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November 8, 2023 3 Minutes

Oak Ageing: The Distinctive Seal of Rioja Wines

copas de vino Rioja

Since the second half of the 19th century, Crianza en Roble has become the hallmark of QDO Rioja wines. It is a process that imparts a unique personality. But what makes oak ageing so special in Rioja?

Oak Ageing: A time-honoured Tradition

It was not until the mid-19th century that oak aging was finally established in Rioja, thanks to visionary winemakers such as Camilo Hurtado de Amézaga, Luciano de Murrieta, Rafael López de Heredia and Eusebio Real de Asúa. These names, associated with century-old wineries, not only knew Bordeaux techniques but also recruited French winemakers at a time when French vineyards were suffering from the devastating effects of phylloxera.

Through an appropriate ageing process, in which the oak wood plays a decisive role, Rioja wine undergoes an evolution that enhances its virtues and gives it new, specific characteristics.

The oak lends its aromas and tannins, giving it complexity and character. From notes of vanilla to elegant hints of coconut. In addition, the micro-oxygenation in the barrels softens the tannins, giving them a silky and refined texture.

The Influence of Oak Type

Each type of oak brings its own character to the wine. Although American oak has dominated in Rioja, wineries are increasingly adopting French oak barrels and, more recently, Northern European oak.

  • American OakAmerican oak belongs to the Quercus alba or white oak species, which grows in the forests of the American Midwest. It has the lowest tannin content of all the oaks, but is particularly rich in aldehydes and lactones, which give the wines vanilla and coconut aromas respectively.
  • French OakAlthough French oak is usually referred to, there are actually two different types of oak grown in France:

    Quercus robur is mainly used for the ageing of eaux-de-vie and Armagnac. This is a very porous, wide-grained type of oak, which allows a higher degree of evaporation and oxidation. It contributes high levels of tannins and its aromas are reminiscent of toasted almonds and caramel.

    Quercus sessilis is grown in the forests of Allier, Nevers and Tronçais. This type of oak has a finer grain than Limousin oak and has less tannin, which is why it is preferred for wine production; it provides aromatic notes that tend towards spices and smoke.

  • Northern European OakNorthern European oak, closer in characteristics to French oak than to American oak.

Whatever their origin, the QDO Rioja regulations stipulate that all casks must be 225-litre Bordeaux casks.

With skill and passion, Rioja’s wineries continue to explore and create, offering the world wines that reflect the harmony between tradition and innovation.

What is your choice? American, French or Northern European? Each is an invitation to a unique sensory journey, a unique experience.

The magic of Bottle ageing

After ageing in barrels and the gentle oxidation that the wine has undergone, the aromatic compounds increase in complexity and intensity thanks to the reductive environment (in the absence of oxygen) that ageing in the bottle gives the wine. The bottles are placed horizontally and kept at a constant temperature of between 10ºC and 15ºC.

Over time, the primary fruit gives way to a more savoury palate, where complexity increases. The wine becomes more rounded and harmonious, with softer tannins and a typical velvety texture develops. At the same time, the colour transforms from garnet to bright ruby or even brick red.

It is as if each bottle has a story in progress, waiting to be revealed. Over the years, some may develop sediments, little treasures that remind us of the time that has passed since they were aged. At such moments, decanting becomes a ritual, preparing the wine to reveal its deepest secrets.

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