Located in the north of Spain between the rivers Oja and Ebro, the Rioja wine region is the most widely recognised ‘denominación de origin’ which produces some of the country’s finest red wines. It is divided into the three sub-regions of Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental (previously Rioja Baja), all of which produce their own unique variety of wines. Rioja wine tours are a flourishing business in the region with many bodegas offering guided tours and tastings for small groups as well as private visits.
History of Rioja Wine
Whilst the Phoenicians were involved in small scale winemaking in the Rioja region, it was the Romans who established the first vineyards in towns close to modern-day Logroño and Calahorra from around 2 BC. Under Moorish rule the fledgling industry stood still but experienced a resurgence following the Christian Reconquest. The earliest evidence of commercial wine exports to other regions is in the late 13th century and by the 15th century Rioja Alta had become an established wine-producing region.
Word of Rioja wines travelled far and wide thanks to pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago which passed through the region. Some bodegas from the region started to look further afield for trading partners and foreign wine merchants began to export wines through Bilbao and Santander.
In the late 18th century the process of oak ageing was introduced from the Bordeaux region of France. A century later the phylloxera epidemic devastated the Bordeaux wine producing region and created a huge demand for Rioja wines. French producers opened bodegas in the region and brought with them a level of expertise that hadn’t previously existed . This laid the foundation for enabling the Rioja wine industry to establish itself as a major producer on the international stage.
During the first half of the 20th century many vineyards were turned over to wheat production to help feed the population during two world wars and a civil war. The vines weren’t returned until the 1960s but very soon the quality of Rioja wines was evident which attracted major investment in the region. Modern producers have moved away from the traditional oak-flavoured wines in favour of wines which have a more popular international appeal. In 1991 the Rioja wine region was the first Spanish wine region to be awarded the esteemed Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) status which recognised it as the country’s premier wine region.
Geography of the Rioja Wine Region
Rioja Alta: The vineyards of this western area of the Rioja wine region lie on slopes which reach as high as 800m above sea level. It is home to the town of Haro which is the de facto capital of the wine growing region (Logroño is the administrative capital of La Rioja). Visitors to the town can visit some of the region’s best-known bodegas including La Rioja Alta, Muga, CVNE and Ramón Bilbao.
Rioja Alavesa: Whilst this area lies further east in the Basque province of Álava, it shares many of the same physical characteristics as Rioja Alta. Its main towns are Laguardia and Elciego which are home to a number of prestigious wineries including Bodegas Valdelana and Bodegas Marqués de Riscal.
Rioja Oriental: This is the largest of the three sub-regions which produces approximately 40% of Rioja’s total output. It lies beyond Logroño, to the east, and was known as Rioja Baja until 2018. It stands at a lower altitude than the other two regions and experiences a warmer, drier climate. Typically the wineries in this region are co-operatives and family-run bodegas which produce a lower quality of wine than the wineries in Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa.
Rioja Wine Tourism
Getting to the La Rioja Wine Region
Whilst Logroño is the capital of the province of La Rioja, it is the town of Haro which serves as capital of the wine region. The nearest international airport to the Rioja wine growing region is Bilbao which lies 110km to the north of Haro. The regional airport for La Rioja is Logroño-Agoncillo but this only attracts a few domestic flights from Madrid.
Where to Stay in La Rioja
|Marqués de Riscal Vineyard Hotel||Elciego||5-star|
|Palacio Tondón Hotel||Briñas||4-star|
|Parador de Calahorra||Calahorra||4-star|
|Finca de los Arandinos Hotel and Winery||Entrena||4-star|
|Eurostars Los Agustinos||Haro||4-star|
|Hotel Calle Mayor||Logroñ0||4-star|
|Eurostars Fuerte Ruavieja||Logroño||4-star|
|Hostería del Monasterio de San Millan||San Millán de la Cogolla||4-star|
|Parador de Santo Domingo||Santo Domingo de la Calzada||4-star|
|Hotel Villa de Ábalos||Ábalos||3-star|
|Hospedería Señorío de Casalarreina||Casalarreina||3-star|
Rioja Wine Tours and Tastings
Every visitor to the Rioja wine region should make a point of visiting the Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture in Briones. This is one of the world’s great wine museums which investigates the history of wine from prhistoric times to the modern day.
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.
|Bodegas Marqués de Cáceres||Cenicero|
|Bodegas Marqués de Riscal||Elciego|
|Bodegas La Rioja Alta||Haro|
|Bodegas Ramón Bilbao||Haro|
|Bodegas López de Heredia||Haro|
|Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta||Logroño|
FAQs on a Rioja Wine Tour
What Grapes Are Used in Rioja Wines?
Red Rioja Wines: 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: 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.
Rosé Rioja Wines: These wines are generally produced from Garnacha grapes.
What Does ‘Crianza’ Mean on a Rioja Wine Label?
Rioja wines are classified according to which of the three zones they come from and according to the ageing process they go through. The ageing categories are as follows:
Joven: This youngest of Rioja wines has no particular ageing requirement and was traditionally categorized as the region’s lowest quality wine. Nowadays there are some very good young wines, especially the Rioja Blanco (White Rioja) which is produced mainly with Viura grapes.
Crianza: Tempranillo grapes are used to produce full-bodied red Rioja wines which go through two years of ageing which includes at least one year in oak barrels. Whites and rosés are also aged for two years with at least six months in oak barrels.
Reserva: This is a Rioja red wine of exceptional quality which goes through three years of ageing which must include at least one year in oak barrels and a minimum of six months in bottles. White and rosé reservas wines are aged for two years with at least six months in oak barrels.
Gran Reserva: These are the finest red wines produced in the Rioja region which are aged for five years including at least two years in oak barrels and three years in the bottle. Whites and rosés are aged for four years with a minimum of six months in oak barrels. Reservas and Gran Reservas are not produced every year.
Gran Añada: This is a new category which is used to classify sparkling wines according to a similar system used for Champagne.
New Classification Rules (2018):
In an attempt to move away from classification based on oak-ageing, the Rioja Regulatory Council recently adopted new rules which recognise individual vineyards and villages according to local microclimates and soil types (terroir). This means that some Rioja wines can now be identified according to the village or municipality in which they are grown. There are, however, 145 municipalities in the Rioja wine region so it may be some time before we see which villages will become the star performers of this new, Burgundy-style wine classification.
What is a Good Year for Rioja Wine?
According to the Rioja Regulatory Council, the official classification of Rioja wines since the turn of the century are as follows:
|2006||Very Good||2017||Very Good|