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The Grapes of Rioja: Unveiling the berries behind the iconic wine


Editor’s Note: In the run up to the 2013 #Digital Wine Communication Conference happening in 2 weeks, Tara O’Leary, has unveiled the essential berries that has made Rioja so famous. 

Do you remember your first Spanish red wine? No? Me neither, but chances are it was a Rioja. Rioja has been the standard bearer of the country’s wines for much longer than my wine drinking career, and still takes top billing amongst consumers in the trusted, familiar and dependable category for Spanish reds.

But Rioja could never have won the hearts of so many without those all important grapes that make it famous. Let’s propel these little berries, both familiar and anomalous, into the spotlight and give them their rightful 15 minutes of fame.

The Main Roles: Reds

Tempranillo plays the leading part in the authentic expression and identity of Rioja. Considered indigenous, this variety produces burly, broad-shouldered wines typified by aromas and flavours of bright red fruits and dark polished leather. The medium-full body is well defined and lifted by good levels of acidity and moderate alcohol, but the colour is often lacking due to its fragile skin. Similar to the way that morning show hosts rarely sit alone on the couch, Tempranillo too is usually accompanied by a bunch of other grapes, but it remains the heavy lifter and backbone of flavour in the wine. Like George Clooney, it has great ageing potential.

Unlike George however, Tempranillo ripens early. In fact, its name comes from the Spanish word ‘temprano’ meaning ‘early’. You won’t find it vacationing in Monte Carlo as it doesn’t enjoy extremely hot temperatures, which is why it thrives in the sheltered, cooler sub-regions of Rioja Alavesa and Alta. Without Tempranillo, Rioja as we know it, would not exist.

Garnacha is to Tempranillo as Jon Cryer is to Ashton Kutcher on Two and a Half Men – the perfect sidekick. Garnacha (known as Grenache in France and elsewhere) has never succeeded in attaining the level of respect and admiration of Tempranillo (sorry Jon), yet there are many winemakers that understand the appeal and value of this grape and are producing exceptional, complex single variety wines. To the blend of Rioja, Garnacha brings a fleshiness of fruit, a boost of alcohol and a dollop of dark colour.

Mazuelo may even be more maligned than Garnacha! Not only does it have the unflattering traits of being overly acidic and intensely tannic, (shades of Lindsay Lohan) it is also causes growers grief in the vineyards with its propensity towards mildew and insect attacks. Mazuelo (known also as Carignan, Carineña and Mataro) is deeply coloured both on the vine and in the glass – a positive trait in the blend, as wines of intense colour are often considered concentrated and powerful by consumers.

There are a few producers making 100% Mazuelos, but usually only in tiny quantities because even though they are able to coax the best out of the grape, they still tend to be arthouse wines, geared entirely at serious wine lovers.


Graciano, the Jennifer Lawrence of Riojan grapes, is becoming the little darling among wine producers who are appreciating the elegance and structure it provides when vinified alone. Site selection is the critical component in a successful portrayal of Graciano because it needs (and takes a long time) to ripen fully and also retain acidity. If harvested too soon, it displays unappealing green characters, a trait similar to Petit Verdot in Bordeaux.

When grown in warm temperatures on clay-limestone soils, Graciano performs best. Unaccompanied or blended, it has a powerful aroma (compared to the other varieties), considerable tannins and bracing acidity, making it wonderfully age worthy.

Maturana Tinta plays a supporting role and is both the least planted and least known variety of the five reds in Rioja. It is used as a colour stabilizer and acidity booster for Tempranillo and adds a dash of elegance to the blend. The aromas and flavours trend towards the green side with elevated acidity and length. The one or two producers making a varietal wine believe it has every possibility of making something unexpected and special.

The Understudies: Whites

Viura, similar to Jason Statham who has appeared in over 10 films in 2 years, is the most productive white variety in Rioja. Known as Macabeo in other parts of Spain (a major component of the Cava blend) and Macabeu or Maccabéo in France, this variety is widely planted and produces wines ranging from insipid to fruity and lightly floral (again, akin to Statham).  It is naturally low in acid, so choosing the right day to harvest is critical as the acidity levels will drop from day to day. As with Chardonnay, Viura takes well to oak which provides it with aroma, texture and longevity. It is occasionally blended with small proportions of Malvasia, and is also regularly vinified alone.

On the vine Viura has a tendency to overproduce, requiring a lot of hard pruning to retain the flavours and what little acidity exists. It buds late, hopefully avoiding frosts, but is vulnerable to downey mildew and grey rot.

Malvasia is a traditionalist’s favourite, a regular Sophia Loren. Not as popular as it used to be, but still much loved, this variety has seen its plantings decrease. The wines it produces are layered, powerfully perfumed and are susceptible to oxidization, the predominant style of white Rioja for decades.

Garnacha Blanca is one of those unsung heroes of the grape world that lives in relative anonymity, much like William Fichtner whose face you recognize but name you never remember. Garnacha Blanca (known in France as Grenache Blanc) when grown in cool areas and cultivated correctly, produces wines of ripe stone fruit with a green apple crunch with medium levels of acidity. Like its crimson counterpart, Garnacha Blanca has the potential of reaching high levels of alcohol which can result in flabby wines if not kept in check.

