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The first Spanish Designation of Origin!

Rioja is the best-known of Spain's wine regions, and its rich winegrowing history has made it a benchmark and a source of sublime bottles. The region is famous for its noble vineyards, which benefit from two very special climates: oceanic influences from the north and Mediterranean influences from the east. These climatic conditions give each estate wines that are either light or dense, depending on the location of the vines. A small percentage of white and rosé wines are produced here, but it is the red wine that predominates. The Rioja reds can be made from four grape varieties: Tempranillo, Graciano, Garnacha and Mazuelo. These local black varieties have been preserved over the centuries, despite trade and the influence of Bordeaux in the region. The passionate work of the winegrowers has produced lively, powerful and fruity red wines. The lesser-known white Rioja wines deserve just as much attention, because they are just as elegant! Discover these fine wines, which have remained true to their origins through the ages. Discover the best of Spain's wines with a selection of Rioja wines offering bewitching value for money!

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Rioja Wine Region

Vineyard characteristics

The region comprises three zones with their own winegrowing characteristics: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa et Rioja Oriental (formerly known as Rioja Baja). Located in the north of Spain, in the province of the same name, La Rioja is a wine-growing region. Originally, Rioja referred to the basin formed by a small river, the Oja, which flows into the Tirón near Haro. Rioja became the name of a much wider part of the river valley, bounded by mountains to the north and south. This is an important geological detail, since the mountains of the Sierra de Cantabria isolate the vineyards, protecting them from the bad weather that would otherwise descend from the north and the Atlantic. As a result, the vines can bask in the sunshine while the clouds gather in the distance on the peaks. The DOCa Rioja, the Spanish equivalent of the A.O.C. (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée), has existed since 1925 and obtained Denominacion de Origen Calificada status in 1991: it is the oldest in the country. The appellation area extends into neighbouring Navarre and the Basque Country. In the north-west, on the north bank of the Ebro, La Rioja Alavesa (or Basque) is the coolest part of La Rioja. Rioja Alta faces it on the right bank of the river, to the west of the town of Logroño. Rioja Baja, to the east, is the largest and warmest part of the appellation. Rioja reds and whites are produced here, but these are the finest red wines in the region.

What do the three Rioja subregions have in common?

  • Tempranillo grape variety
  • An exceptional climate with oceanic and Mediterranean influences
  • Ageing in the wooden barrels

Grape varieties and ageing of Rioja

The years of modernisation coincided with the award of the DOCa in 1991, thanks in no small part to the high standards of quality and the excellent skills of the wine professionals. In the past, over forty grape varieties were grown here, but the DOCa allows only seven. Tempranillo, which accounts for almost 70% of the vineyards, gives Rioja reds their delicious strawberry flavour and is well suited to prolonged ageing. Tempranillo is the dominant grape variety, with Garnacha added to flesh out the blend. To protect the vines, the winemakers have adopted a dense planting method and goblet pruning. While this pruning is a reminder that we are in the vineyards of La Rioja, the coopers are rivalling the winegrowers in their use of American oak: few wine-producing regions use so much of this tree to make 22.5-litre barrels or "barricas". The contact of the wood with the wine gives it aromas of butter and vanilla. Unlike Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva, Rioja Joven (or Cosecha) has not undergone barrel ageing, nor have some of the fresh white Rioja wines. Whatever the colour, Rioja wines can be enjoyed with the privilege of tasting the prestige of a thousand years of know-how, because on this exceptional terroir, people have been devoting themselves to winegrowing for over two thousand years!

Denominación de Origen Calificada Classification

Only two regions in Spain, Rioja and Priorat, are included in the highest classification called Denominación de Origen Calificada which takes account of geographical origin and human factors. Flavour and quality can vary considerably depending on location. In addition, there are specific quality criteria officially classified in a set of specifications defined by a council specific to each of the designations, supported by the Spanish Ministry. The quality levels correlate with European legislation. For a wine to obtain this designation, it must meet the following requirements:

  • The wines must be made in the region or location determined by the Denominación de Origen using grapes exclusively from that geographical area.
  • They must have particular characteristics and a quality that can only be achieved thanks to the geographical environment in which they were produced.
  • They must enjoy a high level of prestige because of their origin on the wine market.
  • A minimum of 5 years must have passed since the wine was recognised as a product of the geographical area in order to obtain Denominación de Origen recognition.

In Spain, there are a total of 70 Denominación de Origen wines, the best known of which for reds are reds are : Rioja, Ribeira del Duero and Priorat. As far as white wines are concerned, we find the following white wines: Rueda, Rías Baixas and Penedès. There are also DO Cava sparkling wines.

