Rioja, Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva: What does it all mean?

Sometimes, picking wine can be stressful. We have all been there, looking at a wall of bottles, all with labels packed full of words we don’t understand. When nothing on the label seems recognizable, it becomes a hassle trying to decipher which bottle to choose, most of us simply give up and turn to something familiar but, don’t despair! I am here to help you understand some of these terms and make your future wine purchases less stressful!

I thought we would start with one of my personal favorites, Spain! Specifically, the region of Rioja. This is the home and permanent residence of the fantastic and full-bodied Tempranillo grape. While grown in a few other wine regions, 80% of the world’s Tempranillo comes from Spain. If you have never tried Tempranillo before, it can have a flavor profile somewhat similar to Sangiovese or Cabernet Sauvignon, and can vary from medium to full-bodied based on the oak aging. Flavors of cherry and leather dominate, with the balance between fruit and earth being key. The finish is typically smooth with medium tannin. In New World regions, like California, more fruit characteristics come forward but, the main flavor profile is always of the red fruit variety.

In Rioja, Spain, Tempranillo is aged is 4 different ways. On a label of Tempranillo from Rioja you will always see one of the four following words: Vin Joven, Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva. This is typically where some confusion can set in when trying to make a selection. Each one of these words actually relates to the aging process used, specifically the amount of time the wine spends aging at the vineyard before being released to the public. As we all know, aging wine changes its profile and is why collectors keep some bottles for decades, letting the wine age in the bottle until it reaches its peak.

Vin Joven is the first style and is typically not found outside of Spain. It is a very young wine, released by the vineyards quickly and meant to be enjoyed immediately. The next level is Crianza, where 2 years of aging are required, 6 months of that must be in oak. American oak, which imparts a stronger flavor profile, is commonly used here. Next, we arrive at Reserva Tempranillo which are aged for 3 years with a year of that in oak. These oak aging rules lead to a richer and rounder style of wine. Lastly, there is Gran Reserva which consist of reserve wines from specifically outstanding years. They are aged for a minimum of 5 years, 18 months of that in oak, before being released to the public. Many producers age in oak for sometimes twice as long, resulting in huge, bold flavors.

Hopefully, understanding these terms a little more will help you when making your next wine purchase and at least alleviate a little stress. If you find yourself still having questions, or even just wanting to give Tempranillo a taste, come see me at the Wine Shop or contact me directly at or 770.328.9756.


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