafted from Tempranillo-dominated blends, with small amounts of Graciano, Mazuelo — otherwise known as Carignan/Cariñena — Garnacha, and Maturana Tinta smattered in. For white wines, Viura must dominate 51% of the blend, but other varieties — including but not limited to Chardonnay, Tempranillo Blanco, Verdejo, and Malvasia — are also permitted. 

What is the aging classification system of Rioja?

Rioja wines are also labeled based on their age. The four main designations are Joven, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva. Joven wines generally come from the current vintage and require no aging time in wood. Crianza wines must age for two years, one in barrel for reds and six months for whites and rosés, prior to release. For Reserva, the requirements are three years, two in a barrel and one in a bottle for reds and six months for whites and rosés, and for Gran Reserva, the baseline aging is five years, two in barrel for red and six months for whites and rosés. 

What are the three subregions of Rioja?

The three official subregions of Rioja are Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja, and Rioja Alavesa.

What is the difference between Rioja’s three regions?

Rioja Alta is located on the western side of Rioja and is characterized by hot summers, cold winters, and ample rainfall. Soils here are mostly iron-rich clay and limestone. To the east, Rioja Baja is warmer, drier, and lower in elevation. Its alluvial soils and hotter days produce ripe grapes lower in acidity. Rioja Alavesa is the smallest and coolest of the three subregions. Here, soils are mostly composed of chalky clay.

Who are the benchmark producers of Rioja?

Three of Rioja’s most iconic and sought-after producers are R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, La Rioja Alta, Marques de Murrieta.

6 producers to buy now:

Marqués de Tomares

Tira Johnson, sommelier at Crown Shy, says she loves every bottling that Marqués de Tomares has created. “This was the first producer that came to mind when thinking of value and quality,” she says, stating that both their white and red Riojas have “such an elegance about them.” Johnson notes that the estate boasts 250 acres of family-owned vineyards, all of which are sustainably farmed. “Their Riojas go from $15 to $35 on the shelf — obviously the library release Gran Reservas being more — and are absolutely worth cellaring,” she says. “The wine that made me fall in love with them was their Rioja Blanco.” 

bottle of Marqués de Tomares Blanco

Marqués de Tomares Rioja Blanco (~$21)

Crafted from 70% Viura and 30% Garnacha Blanca, Johnson describes the wine as textured, with pretty acidity and lots of orchard fruit flavors. “I would recommend this to someone who likes white Burgundy,” she says, adding that she’s seen it on wine shop shelves for less than $25 a bottle. “They also have a Gran Reserva Blanco that I have been dying to try — that would be a cool one to cellar.”

bottle of Marqués de Tomares Gran Riserva

Marqués de Tomares Rioja Gran Reserva 2014 (~$42)

Marqués de Tomares’ Rioja Gran Reserva is produced from 90% Tempranillo, 7% Graciano, and 3% Viura. Johnson describes it as “an elegant Gran Reserva Rioja that doesn’t feel oak-driven.” Expect flavors of ripe berries, plums, and a touch of toasty oak. The wine’s well-integrated tannins and solid structure promise to withstand years in the cellar. 

Bodegas Aldonia 

Founded in 2006, Bodegas Aldonia is the brainchild of two fourth-generation brothers with a deep family history in Rioja. Excited to showcase a new and modern side of the region, the pair chooses to let the vineyards and fruit speak for the wines, rather than looking to DOCa and aging category guidelines. Aldonia specializes in old vine Garnacha and is proud to own vines that are more than 100 years of age. When it comes to oak aging, less is more — a case which is quite rare in the often oak-forward wines from the region. 

 

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bottle of Bodegas Aldonia 100

Bodegas Aldonia 100 Rioja Garnacha 2016 (~$25)

“I love this Rioja because it’s produced from 100-year-old Garnacha,” Johnson explains, describing that the wine’s delicate use of oak renders it elegant and bright. Expect lots of red berry fruit notes marked by a hint of pepper. “The wine is made by two brothers who are at the forefront of the new wave of Rioja producers. This was on the shelf for less than $40,” she reveals.

Hacienda López de Haro

Nicolas Prieto, in-room dining manager at The Peninsula, suggests looking at building a wine cellar-like buying shares in the stock market. “The goal is to let them [the wines] sit and watch them mature over a period of time,” he says.

“When I started my collection, I asked myself ‘How can I see the development of wine without paying top dollar for it?’”

One of the answers? Rioja — and in the case of the region, Hacienda López de Haro.

