Rioja is probably the best know wine region in Spain and is to be found on all supermarket and off-licence shelves.There is some very good Rioja and there is a lot of very mediocre Rioja. The Rioja region which is centred on the city of Logroño, straddles the River Ebro, one of Spain’s major rivers, is divided into three sub-regions; Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa. The first two are where the best wines are produced, and they lie to the south of the river. Alavesa is on the north side of the Ebro and tends to use 100% Tempranillo grapes producing wines for drinking young. In recent years the wine has suffered a similar fate to Bordeaux in France and the German riesling wines produced around the towns of Piesport and Nierstein; the name became so popular that growers bought up as much land as possible in the areas that could claim the name for their wines, whether it was good wine growing land or not, and then planted vines from which only very ordinary wine could ever be produced, and so the name Rioja could no longer be relied upon to guarantee a minimum quality. There are other wine regions today that are producing wines to equal the good wines of Rioja, and usually at a lower price. I will deal with these regions in future posts, but first a word or two about the quality classification of Spanish wines, and about the main grapes used. Traditionally classification has been into Vino de Mesa (Table wine), Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva, but more recently you will find the terms ‘Joven’ and ‘Roble’ being used as well. Today wine is mainly fermented in stainless steel tanks under climate controlled conditions, although the more prstigious producers in Rioja still ferment in oak. ‘Joven’ (young) indicates wine produced in one year and sold the next. It usually goes striaght from the tank to the bottle and is meant for drinking young. ‘Roble’ (oak) is similar wine but has had a short time, probably no more than three months in oak barrels before being bottled. Like Joven it is meant to be drunk young. ‘Crianza’ (nurturing) must be aged for a minimum of 24 months after fermentation, with at least six months spent in oak casks. It is the first level of quality wines. ‘Reserva’, the next one up, has to be aged for a minimum of 36 months, with a minimum of 12 months in oak, and ‘Gran Reserva’ are produced only from the finest vintages and must spend five years in the cellars with at least 18 months in oak. Of course, the higher the quality, the higher the price, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the young wines. My only advice would be to discount any Rioja which does not have at least ‘Joven’ or ‘Roble’ on the label. Next, a word about the grapes. As I mentioned earlier, Alavesa producers tend to use only Tempranillo, those of Rioja Alta use mainly Tempranillo with the addition of sma ll quantitiesof Mazuelo and Graciano, whilst in Rioja Baja uses mainly Garnacha (known in France as Grenache). Imported grape varieties are not used in Rioja. Finally, who are the top bodegas? When you look at the back label, the town to look for is Haro. In addition you will not go far wrong with CVNE, Marques de Griñon, El Coto, Faustino, LAN, Muga, or Marques de Cáceres. There are others of course, but that’s a fair selection to start with.