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.
Spain has more acres under vine than any other country and ranks third in production behind Italy and France. Much of this output continues to be hot-country jug wine made to satisfy the everyday thirsts of the domestic and greater European markets. But many inexpensive Spanish wines that once were rustic, tired, or dried out have been replaced by bottlings that are lush, round, ripe, and cleanly made. Regions that previously made blended Spanish wines that were virtually too strong to be bottled on their own, such as Tarragona, Valencia, Yecla, Jumilla, and Toro are now firmly in the table wine business, even if these wines of Spain can be alarmingly high in alcohol.
At the high end are exciting new bottlings from the historically important Rioja and Ribera del Duero regions in north-central Spain and from the wild, hilly Priorat in Cataluña, in the northeast corner of the country. A new generation of Spanish wine makers has begun crafting wines in a distinctly modern international style: deeply colored, very ripe, and high in alcohol, generally aged in a high percentage of new French oak, and often quite pricey. The majority of these wines are based on Tempranillo, Spain's most distinguished red variety. While the ultimate quality and longevity of these Spanish wines are yet to be proven, these new bottlings have unquestionably captured the attention of wine drinkers both inside and outside Spain.
Although much of Spain bakes in the sun for at least half the year, the country actually covers a vast range of climates-from the cooler and much wetter Atlantic-influenced northwest, to the arid, blazing Mediterranean south and southeast-so vintage generalizations are tricky with Spanish wines. Moreover, the majority of Spain's better vineyards lie at relatively high altitude, where summer nights are cool even when afternoons are stifling. " e wines and is perfect with any chocolate dessert.