Traditional Rioja holds a special place in my heart: It's one of the few wines that can achieve a captivating level of elegance. These wines have tremendous complexity, but in a very understated manner. This alone distinguishes them from most every other Spanish wine on the shelf.
The other nice point about traditional Rioja: Producers are kind (or crazy) enough to cellar their wines at the winery until they believe they are more or less ready for consumption. For example, the wine tasted for this column is from 2000, yet it was the currently available vintage when I purchased the wine. (Since then, the 2001 has been released.) Some wineries also release older vintages that they believe are drinking well. While these wines are expensive, they are among the great values in aged wine as their provenance is impeccable.
Red Rioja is based on the tempranillo grape, which -- apart from contributing favorably to Port -- doesn't seem to thrive in many other places in the wine world. It provides the unique flavors of red fruits, earth and leather that make Rioja distinctive.
The traditional wine-making process in Rioja is also unique. Its hallmark is a long period of barrel aging prior to bottling. Certainly there are plenty of red wines that see time in oak, but traditional Rioja producers really go for it, with five, eight or even more years in cask. This promotes a slow oxidative aging of the wine, which brings about its amazing complexity. Contrary to what one would think, the wines are not overtly woody. In fact, the wine I tasted below had absolutely no oak taste at all, despite spending five years in cask.
Beyond basic Rioja, there are three levels distinguished by minimum aging requirements. To be labeled Crianza, a wine must have spent a minimum of twelve months in barrel and one year in bottle before release. A Riserva needs to be at least three years old prior to release, with at least one of those years spent in cask. Finally, a Gran Reserva must spend at least two years in cask and at least three additional years in bottle. Traditional producers often age their wines much longer than these minimums.
Since I've been harping on "traditional" Rioja, you're correct to surmise that there is a modern variant to which many producers have turned to join the herd of popular ripe, oaky Spanish wines. I tried to complete my Rioja article
in December, but was stumped when each of the three bottles I purchased turned out to be overtly fruity or else bore the scars of too much new oak. While some might find these offerings to be good wine, I don't believe that they were under any circumstances good Rioja.