Rioja – the home of bright, berry-scented, barrel-aged red wines made from Tempranillo and Garnacha – is arguably Spain's top wine region. It is certainly the most famous, rivaled only by Jerez. Located in northern Spain, Rioja's vineyards trace the course of the Ebro River for roughly 60 miles (100km) between the towns of Haro and Alfaro.
All top-end red Rioja is matured in new oak barrels; American oak is the preference, but many wineries use a mix of American and French oak. This contact with virgin oak is what gives Rioja wines their distinctive notes of coconut, vanilla and sweet spices. The amount of time that a Rioja wine spends in barrel dictates whether it is categorized as Joven, Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva. Rioja Joven wines, which are intended for consumption within two years of vintage, spend little or no time in oak (jóven is Spanish for "young'). Rioja Crianza wines are aged for one year in barrel, and one year in bottle. Rioja Reserva wines spend a minimum of one year in oak, and cannot be sent to market until a full three years after vintage. Rioja Gran Reserva wines are the region's very finest (and most expensive) wines. These undergo a total of five years' aging, of which at least two years is spend in oak.
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