Guide to Rioja’s New Wine Classification System

In 2017, the Consejo Regulador Denominación de Origen Calificada Rioja (the regulatory board for the origin of Rioja wines) announced sweeping changes to the designations within La Rioja, Spain’s most well-known wine region. The changes, which went into effect in 2019, will influence labeling, provide winemakers with more flexibility in regard to wine styles, and open a new market for a highly regulated sparkling wine. Here’s what you need to know about the changes to Rioja’s classification system, and what it means for consumers and the future of Rioja wines.

At a glance: changes to Rioja labels and designations

In general, these changes were implemented to bring more awareness to the origins (either the zone, the village, or the single vineyard) of grapes. Therefore, Rioja wines may now include these more regionally-focused designations called Viñedos Singulares, Vinos de Municipio, and Vinos de Zona.

Viñedos Singulares:

Grapes must come from a single vineyard. The vineyard must have been established for a minimum of 35 years, and yields must be 20% lower than what is typically allowed for the Rioja DOC.

Vinos de Municipio:

Grapes must come from the village or municipality stated on the label. (There are 145 in total.) Up to 15% of the grapes may come from a neighboring village.

Vinos de Zona:

Grapes must come from one of Rioja’s subregions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, or Rioja Oriental (also called Eastern Rioja or Rioja Baja). Up to 15% of the grapes may come from a neighboring zone.

Rioja’s classification system remains the same (Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva) but there is also a new designation for sparkling wine called Gran Añada. There is also a new designation for sparkling wine called Espumosos de Calidad de Rioja. The production and aging requirements for this designation are similar to those of the Champagne region.

Some major changes have also been made in regard to accepted wine making styles. Rosé wines (called rosado) can now be made lighter in color. White wines (Rioja Blanco) can now be bottled as a single varietal (as opposed to a mix). In addition to the white grapes that have been allowed in La Rioja for decades (Viura, Malvasía, Garnacha Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Blanca, Turruntés and Verdejo), Rioja Blanco may now also include Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

The future of Rioja: what these changes mean for consumers

It is an exciting time to follow Rioja wine production. As these changes are implemented, it is possible that certain vineyards and municipios will emerge as highly acclaimed, which could mean more specific requests from consumers for wines from specific regions or vineyards. Only time will tell which of the 145 municipios (and which of the thousands of single vineyards) will garner this acclaim.

The addition of new sparkling wine designations (Espumosos de Calidad de Rioja and Gran Añada) signal the desire to tap into the sparkling wine market and compete with cava. Cava, which is mainly produced in Catalunya, currently comprises 90% of sparkling wine production in Spain.

With the addition of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc as accepted grapes for Rioja Blanco, it will be interesting to see how winemakers choose to blend (or not blend) their white wines. There will most certainly be some lighter, less fruit-forward rosé wines on the market in the coming years now that wine makers are not restricted to the darker rosé style.