Rioja is one of Spain’s best-known and best-loved wine-growing regions, with legions of fans around the world. In fact, the UK alone imports about one-third of the region’s production every year.
One of the reasons so many people like Riojan wines is because of the region’s emphasis on barrel ageing. Now, there are some people who will argue that this focus on barrel ageing is too simplistic. They say that it fails to capture the depth and complexity of one of the world’s great wine regions and is overshadowing the new generation of winemakers who are producing exciting new wines with a real focus on provenance.
But there’s no escaping the positive impact that barrel ageing can have on some wines.
Letting wine rest in wooden barrels helps deepen the colour, soften the tannins and make all those flavour compounds in the wine that much more complex. At the same time, it encourages some of those oak flavours from the barrel to leach into the wine. So, you can start to detect notes of vanilla, cedar, and spices combined with the grapes' own fruit and herbal characteristics.
So, for many, barrel ageing is a good thing. But how do you know how much ageing a wine has had? Well, you’re probably used to seeing words like crianza and reserva on a wine label, but what do they really mean? Let’s take a look:
This doesn’t always appear on a label, but it’s a term used to refer to a young wine from the current vintage that has spent no time in the barrel. This means that all the flavours and aromas in the wine will have come from the grape being used and the techniques used by the winemaker.
Again, not always listed on the label, but you will see it where a winemaker wants to draw attention to the wood contact. A roble (pronounced ‘rob-lay’) wine will have spent a short amount of time in the barrel, but normally less than six months. Flavours and aromas in roble wines tend to be more defined by the grapes, but the use of wood can give them a touch more structure and a slightly more rounded profile.
This is one of the more common ageing terms and one you will frequently see on wine labels and wine lists in a restaurant. Generally, crianza wine has been aged for a total of 24 months. In most of Spain, regulators require that at least six of those months must be in the barrel. But in Rioja, they require at least 12 months of barrel ageing within that 24-month period. Here you will really start to notice the impact of the wood – with aromas of spice, pine, cedar, and vanilla being common characteristics to look out for. (PS: if you want to sound like a real pro, be sure to pronounce this as ‘criantha’ – with the ‘z’ like a ‘th’).
Now we’re getting serious. Reservas have usually been aged for at least 36 months with at least 12 months spent in the barrel. That’s the same for the whole of Spain – including Rioja. Here you really are getting a wine where the personality of the grape and the characteristic of the wood are merging to form a unified whole. The colour of the wine will be darker – think brick reds and golden yellows – the tannins and the acidity will be softer and more rounded, and you’ll start getting wonderful toffee and caramel notes embraced by dark, delicious fruit flavours. These wines are fine to drink now but the good ones will often continue to develop in the bottle for a few years after release. So, they are good for “laying down” – basically buying and storing somewhere cool and dark to drink when they reach their peak.
Finally, we come to the top of the pyramid, the gran reserva. These wines have normally had five years of ageing, at least 18 months of which will have been spent in the barrel. But in Rioja, they require at least two years in the barrel. All that time resting and evolving means that gran reservas will give you rich, mature fruits, silky soft tannins, and elegant notes of everything from tobacco and leather to lush dark chocolate. Again, some of these will be good to lay down for a few more years. But in general, these are wines that have reached their pinnacle. Think Bruce Springsteen on tour, Helen Mirren in The Queen, or Stellen Skarsgård in – well, just about anything from the last 30 years.
So you can see, there’s a lot to be said for barrel ageing.
“But what about the cost?” I hear you cry. Well, yes, it’s true that the more ageing a wine has had, the pricier it tends to be. And some gran reservas can be eye-watering. But bear in mind what you’re getting for your money. These wines have been cared for and nurtured by winemakers for years. They’ve taken up space in a cellar, and they’ve occupied wooden barrels that cost money. They are an investment for a vineyard, and they mean tying up money in fixed assets for years. So, it’s not surprising that older wines can cost you a little bit more.
Which means it’s even better when you come across a real bargain. And we think we’ve found a few for you: