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The Rioja wine region takes his name from the Spanish province of La Rioja, in the north east of Spain. The capital city here is Logroño, but the historic city of Haro, in the north west, is far more important when it comes to wine, because this is where you find the really great wineries, or bodegas, to use the Spanish word.
The Rioja wine region splits into the 3 parts: Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa; Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa are far the west than Baja and at the high elevations.
But all 3 wine regions sited on the shadow of great Sierra de Cantabria mountain range. A good region for a day wine tour.
Rioja is undoubtedly the most famous of the Spanish Wine Regions and with good reasons. In Spain, more land is devoted to growing vines than in any other country in the World, and much of that land is up here Rioja. So, people take wine seriously here, except that is on the 27th to the 29th of June, this is when the Haro Wine Festival takes place, forget about gentile wine tastings, this is a St. Peters feast day, when thousands of locals take part on a massive wine party that involves spraying wine all over each other.
At the party, all at once the wine soaked rebler, walk up to the local mountain where the dance to bands…. And well, carry on the party. The best place for wine tourism in Spain.
Rioja has an ancient history that dates back as far as from 3,000 to 4,000 bC, when the Phoenicians settled in Spain and began cultivating vines, but disaster struck in the 700’s when the Moors arrived and the wine production all but stopped completely; thankfully medieval Christianity arrived in Spain, bringing trade and the monastic way of life, which resurrected the wine industry and the area soon began to flourish at least locally. Because there was not until the phylloxera athed outbreak in the middle of the 1800’s the Rioja really came into the zone.
The phylloxera blight ruined virtually all of French vineyards French wine merchants south to Rioja and with them they brought the traditional and prized wine making techniques of Bordeaux and the famous barak style barrels. And under the Bordeaux lay influence, Rioja thrived and was soon exporting gallons of wines to its gallic neighbour.
Fast-forward to the modern times and Rioja’s recent history is quite turbulent, after recovering from its own philloxera athed outbreak at the start of the 20th century the wine became popular again in the 1970’s only to fall out of fashion in the 80s following a spell out all of overpriced and underperforming wines.
But nowadays Rioja is back on trend, with the region producing some of the best valued wines in the world. A perfect place to do a wine tour in Spain.
As you’d expect from a country that boast more vineyards than any other, Rioja is the major producer of wine, and Spain is the 3rd larger producer in the World. In fact, around 280 to 300 million litres of Rioja is produced every year. That is enough to fill 120 Olympic swimming pools.
And all that wine, 90% of this is red with rosé and white wine making up the rest. But this still isn’t as much as Bordeaux, which produces two and a half times more. One reason for this is grapes, which have a lower yield and therefore produce less wine.
So, how does the production process work in Rioja? Well, there are four categories of wines, these are: Vino Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. The differences between each category is very simple, is just down how the wine is kept on oak and in the bottle. The timings are different for red wines and white wines.
So, let’s start with Vino Joven, which means young wine. For red wines, these tend to be 1 or 2 years old and not oak aged. They are fresh and fruity, with low tannins and no so heavy. When you see a bottle of Rioja labelled simply Rioja, this is the young wine.
Next, we have the Crianza, which should be at least 2 years old, and will have spent a minimum of one year in a cask and a few months in a bottle. These wines will probably have been aged in oak cask that have been used before, what is called second used or third used barrels, it means, the flavour of oak will be less strong.
Next, we have the Reserva, these wines will be from some of the best vintages and they will be aged for at least 3 years with at least 1 year in a cask. They should have a good tannin and good flavours of oak.
And finally, we have got the Gran Reserva, and these are heavy hitters, they were produced using grapes from exceptional vintages and will have spent at least 2 years in oak casks and 3 years in a bottle. These wines will have high tannins and lots of powerful oaky flavour.
But having said all of that, trying not to get too hung up on the labels, you can still find excellent wines that are Young or Crianza, in fact you make well find that you prefer the fruity freshness of the Young Rioja to an oak aged Gran Reserva, or there you prefer the medium balance of a Reserva to another Gran Reserva.
As with all wine producing regions, the climate and geography is fundamental to the outcome of the wine. And here, the very name of the region comes from the land, because Rioja wine is named after the province of La Rioja, which takes their name from the river Oja, or río Oja in Spanish, which flows through the area.
The more importantly, Rioja is where two major climates meet, the cool and wet Atlantic climate and the hotter and drier Mediterranean. It is a balance of these 2 climates that results in excellent wine making temperatures and rainfall.
There are 2 major rivers flowing through the region, that help keep the region naturally watered and luscious. These are the Río Oja and the Río Ebro.
The Rioja Wine Region is shaped by mountains, which in turn greatly influence the vines. And the north and west of the region, you’ll find the natural border of the Sierra de Cantabria; these mountains provide a crucial shelter from the cold wet and fierce winds from the Atlantic Ocean, and this keeps the area much drier and warmer as a result.
