Rioja is a Spanish red wine (there’s also a white version as well that we may cover one day –  but for now, know that it uses the Viura grape most of the time) that hails from (surprise) the Rioja region of Spain.  The most common style of Rioja is a light to medium-bodied red, with berry flavours and a citrus tang.

Rioja, being an old world wine, does not refer to a grape, but rather it comprises of a number of grapes, with the prime being Tempranillo (as Tempranillo is fresh and fruity when young – however when aged, it is a powerhouse of tannin, and leather/chocolate/pepper notes).  The Tempranillo grape gives the wine its lighter body, more akin to a Pinot Noir, than a richer wine like a Cabernet Sauvignon.   The other major grape used is Garnacha.  Wikipedia has an excellent chart of the other varietals that may be included.

Rioja may be oaked as well, so you’ll catch vanilla fragrances.  The longer it’s aged, the less fruity it will be, and fortunately, there are classifications that help you decide which Rioja you’re in the mood for.

Classifications of Rioja

Crianza –  Released two calendar years after ageing, these wines are Light, least oaked, and inexpensive.

Reserva – Released three years after ageing (with at least one year in oak), you’ll find you’ll have an oaky and more substantial wine.

Gran Reserva – Made only in good years, often the oakiest and most expensive.  These wines are also released five to seven years after ageing, with a minimum of two years in oak barrels.

Three other categories are new that you may see on a Rioja Label.

Noble – aged 12 months in a barrel

Anejo – aged 24 months in an oak barrel

Viejo – aged 36 months in an oak barrel

Rioja Crianza and Food Pairings

As Rioja is lighter like a Chianti or a Pinot Noir, and as it has a refreshing tartness, you’ll find that it is quite versatile with food.  For Crianza Rioja, pair it with lighter meats, pasta, Cajun jambalaya, chimichangas, tuna salad sandwiches, chicken satay, and of course tapas!

Rioja Reserva & Food Pairings

Reserva Rioja and Gran Reserva are perfect with lamb, pork, beef Wellington, grilled tuna, veal, grilled sausage, beef burritos, and hamburgers. The oak in these two wines love anything grilled as it complements the charred flavour.

Rioja Reserva & Filet Mignon Pairing


If the Rioja Reserva is fully aged, and the tannin have softened, Filet Mignon or Beef Tenderloin make for excellent pairings.  The softer tannin content will give the wine a velvety creamy texture that matches the rich and buttery texture of these lean cuts of beef.  The wine, when mature, will be less fruit-forward, and instead shine with notes of tobacco, mushroom and leather that add interesting layers of flavour to your pairing without overwhelming the subtle meat flavours.

Other Rioja Pairings

Rioja is not a wine that will go well with Pizza,  as the wine’s body can not hold up to the acidity of tomato sauce.  Also, never pair Rioja with Oysters.  What you’ll get is an extremely fishy aftertaste that is quite unpleasant.  If you’re in the mood for seafood, Rioja is excellent with Tuna, Swordfish, and Salmon.