Rioja is classified into different levels according to how long it's aged, so if you like a wine with more oak and subtler fruit, pick one of the older (and generally more expensive) versions, and if you're in the mood for something younger and fresher, try the young Rioja.
- Rioja: aged in barrel for less than a year.
- Crianza: aged at least two years, at least one of which was in oak.
- Reserva: aged at least three years, at least one of which was in oak.
- Gran Reserva: aged at least two years in oak and three years in bottle.
These days Rioja is undergoing a shift in winemaking technique. Modernists insist that uber-long aging isn't good for the wine; it loses its pure fruit and vibrancy. Traditionalists believe the extensive oak aging produces the character of the wine. My general summation: older Riojas aged traditionally in oak are subtler, more complex, and better with food. Younger Riojas are fruitier, easier on untrained palates, and better for sipping or with big, assertive dishes. But results may vary, as always.
I had a young and "new" Rioja recently, the Bodegas Bilbainas Vina Zaco 2006 ($15). It's clearly marketed to the younger crowd, putting the grape name on the label, touting itself as "rebellious, authentic, and delicious," and stating on its website "It gives us great pleasure to introduce a new generation of La Rioja." In other words: Suck it, old people, the Facebook generation is taking over. The wine is heavy, powerful, fruity, and tannic, with a tinge of the Old World earthiness that marks its origin even as it tries to defy it.
I'm all for good change. It so happens that I like both styles of Rioja, old and new. The old appeals to my sense of tradition and history and authenticity; the new appeals to my young self who cut her wine teeth on fruit-forward American wines. Try both styles side by side and see what you think. Get a young Rioja (2006) and an older one (a Reserva, 2003 perhaps) and taste them one after the other. Which do you like better, and why?