Rioja is today Spain´s most famous wine region. Rioja (or “Rioha”) is the first name that will come up to any wine lovers name when they think about Spain. The same applies to Spaniards if asked to name one wine region.
The wine producing region is divided into 3 sub-regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. Rioja Alavesa is located North of the Ebro river and coincides with the part of Rioja which belongs to the Spanish Basque Country. Rioja Baja is located southeast of Logrono, whilst Rija Alta is located from Logroño to Haro, South of the Ebro river.
In order to add to this complex reality, the wine producing region of Rioja is spread in 3 administrative regions of Spain: Navarre, Rioja and Basque country. One thing which is very important about Rioja is even the standard wines are good quality.
History of the wines in Rioja
Wine production in this wine region dates back to the Roman times unsurprisingly, as is the same case in many other wine producing regions in Europe. There is however more evidence about the role of Rioja in wine from the Middle ages. The wine from Rioja we know today has very little in common with the wines produced those days. Big changes started during the XIX century. The philloxera had impacted the vineyards in France and a few members of the local Riojan aristocracy started to incorporate wine production methods from Bordeaux in France. France had a very large wine deficit due to the plague and French wine makers found in Rioja’s soils and wines a perfect suit to produce the elegant wines they needed in Bordeaux. Those were years of change in Rioja. New production techniques were applied and the region´s economy expanded… but then the philloxera plague arrived and most of what was achieved in terms of economic development stopped.
During most of the 20th century Rioja along with Spain went through inevitable ups and downs. The last 20 or 25 years of the 20th century witnessed extraordinary development in the region. New wineries were established, important efforts were made with investments in both the vineyards and the wineries. A new generation of young managers and wine makers brought new energies to the region and the outcome is Rioja´s current reputation.
Regulation and types of wine in Rioja
Rioja is mainly known for its red wines and wines that age well. Tempranillo is Rioja´s main grape and most wines are blended with smaller amounts of Garnache, Graciano and Mazuelo grape.
Wines in Rioja are controlled by the local DOC Rioja. (Denominación de origen controlada Rioja) Most wine regions in Spain are Dos. Rioja is a DOC. The extra “C” implies that if a winery wants to label its wines as Rioja it can only do that. No wine from that winery could be sold without the label.
The DOC permits 4 different types or categories of wine: young or joven, crianza, reserva and gran reserva. Each category need to comply with specific times they need to stay at the winery before they can be released to the market.
The category of young rioja wine is not only for young wines. Many wine makers produce wines which may not comply with any of the other categories of crianza, reserva or gran reserva. The winery may even not want to put some of the wines under any of the categories. This normally applies to “Author wines” They are wines the wine maker does not want to be constrained by the regulation and to do so the winery has to use the label traditionally used in the past for young wines.
Did you know?
Rioja has improved in recent years in everything connected to grape selection and the attention and care put on the vineyard. Wines today use longer maceration periods to extract more tannins. The result is wines with deeper aromas and more concentrated flavours.
The price for wines in the Rioja wine region vary significantly from winery to winery. Young wines and crianza wines can be found at very reasonable prices. The prices for Reservas and Gran Reservas increase considerably, whilst the most fancy, “author wines” can reach stratospheric prices altogether.
Around 90% of all wine produced in the Rioja is red, production of Rosé is minimal, whilst white wines take up the balance. Most whites are produced with Viura Macabeo) though other grape varietals can be used such as verdejo or malvasia (normally blended in very small amounts). Viura produce complex white wines. In the past many wineries produced whites that were aged for long periods in oak barrels. But the market for those wines declined in favour of more fruity wines resulting in most wineries reducing production of those rare and complex white gems.