Rioja is today Spain´s most famous wine region. Rioja (or “Rioha”) is the first name that will come up to any wine lover´s name when they think about Spain.
The same thing would apply to Spaniards if they are asked to name one wine region. They may prefer wine from another region (there are over 60 wine regions in Spain) but most people asked would still refer to Rioja as their first option.
One thing which is very important about Rioja is that even the standard wines have a decent quality.
History of the wines in Rioja
Wine production in this wine region dates back to the Roman times. This is no surprise as it 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 important wine deficit due to the plague and French wine makers found in Rioja, its 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 landed in Rioja and most of what was achieved in terms of economic development stopped.
During most of the 20th century Rioja went through ups and downs (that would not only apply to Rioja but to Spain in general terms). The last 20 or 25 years of the XX Century witnessed an 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 of all this is Rioja´s current reputation. You can find more information on the history of wine in Rioja in this post.
Regulation and types of wine in Rioja
Rioja is mainly known for its red wines. Rioja is also well-known for having wines that age for long time. Tempranillo is Rioja´s main grape and most wines are blended with smaller amounts of Garnache, Graciano and Mazuelo grape. More information on the classification system of wine in Rioja can be found here.
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 old without the label.
The DOC permits 4 different types or categories of wine: young or joven (we wil comment in a second about this category), crianza, reserva and gran reserva. Each of these categories need to comply with specific times they need to stay at the winery before they can be released to the market.
Crianza Rioja wine. These wines need to stay at least 2 years before they are released to the market. They must stay at least one year aging in oak barrel (the remaining year would be in the bottle)
Reserva Rioja wines. They must stay at least 3 years in the winery and one of these must be aging in oak barrel.
Gran reserva: at least 24 months in oak barrel and at least 48 months in the winery before they are released to the market.
The category of young rioja wine is not only for young wines. Many wine makers decide to 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 in which 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 a lot in recent years in everything connected to grape selection and the attention and care put on the vineyard. Wines follow today 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 a lot from wine to wine. 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.
As we have mentioned above, most of the wine in the Rioja wine region is red (around 90% of all wine produced) The production of Rosé is minimal, whilst white wines cover for almost the remaining amount. Most white wines are produced with Viura Macabeo) though other grape varietals can be used such as verdejo or malvasia (normally blended in very small amounts). Viura can 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 dropped in favour of more fruity wines and most wineries gave up the production of those rare and complex white gems.
We will not end this section without mentioning the complex reality of the Rioja 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…