Spanish Rioja is one of the most popular and well-known wines. Even those who are not familiar with wine will at least have heard of Rioja wine. However, “Spanish Rioja” is a misnomer, as Rioja and Spain are closely linked and cannot be thought of independently. But let’s start at the beginning.
We often hear that many people really enjoy drinking Rioja wine, but actually have no idea what it is (those who are already wine connoisseurs will probably not learn anything new here). While in USA the label simply says “Chardonnay” or “Cabernet Sauvignon“, a Rioja wine does not immediately reveal which grapes were used to make it, even upon closer inspection… So, what does Rioja mean exactly?
First of all: Rioja is not a grape variety, as you probably already guessed. Rather, it refers to the most well-known wine-growing region in Spain – Rioja is the designation of origin, which you can also recognize on the wine label by the Denominación de Origen Calificada/DOCa.
Rioja is located in northern Spain, not far from the French border. The Ebro river flows through the area, and the Pyrenees are in sight. The Rioja wine-growing region covers an area of approximately 64,000 hectares and is located in the autonomous Spanish regions of La Rioja, Navarra, and the Basque Country. The region is influenced by both the Atlantic and Mediterranean climates, depending on the subregion. Three subregions are distinguished:
Rioja Alta is the largest subregion, covering about 40% of the total vineyard area. It is located in the upper part of the Ebro basin and largely at an altitude of around 600 meters, resulting in a cooler, Atlantic-influenced climate. The wines are therefore characterized by more acidity.
Rioja Alavesa covers about 20% of the Rioja wine-growing region. It is located to the north, in the Basque highlands, where the grapes ripen on the south-facing slopes. The location and the lime-rich soils provide a good foundation for characterful wines.
Rioja Baja is located to the east in the lower part of the Ebro basin and is characterized by a warmer climate.
Rioja wine is usually a blend of grapes of different varieties – but it doesn’t have to be. What can be found in almost every – red – Rioja, however, is Tempranillo. The most widespread grape variety in Spain covers about 75% of the vineyard area in Rioja and gives the Rioja wine not only its dark, strong color, but also its berry aroma. The second most widely grown grape variety in Rioja is Garnacha. It is not as intensely colored or tannin-rich, but it also produces beautiful, fruity wines. You can probably guess by now: these two red varieties are the most common blend partners for a Rioja. In general, however, other varieties are also possible – the following additional red wine varieties are allowed: Graciano, Mazuelo and Maturana Tinta.
For completeness, it must of course be mentioned that a Rioja wine does not necessarily have to be a red wine, although the latter certainly enjoys a higher level of recognition. Since this designation refers to the place of origin, white wines with the Rioja label can also be found – the following white grape varieties are allowed in Rioja: Tempranillo Blanco, Garnacha Blanca, Maturana Blanca, Viura, Malvasía, Turruntés, Verdejo as well as the well-known grape varieties Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Rioja Wine: From Bodega to Gran Reserva
Wines are traditionally processed in bodegas. These are usually not individual wineries, but smaller or larger wineries that are operated jointly by winemakers (and others). They are famous for their sometimes large barrel stores – this is another specialty of the Rioja wine region. Most wines are aged in classic 225 liter barrels. The four categories into which most Rioja wines can be divided are derived from the aging process.
- The lowest category is Rioja with origin guarantee: These are usually one- to two-year-old wines that are relatively fresh and fruity.
- Next is Rioja Crianza: Such a wine must be aged for at least two years, with at least (depending on the region) six to 12 months of aging in oak barrels – an exception is made for white wines: here the minimum barrel aging time is six months.
- A category above is Rioja Reserva: These wines must be aged for at least three full years – a minimum of one year (not at the end) in oak barrels. Reserva white wines must have a minimum aging time of two years (at least six months in barrels).
- The highest category is Rioja Gran Reserva: These wines must be aged for at least five years, with at least two years of barrel aging (not at the end). Gran Reserva white wines must have a minimum aging time of four years (at least six months in barrels).
Rioja wine: A little history
Rioja wine has a long tradition. The first written record of wine production in the region dates back to the 8th century. The Roman influence can still be seen today in the many small bodegas that are often built like underground cellars. The wine region experienced its first major boom in the 19th century, when the phylloxera plague destroyed many vineyards in France and led to a high demand for wine from other regions. In the 20th century, Rioja wine underwent a further transformation with the introduction of modern winemaking techniques. The region’s reputation as a producer of top-quality wine has continued to grow to this day.