The La Rioja wine region is located in the north of Spain between the rivers Oja and Ebro. The region is made up of three sub-regions (Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja) which produce some of the country’s finest red wines. The Rioja grape harvest takes place from September to October. Wine tourism to the region is a flourishing business with the main international gateway being the airport of Bilbao.
Getting to La Rioja
When visiting Spain’s largest and most popular wine tasting area, you will find that although Logroño is known as the capital, the real heart of the region is the town of Haro which is home to some of the region’s most prominent bodegas including:
- Bodega La Rioja Alta S.A.
- Bodegas Muga
- Bodegas Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia
- CVNE Vino
- Bodegas Ramon Bilbao
Haro is also within easy driving distance of award-winning Riojan wineries such as Bodegas Palacio Haro, Marqués de Cáceres, Marqués de Riscal, and Remelluri.
The nearest international airport to the Rioja wine growing region is Bilbao which lies 105km to the north. There’s also a regional airport just 60km away at Logroño-Agoncillo but this only attracts a few domestic flights from Madrid.
Where to Stay in La Rioja
There are some beautiful hotels located within the main towns of the Rioja region as well as some lovely rural establishments. A few favourites amongst wine connoisseurs include:
Marqués de Riscal Vineyard Hotel
Address: Calle Torrea Kalea, 1 – Elciego
Hospedería Señorío de Casalarreina
Address: Plaza Santo Domingo de Guzmán, 6 – Casalarreina
Hotel Villa de Ábalos
Address: Plaza Fermín Gurbindo, 2 – Ábalos
Rioja Winery Tastings
Although quite a few of the wineries will allow you to join in with a guided tour if you happen to arrive just at the right time, it is really advisable to make an appointment at a pre-scheduled time in order to avoid disappointment. If you would like to have the wine-tasting completely prearranged for you, then the simple and straightforward way to do this is to book yourself onto an organised winery tour beginning locally or from as far afield as Bilbao or Madrid.
Sub-regions of La Rioja
The Rioja wine region is split into three sub-regions: the two cooler climates of Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa and the hotter area of Rioja Baja. All of them produce their own unique variety of Rioja wine.
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.
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.
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.
Brief History of Rioja Wine
Origins: Rioja wine is the product of a long and varied tradition of winemaking in this area, which began in the 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.
Phylloxera: During the latter years of the 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.
Denominación de Origen: 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.
Types of Rioja 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.
The classification of Rioja wines appears on the front label or on the neck or back label of the bottle in the form of a stamp known as a ‘consejo’. Categories of red wines are as follows:
Rioja Sin Crianza
This is the youngest of the Rioja wines which are often intended for consumption during the first year. It is not aged in oak barrels. The wine label usually takes the simple title of ‘Rioja’.
Rioja Semi Crianza
These wines have only had a few months in oak, hence not being able to be given the title of a full Crianza.
Rioja De Crianza
Crianza wines are aged for at least two years of which one must be in an oak barrel. It cannot be sold before its 3rd year.
Reserva wines are aged for at least three years of which one must be in an oak barrel. They are then aged for a minimum two years in the bottle.
Rioja Gran Reserva
The highest quality of Rioja wines undergo at least five years of ageing of which two years must be in oak casks and three years in the bottle. Reservas and Gran Reservas are not produced every year.
White Rioja Wines (Blancos)
The prominent grape for white wines 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. The classification of white Rioja wines is as follows:
- Crianza: Must be aged for six months in oak casks.
- Reserva: Must have two years ageing with a minimum of six months in oak casks.
- Gran Reserva: Must have four year ageing with a minimum of six months in oak casks.
Rosé Rioja Wines (Rosados)
Rose wines are generally produced from Garnacha grapes.