This variety was much more prevalent in the 19th century when it and Malvasia were the main plantings, and where old vines still exist, produces wines of great concentration. Today however, Garnacha Blanca is the least planted of the white grapes.  Similar to the Rhone varietal Roussanne, it adds weight and texture to the blend.

White Grapes Rioja

Tempranillo Blanco was only discovered as a mutation of Tempranillo Tinto in 1988 and allowed by the Rioja Consejo Regulador for use in the blend of white Rioja in 2007. The plantings therefore, are not widespread as yet, but this new variety is already winning a lot of hearts, as it jazzes up the montage, like Julianne Hough, also born in ‘88. Although it is too early for Tempranillo Blanco to have its own distinct character, the wines are endowed with good concentration of stone fruit flavours with a touch of orange peel and with their high levels of alcohol, are expected to age well.

Maturana Blanca was mentioned in 1622 making it the oldest variety in Rioja. Another unknown, (like Harry Dean Stanton who looks like he could have been around in 1622), Maturana Blanca can produce complex wines of citrus and tropical fruit, and a slightly herbal aspect.

Turruntés (not to be confused with Torrontes of Argentina) is used for its high acidity and vegetal, herbal, grassy characters.

In 2007, in an effort to promote a fresher, more commercial style of white Rioja, the Consejo Regulador allowed the use of international varieties (up to 49% of the blend) Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and the white grape of Rueda, Verdejo.

A Blockbuster Region

Spain has an extensive history of winemaking and with that comes a pride and practice that is ingrained and revered. By way of those familiar stewed red fruits and that kiss of vanilla, Rioja has been defined and appreciated. In the Basque areas of Rioja, carbonic maceration has also been a common vinification practice, with the grapes undergoing fermentation on an intracellular level resulting in light, fruity, soft wines.

Now however, there is a move away from these established approaches, towards the emergence of a new global style – wines that are powerful and dynamic. The colour is dark, the fruit is concentrated, the tannins are commanding and the wines will stand the test of time. The oak is now French, it’s new, and the time spent ageing the wine has been greatly reduced.

The question is, can tradition and evolution coexist in the wines of Rioja?

But it’s not just the style of wine that is evolving in Rioja, there is also a shift towards sub-region specificity and single vineyard expression. Historically, Rioja reds have always been blends of the three sub-regions, Rioja Alavesa, Alta and Baja, but in view of the vast differences between the terroir of each one, the move towards individual expression is considerably overdue.

The three sub-regions of Rioja enjoy a unique combination of natural landscape that offer each one its own distinct personality.

Rioja Alta

Rioja Alta is the most westerly of the three and is snuggled into the nook created by the convergence of the Sierra de Cantabria and Sierra de la Demanda mountain ranges, each of which extend out from Rioja Alta and surround the Rioja DO like the sides of a ‘V’.

The Alta soils are clay, iron-rich limestone with areas of alluvial deposits. The differentiator for this region is its altitude (‘Alta’ means ‘tall’ or ‘high’ in Spanish).  If you’ve ever spent a summer holiday in Barcelona or Madrid, you’ll know how searingly hot Spain can be, so the elevation affords the vineyards respite from the heat, offering cooler temperatures critical for the development of the grapes. The proximity to the mountains also protects Rioja Alta from the Atlantic storms, lowering the amount of rainfall in its vineyards.

White grape rioja

Since the weather is cooler in the Alta, the mainly Tempranillo grapes are less ripe than the other areas, and produce rich, deep and structured wines that age superbly.

Rioja Alavesa

Mid-way between Rioja Alta and Baja tucked into the arch of Alta’s northern border sits the smallest sub-region, Rioja Alavesa. The vineyards here are at the highest elevations and are planted in chalky limestone soils, distinct from those of Alta and Baja. The wines from this area are often highly praised due to the delicately perfumed characters and impressive evolution as they age.

Rioja Baja

The third and largest sub-region, Rioja Baja, is also the lowest in elevation and is heavily influenced by its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, making it hot and dry. Baja (translates as ‘low’ in English) grows predominantly Garnacha grapes. Both the area and the wines are usually considered of lesser quality and importance than the other two regions – perhaps unfairly, as there are many excellent wines produced here.

The soils are similar to that of neighboring Alta, a mix of clay and limestone. There are portions of the area covered with an impossibly hard layer of limestone sitting just beneath the surface which many producers are digging up as it prevents the vine roots from delving deep into the soils which would provide more nutrients as well as escape from the heat of the sun.

Rioja’s Second Act

Rioja is a region experiencing a reinvention, and with it comes either the opportunity to excel and thrive as it pushes to new levels of excellence, or to crash and burn at the loss of its identity.

No longer is every bottle of Rioja on the shelf a variation on a theme, but even though these wines may look and feel different, their core message is the same – to respect the past, embrace the future, and let those little darlings of the grapevine shine like the stars they are!

As this next scene of Rioja unfolds, we can’t be sure how it will end, but it’s highly likely the wines will continue to stand at the forefront of the world’s attention, tugging at the heart strings of wine lovers new and old.


Tara O’Leary


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