You walk into the supermarket and you are greeted by 3 different Riojas all looking relatively similar but their prices aren't similar at all. What is going on?
Wine is a highly regulated sector in the European Union and in the case of Spain the regulations are established at regional level by the “Consejos reguladores” or regulatory bodies. In the case of Rioja this is the Consejor Regulador del vino de Rioja, which establishes the regulation for Rioja wines on things like which varieties can be planted, maximum yield per acre permitted and most importantly the Consejo establishes a classification system for Rioja wines which is based on the criteria of ageing.
The following are the classifications that often determine the price level.
Joven is the term for the youngest wines that require no oak ageing. These are usually the lowest priced category and used for house wines.
The term is applied to wines which mature for at least 2 years at the winery before being released to the market. Part of this time is to be spent in oak barrels, part in the bottle
Selected Red wines of the best vintages with an excellent potential that have been aged for a minimum of 3 years, with at least one year in oak.
At the Reserva level, winemakers often age their wines longer than the minimum and select better grapes. Many Rioja wine enthusiasts swear by Reserva level because they are a medium between super fruity Crianza and oakey-bottle-aged Gran Reserva.
The final category is Gran Reserva. These wines need to spend at least 5 years before they reach the market. Out of these 5 years, 2 at least are to be spent in oak barrel. In the case of white wines, the time before they can be released to the market is 4 years, of which 6 months would apply to oak barrel aging.
What’s interesting about Gran Reserva is that most winemakers select the best grapes for this level and age them for as long as the wine needs. This means most of the new release Gran Reservas are around 10 years old or older when you first see them available.