Classification of Spanish wines:

Here is the complete classification of wines with protected origin, otherwise known as Denominación de Origen Protegida:

  • Vinos de Pago (VP): This is the highest category a wine can achieve. It applies to individual vineyards or estates, unlike Denominación de Origen Protegida (DOP) or Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa), where the criteria apply to an entire wine-growing region. Introduced in 2003 by the Spanish Parliament, it aims to elevate Spanish wines to the rank of great wines. The Spanish word pago comes from the Latin word pagus, meaning a country district. The prestige of these wines is due to distinctive characteristics linked to the cultivation of the vine or to a particular micro-climate that sets it apart from surrounding areas. One of the requirements is that the estate may only use its own grapes for its wines, and all the grapes used must come from the owner's own vineyards. The producer's name is notoriously borrowed on the market. If the "Pago" is fully located within a Denominación de Origen, it is quality Vino de Pago calificado.
  • Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa): It is reserved for wines that have achieved high levels of quality for at least 10 years as Denominación de Origen with a precise map delimitation by municipality. The wines must pass through a strict quality control system, from production through to bottling and marketing.
  • Denominación de Origen (DO): It is reserved for wines that have achieved high levels of quality for at least 5 years as Denominación de Origen. The production area is also demarcated and production is regulated.
  • Vinos de Calidad con Indicación Geográfica (VC): These wines aspire to become Denominación de Origen. Their common characteristics are due to the geographical area and/or human factors.
  • Vinos de la Tierra: This is the French equivalent of the IGP (Protected Geographical Indication), where the geographical area extends to the region of production. The protected area is not subject to similar environmental or human characteristics, which allows for a wide variety of different wines.

The Rioja wine categories:

Rioja wines have another special feature in their classification: their ageing time.

  • Joven / Cosecha: These are wines from the latest harvest. They have not been barrel-aged. On tasting, they are fresh, fruity and juicy.
  • Crianza: The red wines are aged for 1 year in barrel and 1 year in bottle. The white wines are aged for at least 6 months in barrels. This oak ageing gives them a woody flavour with a distinctive vanilla aroma. The freshness of their youth is counterbalanced by a slightly woody touch for added complexity.
  • Reserva: The red wines are aged for at least 3 years from which at least 1 year in the oak barrels. The white wines are aged for at least 2 years with 6 months in barrel. With their soft tannins, these warm wines reveal more complex aromas of fruit and spices. Vanilla and coconut dominate the aromatic palette.
  • Gran Reserva: These are the finest wines in the appellation. The red wines are aged for at least 5 years with a minimum of 2 years in oak barrels. The white wines are aged for at least 4 years (with one year in barrel). These are undeniably top-quality, elegant and complex wines. These are often exceptional vintages.

Powerful red wines

The unique combinations of soil, climate, grape varieties and know-how help to produce powerful, long, warm wines which, thanks to the blends, still have good acidity. These are fine, aromatic, well-balanced wines with red fruit aromas. With their round tannins, they are complex and full-bodied. Their quality makes them some of the noblest Spanish wines.

When to drink Rioja red wine?

These full-bodied red wines are not intended as aperitifs. They are too complex to be enjoyed on their own. They should be reserved for meals. Take care to open a bottle in advance so that the richness of the aromas can be fully expressed with the finest red or white meat dishes. A marvellous accompaniment to a gourmet meal! Tinto Jovenes can be paired with strong fish such as braised tuna. The Crianza, on the other hand, deserves a fine piece of meat, such as game!

Rioja wine region Spain

Credit © DOCa Rioja

Rioja, one of the Most Noble and Famous Spanish Wine Regions

Rioja Alta

North of the Ebro, in the Basque province of Avala, this sub-region is the highest in altitude. As a result, it is cooler and has a shorter growing season, producing lighter wines. The vineyards run along the southern banks of the River Ebro, with the mountains providing a spectacular backdrop and protecting the vines from the Atlantic to the north. The yellow clay-limestone soils of Rioja Alavesa extend into Rioja Alta to produce elegant red wines, some of the most delicately flavoured in the region.

Rioja Alavesa

Situated at an altitude of 800 metres in the foothills of the Cantabrian mountains, the vines of Alavesa terraced down to the north bank of the River Ebro. Just cross the river to get to Rioja Alta. Like the Rioja Alta, and unlike the Rioja Oriental, these two sub-regions have the same province boundaries, rather than differences in soil or climate.

Rioja Oriental (formerly known as Rioja Baja)

Flatter and more arid, it begins to the east of Logroño. This is the largest and warmest part of the appellation. The lower appellation enjoys a much warmer Mediterranean climate than the rest of the appellation. Some parts are even considered semi-desert.

Haro, the capital of Rioja and its bodegas

Haro is a municipality in the north-west of the Autonomous Community of La Rioja, where economic activity revolves around viticulture and wine-making. It's a very pleasant little town, considered to be the capital of wine. In fact, it's the place to go on the wine route to visit the cellars. It's a bit like our Bordeaux estates and châteaux. The Rioja region is bursting with wineries. Haro is home to the oldest and best-known wine cellars in the region. Known as "bodegas", they attract thousands of visitors every year. There are around fifteen bodegas in the Barrio de la Estación, which is the central district of the railway station and has become an emblematic area in the world of wine, since in the 19th century winegrowers from Bordeaux settled there to produce similar wines, forced to cultivate differently because of the ravages of mildew and phylloxera.

It is not unusual for each house to have its own. They are known as "Calados": labyrinthine underground cellars that are historic because it was here in the past that the region's first wines underwent their ageing process and were preserved. Now, larger, more modern cellars are being built, designed by some of the world's greatest architects, including Franck Owen Gehry and Calatrava. As you can see, wine is more than just a product in this region, it is the vital cultural expression of an entire village. The area around this Spanish wine capital is full of wine-related activities, including the construction of wooden barrels (made from American oak). A real tourist attraction for those wishing to discover quality wines.

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