Rioja – the home of bright, berry-scented, barrel-aged red wines made from Tempranillo and Garnacha – is arguably Spain's top wine region. It is certainly the most famous, rivaled only by Jerez. Located in northern Spain, Rioja's vineyards trace the course of the Ebro River for roughly 60 miles (100km) between the towns of Haro and Alfaro.
The Rioja wine region is contained mostly within the La Rioja administrative region after which it is named (itself named after the Rio Oja river which flows through it), although its northernmost vineyards creep over into neighboring Navarra and Pais Vasco (see Rioja Alavesa). The region is demarcated less by political and administrative boundaries and more by geographical features, namely the Ebro and foothills of the Sierra de la Demanda and Sierra de Cantabria mountain ranges.
The Cantabrian Mountains, which flank Rioja to the north and west, provide shelter from cold, wet influences of the Atlantic Ocean. This is a significant factor in the local climate, which is significantly warmer and drier than that just to the north. The region's soils vary from place to place, with the finest containing high levels of limestone.
Other than Tempranillo and Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo (Carignan) are also used in red Rioja wines. A few wineries, notably Marqués de Riscal, use small quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Rioja was the very first Spanish region to be awarded DO status, back in 1933, and in 1991 became the first to be upgraded to the top-level DOCa (see Spanish Wine Labels). The region's winemaking history stretches back to Roman times and has continued almost unbroken ever since. Production flourished between 200 B.C. and the sixth century A.D., as evidenced by amphorae and other wine-related artifacts uncovered by archaeological excavations. It slowed during the Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, which began with the dramatic invasion of 711 A.D. and lasted for several centuries until the Christian Reconquista of the late Middle Ages.
From the 16th Century onwards, Rioja's wine production developed steadily. It enjoyed a major boost in the late 19th Century, when the vineyards of neighboring France (Europe's dominant wine nation) were devastated first by mildew, and then by phylloxera. During this time, wine merchants arrived in Rioja from Bordeaux, seeking new wine supplies. This French connection sparked Rioja's long-standing love affair with oak barriques – which by that point had become a standard part of Bordeaux winemaking equipment. Pronounced oak aromas and flavors are a quintessential component in the Rioja wine style (both red and white) to this day. In 1901, the devastating phylloxera mite finally arrived in Rioja, plunging the region's vineyards into decline. It wasn't until the 1970s that fresh life was breathed back into the industry, with some foreign help.
All top-end red Rioja is matured in new oak barrels. American oak is the preference, but many wineries use a mix of American and French oak. This contact with virgin oak is what gives Rioja wines their distinctive notes of coconut, vanilla and sweet spice. The amount of time that a Rioja wine spends in barrel dictates which of the official Rioja ageing categories goes on the label: Joven, Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva. Rioja Joven wines, which are intended for consumption within two years of vintage, spend little or no time in oak (jóven is Spanish for "young'). Rioja Crianza wines are aged for one year in barrel, and one year in bottle. Rioja Reserva wines spend a minimum of one year in barrell, and cannot be sent to market until a full three years after vintage. Rioja Gran Reserva wines – the region's very finest – undergo a total of five years' aging, of which at least two years is spent in barrel.
White Rioja Blanco is often obscured by the volume and success of the red wines, which account for around 85 percent of the region's output. The region's top white-wine grape was once Malvasia, which was used to create flavorful, high-alcohol wines, often with significant oak influence (this Riojan signature is not limited to the red wines). Today, the emphasis has shifted to Viura (aka Macabeo), and the ubiquitous Chardonnay, to give a slightly lighter, fresher and more international white-wine style. Also authorized for use in white Rioja are Garnacha Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Blanca, Verdejo and Sauvignon Blanc.
Although the Rioja's vineyards focus very strongly on producing wines in the regional style, and for sale under the Rioja DO appellation title, other styles of wine are also produced here. The most notable of these, and perhaps the most unexpected, are sparkling wines – not something with which Rioja is often associated. The key to this apparent conundrum is that certain parts of the region are officially authorized to produce Spain's iconic sparkling wine, Cava.