A sense of time
In Rioja, barrel aging is an art that preceded any quick fashion for oak-infused wines. It is a know-how that goes back well into the 19th century, when the region’s capacity for producing remarkable, ageworthy wines started to emerge, and even attract the attention of the Bordeaux châteaux. Many of the region’s most famous names go back to a time, in the second half of the 19th century, when that winemaking tradition was locked in, with the best wines coming from the vineyards being steered toward longer times in barrel. Few other wine regions have made time such an ally in the forging of their best vintages, forging wines that are as unhurried as they are satisfying.
This approach is also distinctive in terms of how the wines show up on the market. While in our quick-turning world, most wines appear on the market at one or two years of age, with rosés and summer whites showing up only months after the grapes were harvested, a Rioja will easily be over three years old when it reaches the shelves. Rioja is one of the few regions offering wines that are five, seven, or even over ten years old as a regular presence on the market – and often at very accessible prices. This makes Reserva wines, which make up between 15 and 20% of the region’s total production, a particularly good choice for new wine collectors who want to try their hand at cellaring at home without breaking the bank.
This tendency for long-aging the best wines also leaves room for a fair bit of diversity. Particularly over the last 30 years, styles of aging have evolved considerably. While the more powerful, spice and vanilla-driven American oak that was the gold standard for over a century is still quite present, especially in more traditional and longer-aged vintages, wineries have also been using French oak barrels, with a rounder feeling and lots of finesse. The different styles cater to different tastes and produce a range of profiles, in particular in the Reserva category, where some wines are more fruit-driven while others accentuate the barrel-aging more significantly.
Whatever the style, the aging is meant to support the wine and give it extra dimension, and not just act as a flavouring agent. It’s an approach aimed at making food-friendly wines that, while generous, won’t overwhelm a meal.