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The Rioja Revolution

Long recognized as the finest of Spain's renowned wine regions, Rioja is steeped in a tradition forged almost exclusively on refined, exceptionally long-aged red wines. In fact, you can catch a glimpse of this legendary past with the delightfully old-fashioned gold wire netting that still covers many bottles.

Yet these days, Rioja’s got a brand new bag, and the region is setting the entire wine world abuzz: Recent advances include a flood of trendsetting new wineries (called bodegas); the introduction of cutting-edge winemaking technology; and the influence of modern styles. Better still, in addition to its spectacular reds, even Rioja’s lesser-known whites and rosés are now getting into the act.

History. Rioja made its first big splash on the wine scene in the mid-19th century, at a time when French vineyards to the north were hit by a devastating double whammy of powdery mildew and phylloxera, a vine-killing louse.

As French wines evaporated from the market, wine merchants desperately searched for great wines to replace them. Knowing that Rioja produced magnificent red wine -- much of it aged in oak barrels like the finest Bordeaux -- French merchants made a beeline for this previously untapped region. For Rioja, the trade had an explosive impact, causing growers to plant thousands more acres of vines and securing a reputation that’s endured to the present day.

Respect for one’s elders. Aficionados have always cherished Rioja’s classic old wines, which have an unblemished reputation for elegance and earthiness. Traditionally, these were fermented in huge wooden vats and then aged for years in small, American oak barrels, which added a tantalizing vanilla aroma.

Alongside this classic style, today you’ll find many bodegas fermenting wines in modern stainless-steel tanks for crisper flavors and aging in French rather than American oak for greater complexity. But whatever the style, the reverence for older wines remains, and Rioja’s labeling system reflects this, dividing oak-aged red wines into three categories: Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva. Look for one of these three designations on bottles of Rioja.

If you prefer fresher, fruitier flavors, select Crianza, which is the youngest of the three. For greater depth, try a longer-aged Reserva. And for an oak-driven reflection of centuries past, opt for the painstakingly long-aged Gran Reserva.

From grapes into wines. For Riojan red wines, the most important grape variety, by far, is Tempranillo. It yields an elegant and complex medium-bodied wine, capable of plenty of aging. Although some wines are made solely from Tempranillo, more often Riojas are a blend of Tempranillo seasoned with smaller amounts of Garnacha, Graciano, and/or Mazuelo.

Whites and Rosé, too. Although Rioja is still known primarily for its red wines, white Riojas -- typically featuring Viura, Garnacha Blanca, and/or Malvasia Riojana grapes -- are threatening to change all that. They’re made in a wealth of exotic styles, from traditional, long-aged white Reservas to chic, barrel-fermented versions; for those, look for the words “Fermentado en Barrica” on the label.

Don’t skip past the rosés, either. Although rosés from the nearby Navarra region tend to get better press, Riojan rosés can also be diverse and interesting -- in particular, the rare Reserva versions that are patiently aged before release.

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