All You Need To Know About Rioja

All You Need To Know About Rioja

Home to some fantastic wines, Rioja is Spain's most important wine region with a winemaking history that pre-dates the arrival of the ancient Romans. Recently, the O'Briens managers visited Rioja to catch up with our winemaking partners and try lots of wines! (You can find out how they got on here.) If you haven’t had a chance to visit the region yourself, this easy guide will tell you all you need to know about Rioja - plus we have some lovely wine recommendations too.

Location and climate

Rioja is a landlocked wine region in the far north of Spain, 100km from the coast of Bilbao. In 1925 it was the first region in Spain to obtain DO (Denominación de Origen) status and, along with Priorat, is one of only two regions to have achieved the highest DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada) classification for Spanish wine. 

The climate is typically continental with hot, dry summers followed by cold and wet winters. However, Rioja is a huge area spread over 160,000 acres and divided into three distinct subzones and certain regions experience climatic influences from the likes of the Atlantic Ocean to the north and the large River Ebro that bisects the region.

Bodegas Riojanas

Rioja’s subregions

The mountainous western part of Rioja is Rioja Alta. The famous Haro train station, which opened the entire region up to export in the 19th century, is located here. It has a varied climate with a continental influence from the Meseta to the south, an oceanic influence from the Atlantic to the north and a more Mediterranean influence from the River Ebro.

Rioja Alavesa, the smallest of the subregions, is the rugged, mountainous area to the north of Rioja. The climate is similar to Rioja Alta’s but is influenced more by the Atlantic Ocean and the Cantabrian mountains to the north.

Rioja Oriental (previously Baja) is the largest and most eastern subzone. It is typically flatter, hotter and dryer than Rioja Alta and Alavesa. Vineyards in the areas with higher elevation and proximity to the River Ebro enjoy a cooling effect which helps to evenly ripen the grapes during the hot summer months.

Kevin O'Brien and Darren Hogan Store Manager, O'Briens Beacon South Quarter, snapped at the Marqués de Murrieta winery on the O'Briens team trip to Rioja

Grape varieties and blending

Black-skinned grape varieties make up over 90% of all Rioja's vineyard plantings and the undoubted king of the crop is Tempranillo, which accounts for over 85% of all vineyards. It is an ancient grape variety, found under many synonyms across the Iberian Peninsula, from Portugal's Douro Valley to Spain's high Meseta, but arguably makes its greatest expressions in Rioja.

Tempranillo is a relatively thin-skinned, early ripening grape variety that offers ripe red fruit flavours and tannic structure to a wine. It ages well in oak barrels and readily takes on a spiced, leathery complexity from contact with wood.

Tempranillo can make excellent single-varietal wines but will often be blended with other permitted black grape varieties, such as Grenache, Graciano and Mazuelo.

Rioja also produces excellent white wines (Rioja Blanco) although they make up just 10% of the wine production. White Rioja is typically made with the Viura grape variety and, as with the red wines, is traditionally aged in American oak barrels.

What's in a name? The various styles of Rioja

The quality level for Rioja wines is traditionally linked to how long they spend in oak barrels. Traditionally these barrels were made from American oak but there is an increasing use of French oak.

From youngest to oldest, the classification for Rioja red wines are as follows:

  • Genérico (previously Joven): young wines in their first or second year, rarely oaked, which keep their primary freshness and fruit.
  • Crianza: wines which have spent at least two years ageing, a minimum of which must be one year in oak barrels.
  • Reserva: wines with a minimum ageing of three years, of which at least one year has to be in oak barrels, and at least 6 months in the bottle.
  • Gran Reserva: wines only produced in the best vintages. Aged for a minimum of 60 months, of which at least two years must be spent in oak barrels and two years in the bottle.

Three to Try

Are you keen to explore the world of Rioja wines? Here are three fantastic ones to check out: 

All set for a stunning wine tasting dinner at Marqués de Murrieta

Marqués de Murrieta Rioja Reserva

Rioja, Spain
WAS €29.95 NOW €23.96 (Part of our Spanish wine sale.)

We start our Rioja recommendations with a can’t-go-wrong classic. It’s a gorgeous Rioja Reserva from the prestigious Marqués de Murrieta. Made with Tempranillo, Graciano, Mazuelo, and Garnacha, it’s packed with rich berry aromas and Mediterranean herb notes.


Sierra Cantabria Rioja Crianza

Rioja, Spain

WAS €19.95 NOW €15.96 (Part of our Spanish wine sale.)

This delicious vegan-friendly red comes from the family-run Sierra Cantabria and is a lovely introduction to the wines of the region. It’s smooth and supple, with intense cherry notes along with toasty cedar and a spicy finish. 

The O'Briens team on their recent visit to Bodegas Riojanas, where they met the winemakers, sampled wines and explored the stunning winery.

Bodegas Riojanas Borisa Rioja Reserva

Rioja, Spain
WAS €24.95  NOW €13.95 (Part of our Spanish wine sale.)

We finish off our Rioja trio with an excellent Rioja Reserva from our long-time Rioja partners, Bodegas Riojanas. It’s 100% Tempranillo and was aged for 26 months in American oak barrels. Rich and robust, this wine is extra special as it was made in limited quantities to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the estate. 


All prices are correct at time published. Please check our website or stores for the most up-to-date pricing and offers.

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