Rioja benefits from a range of a good varied soils, that include chalky, ferrous clay, and alluvial.
VIURA or Macabeo, as it is known outside of Rioja, is the most widely planted white grape variety in the region. It makes fruity wines with floral aromas and great acidity. This makes it a fantastic grape for both, young and aged wines. Typical aromas are floral and citrus. The main regions where you find Viura are Spain and France.
The MATURANA BLANCA grape is the oldest grape variety known in Rioja and is mentioned in texts dating back to 1622. It has a low Ph and a high acidity and can produce very alcoholic wines. This grape has aromas of apple and herbs. The main region where you find Maturana Blanca is Spain.
The name MALVASÍA actually refers to an ancient family of grapes, many of which are grown in Portugal and Spain. Here, it is usually blended with Viura, to add body and texture to the wine. These grapes typically have a low acidity with aromas that include notes of orange peel, dried fruits and nuts. You find Malvasía grown in Spain, Italy, Portugal, Sicily, the Canary Islands, Greece, Croatia, Slovenia, and the USA.
As you expect, GARNACHA BLANCA is the white version of the red Garnacha grape and like that one, it is like light skinned. Wines produced from this grape tend to be full bodied and golden straw colour. Typical aromas are green apples, stone fruits and mineral. This grape is grown in Spain, France and California.
TEMPRANILLO is the region’s number one grape, and it counts for 75% of Rioja’s vineyards, it is special for numerous reasons. First of all, this is a great grape for aging, as it can withstand long period in casks, and secondly it has a very good balance for acidity and tannin. Typical aromas are strawberry and herbs, as well as blackcurrant, chocolate, tabaco, vanilla and leather. The main regions where you find Tempranillo are Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Australia and the USA.
GARNACHA or grenache, as it is called in France and Italy, used to be the most widely planted grape in the World, and is one of the key grapes in Rioja. It is often blended with Tempranillo to make a typical rioja blend. Typically, garnacha has a low to medium tannin, and a low to medium acidity. Typical aromas are raspberry, spice, tobacco and cinnamon. The main regions where you find Garnacha are France, Spain, Italy, US and Australia.
The GRACIANO grape is indigenous to Rioja and it is rarely found outside the area. This is possibly due to the cool climate and clay limescale soils that it needs to growth. It blends excellently with Tempranillo and has seen somewhat of a resurgence in recent years. Typical aromas are chocolate and violets and it has a medium acidity and a medium in tannin. The main regions where you find Graciano are Spain, Australia and California.
MAZUELO grape is thought to have grown in Rioja for centuries but is no longer widely grown in the region. It is more commonly known around the world as Carignan, and makes of about 3% of Rioja’s vineyards and it is generally blended with Tempranillo. Must all they produce their wines with high tannins, high acidity and aromas of black fruit, liquorice and pepper. The grape is grown in Spain, Sardinia and California.
Since 1926 Rioja Wine has fallen under the classification system of the Denominación de Origen Calificada which you see to be abbreviated to D.O.C. and it is the first Spanish wine to be efficiently recognized and protected in this way.
The D.O.C. regulations established a border within which Rioja label wine can be produced, and insure quality remains by restricting yields, so as to protect the land and the vines, while also checking and approving the winemaking techniques that are used. There are three regions from which all rioja wine comes from, these are Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa.
Rioja Alta means High Rioja, and is the most western of the three regions. The vines grow far higher here than they do it in Rioja Baja, but as the similar altitude to Rioja Alavesa. The Ebro river flows through north of Rioja Alta, acting as a natural border between Alta and the neighbouring Alavesa. You will find the most beautiful historic town of Haro here, at 528 metres above sea level. The climate is more continental than in other parts of Rioja with hottest summers and longer autumns. Tempranillo grows abundantly in this region and this is where you find classic rioja’s style wines, which are often lighter and finer than those of the neighbouring Rioja Alavesa. Some famous wine producers include La Rioja Alta, Marqués de Murrieta and Marques de Cáceres.
Rioja Baja is the Eastern most region. The land is at a much low altitude here at around 380 meters in the west and 301 metres in the east. The climate is hotter, drier and more Mediterranean making it perfect for growing garnacha. Wines produced here tend to be more spicy and peppery which how that the locals enjoy the wine.
To the north of the river Ebro, is Rioja Alavesa, the smallest and most northern of the three regions. And the only appellation to fall outside of the La Rioja province, in the Alava region of the autonomist Basque Country. This region lies in the foothills of the cantabrian mountains, a while Rioja Alta might mean high rioja, is actually Alavesa that boasts some of the highest vineyards of all region. The climate here is cooler and wetter than in Alta and Baja and tempranillo is widely grown and harvested early for making younger and fresher wines, which is popular among the local Basque community. Enjoy a good Rioja wine tour !