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Exploring Spain’s Top Red Wines: A Guide to Rioja and Ribera del Duero

With a rich history of winemaking dating back thousands of years, Spain is a wine-lovers paradise. Covered in nearly 3 million acres of grapevines— more than any other country— Spain joins France and Italy as the world’s top 3 wine-producing nations. Its diverse climates and conditions contribute to a wide variety of grape cultivation and flavors with the best wines coming from the Ribera del Duero and Rioja regions of northern Spain.

Introduction to Rioja Wine

Rioja is one of the most prestigious and well-known wine regions in Spain, and Rioja wines are celebrated and enjoyed worldwide. It boasts the oldest Denominación de Origen (Designation of Origin or DO) in Spain, established in 1925, and was the first DO to earn Calificada status, the highest within the Spain classification system. The wine appellation can be broken down into three sub-regions— Rioja Alta, Rioja Alvesa, and Rioja Baja or Rioja Oriental— which have a diversity of soils, terroirs, elevations, and micro-climates that contribute to the distinct flavor and influence the character of the wines.

DOC Rioja wines are classified either by their geographic origin or by their aging process. The aging categories include Rioja, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva, indicating the length of time the wine has spent aging in oak barrels and in the bottle before release. Gran Reserva wines are the best of the best, requiring at least eighteen months in casks and an additional three and a half years aging in the bottle for reds and six months in oak and an additional three and a half years in the bottle for whites. Most winemakers will age their wines for longer than the minimum legal requirement.

Rioja wines are primarily known for their red varieties, made from a blend of Tempranillo grapes, which take center stage, with other local varieties such as Garnacha, Mazuelo, or Graciano. These grapes thrive in the limestone-rich soil and moderate climate that allow the grapes to mature gradually. The variety of unique terroir characteristics creates a range of Rioja wines, from fruity and fresh to complex and robust, depending on the vineyard location.

Tempranillo grapes

Beyond Tempranillo

While the region is famous for its reds, Rioja also crafts notable whites and rosés (known locally as rosados), and their importance and numbers will undoubtedly grow in the years to come. Viura is the most widely used grape for Rioja white wines, often blended with Garnacha Blanca, Malvasia, and others to produce a crisp and refreshing product. Rosados are made mainly from red grape varieties such as Tempranillo and Garnacha grapes and are characterized by their vibrant pink color and fruity and floral aromas. Both whites and rosés from Rioja are well-suited for warm weather and diverse culinary pairings.

The Rise of Ribera del Duero

While Ribera del Duero has a long tradition of vine cultivation and wine production, its viticulture evolved at a slower pace, culminating in the region receiving official recognition as a Denominación de Origen in 1982. Since then, it has become one of the most important wine regions in Spain, drawing admirers (including the Spanish royal family) and rivaling Rioja as Spain’s premier wine region. While both regions are located in the northern part of Spain and produce age-worthy, elegant Tempranillo-based reds, the wines from Ribera take on different characteristics and nuances than those from Rioja, in part due to differences in each region’s climate, soil, and winemaking traditions.

Spain's Top Red Wines

Geography and Terroir

Located along the Duero River (the Douro River in Portugal), Ribera del Duero is cut off by a ring of mountains and characterized by a continental climate that results in extreme weather conditions: dry, hot summers (with low temperatures at night) and long harsh winters. Tempranillo grapes, known locally as Tinto Fino or Tinta del País, thrive in the arid, high-altitude vineyards, where the grapes ripen more quickly than in Rioja, leading to a deeply concentrated fruit. Meanwhile, the cold nighttime temperatures help the grapes retain their natural acidity, which contributes to freshness.

These factors result in wines from Ribera del Duero expressing a more robust and intense fruit character, while Rioja’s wine is known for a more balanced and nuanced flavor. Their aging classifications are similar, although specific aging periods and oak usage may vary, which further contributes to the local wines’ distinctive tastes. Color is one additional distinguishing factor, with classic Tempranillo wines from Rioja known for their light-to-medium ruby red color, which tends to be easily distinguishable from the deep purplish reds of Ribera del Duero.

Rioja vs. Ribera del Duero: Experience the Difference

In the world of wine, both Ribera del Duero and Rioja stand out for their quality, crafting wines that express their unique climates, terroirs, and winemaking traditions. Whether you seek the timeless elegance embodied by Rioja's wines or the bold vibrancy characteristic of Ribera del Duero, experience the differences for yourself on a journey to these storied regions. Visit sun-drenched vineyards, explore centuries-old cellars, and savor the diverse styles and exceptional quality that define these celebrated corners of Spain's winemaking heritage and elevate them to their well-deserved positions among the world's top wine regions.

For an introduction to the Spanish culinary tradition of pinchos, or small bites, click here. And for a quick rundown on our Top 5 Tastes in Spain, click here.

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