I love the wines of Rioja but have trouble reading the labels
A timely question. I just got back from a tour of Spain’s wine regions and after a few days in Rioja I can say, without much hesitation, that I feel your pain. While its winemakers have set up a pretty simple set of descriptors to identify the stylistic evolution of their wines, it doesn’t take long before things get bogged down in number-crunching.
Let’s start with table wines. Depending on how long they’ve aged, they can go by different names. Joven is typically used to identify juice that sees no time in oak and is meant for drinking ASAP. Lately the term Roble gets slapped on labels to brag that the wine has seen some wood (possibly from out a window of the winery) and then some just label with Cosecha (a sexier word for harvest or vintage).
With the average out of the way, we move on to Crianza. To get this title, a red wine must rest for at least 24 months, with at least 12 of those months being in oak barrels. White and rosé versions must hang out for a year with half that period being barrel time.
The next step is Reserva, where reds need 36 months in either cask or bottle, with at least 12 of those months in oak barrels. The whites and rosés need two years with, again, six months of that in barrel.
Step three is the big one. To get Gran Reserva status, your red juice needs to come from a superior vintage and age for at least 24 months in oak and at least 36 months in bottle, with the whites and rosés needing 48 months with, you guessed it, a minimum of six months of that time wrapped in wood.
See what I mean? All you want is a glass of wine and you get math. Even if you memorize all of the above, the rub is, and there is always a rub when it comes to wine, many winemakers in Rioja go beyond the minimums so in the end, if you really want to fully understand the region’s wines, you’ve got to dig deeper into each winery’s take on the basics.