Without doubt, wine is an integral part of both Spanish culture and cuisine. Rioja is just one of many Spanish wines and it is named after the river, Rio Oja which runs through the Oja Valley in the province of La Rioja in northern Spain. The wine producing region runs for 120 kilometers down either side of the river which supplies the large quantity of water needed for all fourteen thousand vineyards to reap their harvest.
History of Rioja Wine
Rioja wine is the product of a long and varied tradition of winemaking in this area, which began in 11th century BC with the Phoenician settlers. Many of the Rioja vineyards were founded by the Ancient Romans, as is the case with several of Europe’s most renowned wine areas.
During the latter years of 19th century an epidemic of phylloxera, a worldwide pest of commercial grapevines totally devastated the Bordeaux wine producing regions of France. At this time the French influence took over in Rioja and some of the greatest wines were produced using the long oak ageing method, taken up very enthusiastically by the Riojans. Even today, when Rioja, along with Sherry proves to be the most internationally recognized Spanish wine, there are still several Bodegas making their wines in this oak ageing way.
In 1970 the Regulations for Denominación de Origen were approved and in the early 1990’s the esteemed “Calificada” nomination was awarded to the Rioja region which made it the first Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) in Spain.
Geography, Soil and Climate
Nestled to the south of the Cantabrian Mountains, which provide protection from the typically fierce northern Spain winds, the region has all the benefits of a continental climate. The biggest part of the region is situated on a plateau around fifteen hundred feet above sea level and experiences an average rainfall of anything between twelve and twenty inches each year. The soil in the area is clay based with a significant concentration of limestone and sandstone, although it is the high content of iron and chalk which provides the red hue in the soil and may well be the reason why the area is known as Rioja (roja is the Spanish word for red). September to October is the usual harvest time for most of the Rioja vineyards and their varied grape varieties which make up red, white and rose wines.
Red Rioja Wines (Tintos)
Tempranillo is the most well known and widely used grape to make red wine (tinto). It is a black grape often referred to as Spain’s noble grape which ripens several weeks prior to the other varieties and provides the full bodiedness of red wines. A blend will usually consist of sixty percent Tempranillo and up to twenty percent of Garnacha, with much smaller proportions of Mazuelo and Graciano. Each and every grape makes the wine unique. The main flavour and aging potential of the wine comes from the Tempranillo grape, with the Garnacha adding body and alcohol, the Mazuelo seasoning flavours and the Graciano providing the aroma.
White Rioja Wines (Blancos)
The prominent wine here is the Viura, also known as the Macabeo which is blended with some Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca. The Viura supplies the fruit flavor, acidity and a small amount of aroma, the Malvasia adds further aroma and the Garnacha Blanca provides the full body.
Rosé Rioja Wines (Rosados)
Rose wines are generally produced from Garnacha grapes.
Principal Wine Regions of Rioja
The Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja are the three principal regions of the area and all produce their own unique variety of Rioja wine.
1. Rioja Alta
Located at higher elevations than the other areas and on the western edge of the region, Rioja Alta is famous for its fruity and smooth textured wines.
2. Rioja Alavesa
This area produces fuller bodied wines with higher acidity, even though the climate is very similar to that of the Alta region. Within these vineyards the vine density is low and the rows are well spread out with plenty of space between each. The reason for this is that the condition of the soil is relatively poor so the vines need to be distanced so as not to be in competition for the nutrients contained within the soil.
3. Rioja Baja
This region is strongly influenced by the Mediterranean climate making it the driest and warmest areas of Rioja. In fact, the summer month droughts can be a serious hazard even with the more recently permitted irrigation systems in place. With some wines reaching 18% volume, this deep red coloured wine can be highly alcoholic when consumed in quantity. The wines do not normally have much aroma or acidity and are more often that not used with wines from the other regions as blending components.
Rioja Wine Classifications
There are four categories of classification for red Rioja wine. The youngest takes the simple title of “Rioja”. This particular wine spends less than one year in the oak aging barrel process. The “Crianza” is the second youngest, aged for at least two years, one of which is in oak. “Rioja Reserva” is aged for at least one year in oak and two further years and the last of the classifications is the “Rioja Gran Reserva” requiring two years in oak and a further three in the bottle although the latter two wines are not always produced on an annual basis.
There are also wines produced called Semi Crianza. This variety has only had a few months in oak, hence not being able to be given the title of a full Crianza. The classification of wines may appear in writing on the front label or on the neck or back label of the bottle in the form of a stamp known as a consejo.
Red Rioja Wine Labels
This means no wood ageing or less than 1 year in wooden casks
Vino De Crianza
Minimum of 1 years ageing in oak casks and cannot be sold before its 3rd year.
Must have a minimum of 3 years ageing of which 1 must be in oak casks and 2 years ageing in bottle.
Must have a minimum of 5 years ageing of which 2yrs must be in oak casks and 3years ageing in bottle.
White Rioja Wine Labels
Must be aged for 6 months in oak casks.
Must have 2 yrs ageing with a minimum of 6 months in oak casks.
Must have 4 yrs ageing with a minimum of 6 months in oak casks.Rioja Vintage Years
Rioja Wine Tours
If you’d like to find out more about the wines of this region take a look at our Rioja Wine Tours.