Love Rioja? Five Other Styles to Discover

Rioja is one of the world’s most loved wines. 

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Rioja-red

Rioja is one of the world’s most loved wines. 

© Shutterstock

1. Navarra

The popularity of Rioja tends to overshadow its neighbour to the north-east. Navarra built its reputation on cheap, thirst-quenching rosé, but today more ambitious producers are using the region’s Grenache – or Garnacha as it’s known here – and increasingly Rioja’s Tempranillo to produce serious red wine too.

Navarra’s producers tend to have a less firm attachment to American oak barrels than their Riojan counterparts, so expect the more subtle flavour influence yet firmer tannins of French barrels. One of the most highly regarded, historic names in Navarran wine is Chivite: try their Collección 125 Reserva, made from the estate’s top Tempranillo parcels.


2. Ribera del Duero

This high, arid plateau on the Duero river took a while to establish its credentials as a serious, commercially viable location for viticulture but since the 1980s both the region and its reputation have boomed. Today Ribera del Duero is packed with big names producing rich, powerful expressions of Tinto Fino, better known elsewhere as none other than Tempranillo.

Especially at the top end of what can be a very high price bracket, Ribera del Duero is often a concentrated, oaky style that demands patient aging for maximum enjoyment. Vega Sicilia remains the benchmark here, its unique expression standing secure as one of the world’s great wines. Other names to look out for are Pesquera and Aalto.


3. Proper Zinfandel

Is there a more misunderstood variety than Zinfandel? Its European origins have been hotly debated, while the proliferation of cheap, off-dry examples – especially the notorious Zinfandel “blush” – have led many fine wine lovers to feel this grape isn’t for them. But if you love Rioja’s combination of soft fruit and mellow oak then look again.

California is the world’s major Zinfandel hub with an under-valued treasure trove of old vines. The best producers keep yields low and ensure this variety’s naturally generous alcohol potential stays in balance. Ridge Vineyards have a particularly long, proud track record for excellent Zinfandel, especially their Lytton Springs expression. As in Rioja, this producer also favours the soft, sweet spice influence of American oak barrels.


4. Alentejo Aragonêz

Rioja’s Tempranillo grape doesn’t restrict its Iberian suitability to Spain: Portugal is home to some wonderful expressions. In the Douro as Tinta Roriz, this variety is a major component of Port blends, but is more likely to shine solo down in the Alentejo, where it goes by the name of Aragonêz.

The warmer climate here lends itself to a richer style than you would expect to find in Rioja, but the quality of this grape means it can generally retain fresh acidity alongside that enticing berry fruit and gentle spice. Cortes de Cima and Esporão are two producers with a particularly modern, international outlook who show off the age-worthy charm this grape does so well.


5. McLaren Vale Tempranillo

Australia may have built its reputation on Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, but recent decades have seen producers, especially in the country’s warmest, driest regions, hunt around for varieties better suited to their climate. One increasingly convincing solution is Tempranillo, which has proved itself not only in the relatively cool conditions of Rioja, but – as its success in Alentejo shows – much hotter regions too.

The Mediterranean climate of McLaren Vale in South Australia has proved a particularly comfortable home for Tempranillo. Steve Pannell is among the most successful pioneers of this variety, even blending it successfully with Touriga Nacional for a thoroughly Iberian experience.

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