A Proud History
Spain’s most famous wine region has been producing wine since at least the 9th century. Because monastic communities throughout Europe made wines and other products to sell, Spanish monks were Rioja’s first large-scale wine producers. As early as the 17th century, Rioja’s local winemakers began to work together, establishing the Royal Economic Society of Rioja Winegrowers to promote their interests. This tradition continues today with the Control Board of the Rioja Designation of Origin, the governing body of Rioja’s Denominacíon de Origen Calificada (DOCa).
When Spain began to develop its DO classification rules, Rioja was the first wine region to receive official DO status, which was granted in 1925. In 1991 Rioja received Spain’s first-ever DOCa designation, further underscoring the area’s importance and prestige in the winemaking world.
Rioja wines were originally made according to old Spanish tradition, which emphasized long aging – sometimes for decades – in French oak barrels. Today, Rioja winemakers use both American and French oak and age their wines either traditionally or for shorter periods in the modern style to achieve the high level of quality associated with the region’s wines. Innovation and quality continue to be the hallmarks of Rioja wines.
Rioja’s Three Sub-Regions
The Rioja DOCa region, located in northern Spain, is divided into three distinct areas. All three sub-regions run along the Ebro River and are sheltered by a northern mountain range, the Sierra de Cantabria and by the southern Sierra de la Demanda mountains. Rioja Alavesa, the smallest sub-region, has both an Atlantic and Mediterranean climate and is known for terraced vineyards and chalky clay, alluvial and ferrous clay soils. Red and white wine grapes both grow well here. Rioja Alta is also known for red grape varieties. Rioja Alta, in Rioja’s western area, has soils similar to Rioja Alavesa, but at higher elevations. The third sub-region, Rioja Baja, feels more of the Mediterranean influence; temperatures are higher and average rainfall is lower than in the rest of Rioja.*
Seven Wine Varietals
Rioja’s wineries have traditionally focused on seven types of grapes, as DO regulations permit. White varietals include garnacha blanca, malvasía and viura. Red varietals permitted under the original DO regulations are garnacha, graciano, mazuelo and tempranillo. Rioja Baja produces rosé wines from garnacha grapes. Wineries (called bodegas in Spanish) are allowed to blend these varieties during the production process.
Four Aging Categories
If you’re examining a bottle of Rioja wine, you’ll be able to tell how long the wine was aged from the label. Wines labeled “Rioja” have been aged in oak for less than one year. “Crianza” and “Reserva” wines age for at least one year in oak and one year in the bottle, but Reserva wines are released one year later than Crianza wines. “Rioja Gran Reserva” wines spend two years in oak and three in the wine bottle.
Recent Rioja Wine News
In November 2007, Wine Enthusiast magazine named Rioja its “Region of the Year.” This prestigious award reflects Rioja’s ongoing commitment to quality, innovative winemaking.
In February 2007, the DOCa regulations were changed to permit use of several new grape varieties in Rioja wines. White grape varietals permitted in Rioja now include chardonnay, maturana blanca, sauvignon blanc, tempranillo blanco, turruntés and verdejo. Red varieties permitted include maturana tinto, maturano and monastrell.**
Wine Tourism in Rioja
Rioja has committed to promoting wine tourism within the region. Following the lead of other prominent European wine regions, Rioja is developing wine routes for tourists to follow and has created a guide to the region’s bodegas. Rioja’s wineries are working together to bring more wine tourists to the area.
The Marqués de Riscal winery recently opened its “City of Wine” complex in El Ciego. This winery is worth a visit even if you don’t enjoy wine tours; noted architect Frank O. Gehry designed the complex, which includes a hotel, spa, tasting room and visitor center. Gehry’s trademark titanium swirls are just one unusual aspect of the winery complex, which covers 24 acres.
Many Riojan wineries offer tours. You can find out about these tours and how to book them by doing some online research, or you can consult a wine guide, such as the Peñin Guide to Spanish Wine, for winery contact information. Some wineries prefer advance notice of your arrival; be sure to check the preferences of the wineries you’d like to visit.
*Source: Web Institucional del Consejo Regulador de la DOC Rioja
**Source: Control Board of the DOCa Rioja