Rioja is located in the northeastern region of Spain. The Ebro river divides it, and from the north, the Sierra Cantabria shields the region from cool Atlantic breezes, while in the south, the Sierra de la Demanda protects it against warm winds from the south and Africa. The region is split into 3 sub regions (based on microclimate, soil types and elevation): Rioja Alta, Alavesa and Baja. Wines are usually interregional blends, however, producers have recently began focusing on more site -specific wines.
The earliest traces of viticulture in Rioja dates back to the Phoenicians. Throughout the 11th century BC winemaking was traditional with no new technologies introduced for hundreds of years. Recognition of the region and export to the New World colonies began in the mid 16th century. Rioja was then, and is now, along with Sherry, the most known and reputed winemaking region in Spain.
The end of the 19th century saw France decimated by phylloxera (a vine destroying louse). The disease rendered their vineyards unusable and opened up the French and export market to Spanish wine. Due to its proximity to Bordeaux, a major French port, Rioja soared in popularity. Luckily, by the time the blight had spread and reached Rioja, a ‘cure’ had been found for phylloxera.
There are 4 designations for Rioja based on minimum age requirements: Joven (bottle will just say Rioja)- no oak, usually 1 year in bottle; Crianza- 1 year in oak, 1 year in bottle, Reserva- 1 year in oak, 2 years in bottle, Gran Reserva- 2 years in oak, 3 years in bottle.
When Rioja emerged in popularity, the wines were almost exclusively aged in American oak. Spain’s influence in the New World made American Oak cheap and accessible to Spain at a time when it was beset by civil war. American oak adds more spice, vanilla and coconut flavours to wine, while French oak is subtler. Both oaks are used today in abundance.
Traditional Rioja tinto (red) is based on the Tempranillo grape variety, Spain’s most planted red grape. It is often blended with other grapes like Graciano, Garnacha and Mazuelo (Carignan). Rioja Blanco is based on Viura and is usually blended with Malvasia. Mutations, Garnacha Blanca and Tempranillo Blanco are increasing in prevalence, and single varietal bottlings are also making waves.
Outside of Rioja, Viura is known as Macabeo
The wire cage found around some bottles was intended to prevent fraud. Swindlers would refill empty bottles of high-end wine with plonk. The wire must be removed to uncork the bottle so buyers would know if the wine had been tampered with.
Rioja is home to some stunning modern architecture with several wineries designed by the likes of Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid.