Located in north central Spain, Rioja is the most famous of Spain's wine-producing region. The relatively long growing season here enables the fruit to ripen thoroughly without undue loss of acidity, permitting intensely flavored, complex Rioja wines with medium weight, moderate alcohol, and plenty of structure for aging. The finest Rioja wine-blends based on Tempranillo, with some jammy Garnacha, Mazuelo, and Graciano, have always been easier on the head and stomach than most of the world's other serious reds, with more flavor and complexity than would seem possible from wines carrying a relatively low 12% to 13% alcohol. But the movement for Rioja wines today is toward riper, bigger, and darker wines.
Rioja is divided into three zones. Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa, which comprise the western half of the greater Rioja area, are relatively cool, although protected from the coldest Atlantic winds by the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range- Tempranillo country par excellence. Farther to the east and south is the warmer, drier Rioja Baja, a distinctly Mediterranean climate conducive to the softer, lower-acid, higher-alcohol Garnacha (Grenache), which complements the Tempranillo. Most Riojas are blends from vineyards within one of these regions, if not from more than one region, but the trend in recent years has been toward wines from more closely defined areas, if not from single sites.
Rioja wine has traditionally been released only when deemed ready to drink by its maker. But an increasing number of producers are making Rioja wine from mostly or all Tempranillo grown in favored sites, aging them for a shorter period in smaller, newer barrels (often of French rather than American oak), and releasing them earlier. These new wines are darker, more robust and more tannic than traditionally styled wines from the region, and often possess more primary fruit flavors.