It’s Official! New Rioja Regulations Highlight Origins, Aging and Emerging Styles
The official changes to the DOCa Rioja wine classification system took effect earlier this year, giving both producers and consumers more tools with which to define and differentiate their favorite Rioja wines—considered some of the world’s finest.
Few of the world’s wine regions are as universally recognized as Rioja. These wines, which bear the official status of Quality Denomination of Origin Rioja (DOCa Rioja in Spanish), are exported to the far corners of the globe and enjoyed by wine professionals and aficionados near and far.
Although the most famous of Rioja’s wines are undoubtedly the elegant and classic reds made primarily from native Tempranillo grapes—often blended with smaller amounts of Garnacha, Graciano, Mazuelo and, more rarely, Maturana Tinta grapes—this region is also known for its outstanding whites, of which the most classic are made with local Viura grapes (also known as Macabeo in other areas of Spain). Rosé and sparkling wines are made here as well.
Like the wines of other Spanish regions, Rioja wines have long been categorized based strictly on their aging times, which has made sense given the wonderfully long and vibrant shelf-lives of many of this region’s famous Reserva and Gran Reserva wines. However, for the past couple of years, DOCa Rioja has encouraged a shift in its classification system, placing new emphasis on the specific terroir and geographical origins of a given wine—a move that highlights the diversity that can be found in a single region due to different soils, microclimates and vineyard placement, among other factors.
Although many of these changes were first introduced in 2017, as of January 1, 2019, this new classification system has been fully implemented for this historic region—one of only two in Spain (along with Priorat) to flaunt the coveted “Quality” designation, in addition to its DO status. The following is a look at the new system and how it will undoubtedly enhance the way we enjoy Rioja wines.
The origins of everything
Rioja wines are traditionally labeled according to one of the three sub-zones where they are made: Rioja Alta, Rioja Oriental (eastern Rioja, formerly known as Rioja Baja) and Rioja Alavesa. However, Rioja wines can now add the name of the village or municipality to the front of their labels, designating which of the 145 towns they come from. This helps producers and consumers identify how the varying characteristics of the wines might relate to the specific characteristics of each area. Additionally, according to the new regulations, vineyards that straddle two municipalities are allowed to blend up to 15% of the neighboring villages’ grapes into their wine.
Also introduced in 2017, the idea of Viñedos Singulares (unique vineyards) is an important distinction that may be granted by the Regulatory Council (or wine commission) of DOCa Rioja to wine producers who seek to recognize the particular, singular characteristics of a specific vineyard. To qualify, grapes may be purchased only from growers who have had a minimum ten years of commercial partnership with the winery. Vineyards must be at least thirty-five years old with yields that are below current, established limits. Vineyards must be hand-harvested and well-balanced, and the volume of wine obtained per 100 kilograms of grapes must be 65%. Other requirements include quality pre-certification and production traceability assessments performed by the Regulatory Board.
This wine classification can be used alone, or in conjunction with the aging categories of Rioja wines, leading to labels with descriptions that might read, “Crianza Viñedo Singular.”
Given that single-vineyard wines are still quite rare in Rioja, this category provides producers with incentive to promote and exploit the terroir found in one particular vineyard.
Despite the new emphasis on identifying the origins of Rioja wines, the classification system continues to rely heavily on the wines’ aging process—not surprising given the fact that this region’s identity is so closely tied to the superb aging potential of its wines.
Rioja wines can be classified into one of four categories, which are distinguished by different back labels issued by the Regulatory Board. Here, the biggest change is the replacement of the term “Joven” (young) by “Genérico,” referring to wines with no aging requirements. This is followed in order of aging times by the Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva and Gran Añada categories, the latter of which refers only to sparkling wines.
Additionally, the new regulations modify the aging requirements for Reserva and Gran Reserva category wines. Reserva wines must be aged for a total of three years, including a minimum of twelve months in oak, establishing a new minimum of six months in the bottle. Gran Reserva wines must be aged for a total of five years, of which at least twenty-four months must be in oak and at least the same amount of time in the bottle.
Quality Sparkling Rioja
One of the biggest changes has to do with this new category of Espumosos de Calidad de Rioja, which refers to quality white and rosé sparkling wines. The wines protected by this denomination must be made using traditional methods (método tradicional), adhering to the added sugar requirements for Brut Nature, Brut and Extra Brut sparkling wines, in addition to other stipulations. This new mention will be listed on the bottles’ back labels.
This category also specifies that sparkling wines may be made using only the regions’ authorized grape varieties and, in the case of rosé wines, they must include at least 25% of red grapes. Vintages must be submitted before the harvest begins, and the aging categories are as follows: a minimum of fifteen months for the category of Crianza, twenty-four months for Reserva, and thirty-six months for Gran Añada wines. Incidentally, vintage espumosos must be hand-harvested as well.
Single-variety white wines
In 2017, the Regulatory Board decided to authorize a much-larger number of permitted grapes in the region, leading to an uptick in the production of “Rioja Blanco” white wines in this once famously red-wine region. It is now possible to produce single variety white wines from any of the more recently authorized varieties: Chardonnay, Verdejo, Sauvignon Blanc, Garnacha Blanca, Malvasía, Maturana Blanca, Tempranillo Blanca and Turruntés, and label them as such. However, Viura continues to be the region’s most traditional white grape.
Rosé all the way
Rosado wines from DOCa Rioja also get a break under the new system, thanks to regulations that have eased in terms of specifying their color. The color can now be less intense than that of rosé wines of the past, in keeping with current, popular styles for this type of wine.