 

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Prieto notes that he was first introduced to Hacienda López de Haro back in 2014 during a blind tasting. “Like many of your typical Rioja producers, they have a Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva,” he says. “Once you taste them in a line-up, you’ll appreciate the cellaring and development in the wine from vintage to vintage.” 

bottle of Hacienda Lopez de Haro Reserva

Hacienda López de Haro Rioja Reserva 2005 (~$16)

“I like to recommend the Hacienda López de Haro Reserva for individuals that are new to tasting Tempranillo,” Prieto says, explaining that the wine offers a very soft and open nose marked by red and dark fruit flavors, with vanilla and dill shining through as secondary aromas. “I find this wine to be perfect to hold for five years to learn and see what age does to the development of the wine,” he says.

bottle of Hacienda Lopez de Haro Gran Reserva

Hacienda López de Haro Rioja Gran Reserva 2011 (~$21)

For those more familiar with wine cellaring, Prieto likes to recommend the Gran Reserva, a wine that has seen two years of aging in barrels and three years in bottle. “This wine showcases the terroir of the Rioja region,” he says, describing the nose as more dark-fruited than the Reserva, hinted with notes of balsamic and dry roses. “Overall, this is a wine that could cellar for another 10 years, depending on the vintage,” he says.

Bodegas Izadi 

According to Shakera Jones, Bodegas Izadi is set to be an icon in Rioja. The estate is home to 440 acres of old vineyards with an average of 45 years in age, and fruit is selected from small plots located within the triangle formed by three villages: Villabuena, Samaniego, and Abalos. “The Antons have been the face of Izadi since 1987,” she says. “As a culinary powerhouse in the region, their wines are elegant and modern, with a rustic twist that truly embodies the classic style of Rioja, while simultaneously showcasing what the future [of the region] can and should be.” Jones says that the estate’s Rioja born-and-bred winemaker, Ruth Rodríguez Ascacíbar, shows her skill in crafting wines that are “truly intended to be enjoyed with food but are magnificent on their own both today and for years to come.”

 

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bottle of Izadi Seleccion

Izadi Rioja Selección 2016 (~$21)

At under $30 a bottle, Jones describes this wine as a steal. “The wine shows beautiful ripe red fruit flavors and a measured, balanced use of oak,” she says, equally citing the wine’s bright acidity and silky-yet-grippy tannins. “This wine is great today and will only get better with time. Buy a case now and enjoy it for the next four to ten years,” she advises.

Valserrano by Bodegas de la Marquesa 

When shopping for budget-friendly, age-worthy wines from Rioja, Matthew Kaner, founder of Will Travel For Wine Consulting and host and producer for SOMM TV, looks to Valserrano by Bodegas de la Marquesa. “This family winery is run by two generations of the De Simón family in Rioja Alavesa, halfway between Logroño and Haro,” he says, noting that the family farms all of their plots sustainably and operates their cellar with respect to historic Rioja winemaking, yet also with an ear to the future. “These wines are made to last and are supremely undervalued,” he affirms. 

bottle of Valserrano Rioja Blanco Gran Reserva. White wine from Rioja, Spain.

Valserrano Rioja Blanco Gran Reserva (~$57)

Kaner states that this blend of Viura and Malvasia sees time in new French oak and is aged on the lees for 18 months prior to release. “The perfection of the mouthfeel, presence of acid, and balance between fruit and herbal qualities makes this white Rioja wine sing with seafood, cheeses, or with a grilled pork chop,” he says. 

bottle of Viñedos y Bodegas de la Marquesa Valserrano Finca Monteviejo

Valserrano Finca Monteviejo Rioja Reserva (~$46)

“This single-vineyard bottling from Finca Monteviejo shows off what patience can do,” Kaner says, citing the optimal quality of the fruit provided by the vineyard’s old vines. The wine is produced from 95% Tempranillo then blended with a hint of Graciano and Garnacha, harvested from 70-year-old vines that, according to Kaner, “continue to bear fruit worthy of a wine that can age for multiple decades.”

Bodegas Laukote 

Bodegas Laukote is located just outside of Laguardia, the capital of Rioja Alavesa, and boasts a perfect view of the Sierra Cantabria Mountains. “This estate is a small project born from the desire to farm a vineyard with 80-year-old vines organically and with extreme care,” Kaner says. Today, the winery is putting out some of the most affordable and cellar-worthy bottlings from the region. 

 

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bottle of Bodegas Laukote Tempranillo Evo Rioja Alavesa 2020

Laukote Tempranillo Carbonic Maceration Rioja Alavesa 2020 (~$20)

“Carbonic maceration is a popular technique used in Beaujolais to preserve freshness of Gamay, and in this case, it goes the extra mile to lighten Tempranillo’s power,” says Kaner, equally citing its ability to show off the delicacy that the variety can display. “Put a chill on this rockstar and have on a hot day, with a cheese and charcuterie plate or with a watermelon and mint salad,” he says. Short-term cellaring is ideal for this wine. 

bottle of Bodegas Laukote De Borg Tempranillo Rioja Alavesa Organic

Laukote De Borg Rioja Tempranillo Alavesa (~$20)

Contrary to the easy-drinking nature of the previous wine, Kaner describes this wine as “taking it back old school.” He notes that halfway through the fermentation process, Laukote’s winemaker gets on a respirator and jumps into the tank to do “a little dance we like to call pigeage.” He says, “This attention to detail through old school foot-treading helps extract a bit of a fuller body and velvety tannins, while also keeping the acid balanced. Keep it simple!” The wine is bottled with little to no filtration nor the addition of sulfur dioxide so as to allow the wine to showcase the vineyard and the process.