In 1925 Rioja was the first Spanish wine-producing region to achieve the Denomination of Origin status and in 1991 the first to receive the Qualified DO category. Rioja's wines largely owe their fame to the fact that their bodegas have been producing and bottling quality wines for decades, when the rest of Spain was generally producing bulk wine and poor calibre offerings. Obviously over time, production methods have needed to modernize and wines have had to adapt to consumers' changing tastes to continue being today the most highly-regarded wines within Spain and beyond these shores.
The fine reputation of these wines results from not just the excellent climatic conditions and the nature of the soil, giving rise to a singular terroir, but also the remarkable potential of its gold-star red variety, the Tempranillo. This is the second most extensively-grown grape in Spain after the Garnacha, and is noted for giving elegant, silky-smooth, fresh, well-balanced wines, and eminently suitable for producing Crianza and Reserva wines. Other red varieties found growing in the region, although employed much less widely, are Mazuelo, Graciano and Garnacha. The young and barrel-fermented whites made with Viura (Macabeo) grapes are also held in high regard.
The wineries are situated throughout the upper part of the Ebro valley, mainly in La Rioja, but also in the south of Álava (the Rioja Alavesa) and in the south-west of Navarra. This vast region, extending 100 km in length and 40 km in breadth, comes under continental and Atlantic influences in the far north changing to drier, hotter climatic conditions depending on the course of the river. Not surprisingly with such a large area, the soils also vary, but they can be described as falling into three types: clay-chalk, clay-ferrous and alluvial, all poor in organic material.
The wine-growing appellation of D.O.C. Rioja is divided into three sub-regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja (or Oriental). Stretching from the mountain ranges of Cantabria and Obarenes in the north to the Demanda mountains in the south, each area has its own character. Different landscapes and personalities, thanks to the variety of soils, climate and grape varieties, mean their wines are different too. There are also many micro-climates within each sub-region, of course, leading to wines with individual characters, but, on the whole, Rioja wines can be described according to which of the three areas they come from.
Located along the upper Ebro, Rioja Alavesa is a land of extensive plains and gentle hills around well-known wine-making villages such as Laguardia, Labastida and Elciego. The continental climate has only a moderate Atlantic influence (thanks to the natural barrier of the Sierra de Cantabria mountains) with a greater effect from the Mediterranean, making it somewhat warmer than Rioja Alta, and it has around 450mm/year of rainfall. Its 10,494 hectares of chalky-clay soil are often cultivated in small plots and terraces. Different styles of medium-strength and average acidity wines are produced, ranging from traditional ‘harvester’ wines designed to be drunk young because of their extremely fruity carbonic maceration, to red wines suitable and ready to undergo a lengthy ageing process in wood. Some of the most prestigious Rioja wineries such as Marqués de Riscal, Baigorri, Remírez de Ganuza and Izadi are found here.
The relatively wet and mountainous Rioja Alta is the western Rioja region located to the south of the River Ebro, and extends from the town of Haro to Logroño, including such renowned winemaking towns as Cenicero and San Vicente de la Sonsierra. Its 20,941 hectares of vineyards enjoy a continental climate with an Atlantic influence, sheltered from the damp north winds thanks to the Sierra Cantabria mountains. A combination of poor chalky soil, an average temperature of 12.8 degrees, and annual rainfall around 450 mm produces medium-strength wines with body and strong acidity making them suitable for ageing in oak. The style of Rioja Alta wines is usually associated with the most traditional reds such as the essential classics made by Viña Tondonia, La Rioja Alta, Marqués de Murrieta and Muga. Having said that, the wide expanses of the Rioja Alta region means it includes different terroirs which the more experienced wine-lovers will be able to differentiate on tasting the wine; for example, wines from San Vicente de la Sonsierra are usually more intense, while those from Cenicero are more balanced, and Haro ones tend to follow the most classic style.
Located in the south-east of the Rioja appellation, Rioja Baja has 16,951 hectares of vines which enjoy a climate with a significant Mediterranean influence making this area the most peculiar of the three sub-regions climate-wise. Villages such as Calahorra and Alfaro experience warmer temperatures (13.9 degrees on average) and receive less rainfall (370 mm/year). Together with the lower altitudes and alluvial soils, this climate means the Rioja Baja wines have a higher alcohol level and stronger structure. For this reason, wines from here have often been used traditionally to add body to blends with wines from the other two sub-regions. Grenache and Graciano grapes thrive here in vineyards which are often larger than the ones in the northern areas. Although Palacios Remondo is the reference winery here, local cooperatives are still important wine producers.
Tempranillo and Viura make up three quarters of all the vineyards, but the D.O.C. Rioja contemplates as many as fourteen different varieties – five reds and nine whites. Tempranillo is the most common red variety by far, with over 87% of vines, followed by Grenache (8%). The remaining 4% consists of Mazuelo (Carignan), Graciano and Maturana Tinta vines. The number one grape among the whites is the Viura (Macabeo), which is planted in 70% of white vineyards, followed by Tempranillo Blanco with 12%. None of the other seven white varieties (Sauvignon Blanc, Verdejo, Grenache Blanc, Chardonnay, Torrontés, Malvasía and Maturana Blanca) reach 5%.
Red wines are easily the most popular ones produced in the D.O.C. Rioja appellation. The range includes young and fruity ones made with a carbonic maceration, Crianza wines which have spent at least 12 months in barrels, Reservas with three years aged in wood and bottle, and Gran Reservas, made only in the best vintages and aged for at least 5 years in the barrel and bottle. However, not all wines are red; it’s worth pointing out that Rioja produces excellent Crianza whites using Vuira and Malvasia which gain in prestige year after year.