There’s no doubt Rioja is one of the most popular wine appellations or DOs in Spain. Although the Iberian country produces a great variety of wine styles with diverse grapes, Rioja beautifully represents the country’s wine. Rioja is tradition and innovation, prestige and availability. No wine cellar is complete without a few bottles of Rioja; there’s no doubt the region is up there with the most highly regarded wine regions in the world.
Rioja is a relatively small wine region following the Ebro River from the country’s central mountain ranges to the Mediterranean sea in the East. Diverse soils and altitudes give winemakers in the area versatility, which is why the Denominacion de Origen has a tradition of blending grapes from diverse sites. Whether the fruit grows in the warm, low valleys or the highlands matters. And no two wines in Rioja are alike. Still, wines from Rioja are easy to spot by their scent alone, as they’re a unique expression of Spain’s flagship varietal, Tempranillo. Here’s all you need to know about Rioja and its superb wines.
- Along with Priorat DO, Rioja is one of two D.O.Ca. in Spain.
- There are over 600 wineries in Rioja.
- The main varietal in Rioja is Tempranillo.
- American oak barrels are prevalent in Rioja.
- 3,000 years of winemaking history going back to the Phoenicians.
- Rioja is home to 65,000 hectares of vines.
The History of Rioja
Rioja has been inhabited for millennia, going back to the Phoenicians and Celts, and people have called the area home for at least 3,500 years. Evidence of winemaking in the area dated to 873 shows grapes have grown in the valley for centuries. Rioja thrived during the middle ages after the country’s Arab rule; in 1102, the King of Navarra gave Rioja a legal distinction for its superb wines, making it one of the first wine regions protected by law.
By the 18th century, grape growers and winemakers in Rioja were already well organized and produced high-quality wine commercially. In the late 1800s, during the phylloxera outbreak, winemakers promoted French winemaking techniques in the area, mainly from Bordeaux — barriques, estate bottling and blending were introduced. These modern versions of Riojan wine gained international acclaim.
The Consejo Regulador was created to protect winemakers from counterfeit and guarantee the wine’s quality. This would later become the foundation of the 1970 DO. The law established quality levels for the wines, depending on the time spent in oak barrels before release.
More recently, in 2018, Rioja’s Consejo Regulador allowed a new labeling system to promote single-vineyard and village-level wine. This adds layers of complexity to the past regulation based on aging, opening a world of possibilities to Rioja entering the region’s new era.
Terroir and Wine Styles
Rioja DO follows the Ebro River for roughly 100 kilometers. The region is divided into three subregions: Rioja Alta or the highlands, Rioja Alavesa, highlands in the Basque Country and Rioja Oriental, the lower and noticeably warmer valleys down the river.
The Ebro flows East towards the Mediterranean, opening a path for the warm Mediterranean breeze to find its way into the otherwise arid Rioja. The soil in Rioja is mostly clay and limestone, and its free-draining property makes the vines dig deep for water and nutrients, producing more concentrated grapes. After the grapes are picked and fermented, wineries in Rioja age their wines in oak casks to create the region’s distinct wine styles.
- Young wines that spend little time in cask.
- Aged for at least one year in oak and one year in bottle.
- Minimum of one year in oak, released after three years.
- Gran Reserva. Five years in total with at least two in cask.
White wines have similar designations, but they’re rarely used. Still, traditional white wines from Rioja are amongst the most age-worthy globally.
Rioja uses similar labels to Ribera's ones, differentiating by Generic, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva
91% of Rioja’s vineyards are planted to red varieties, with Tempranillo representing 88% of the vineyards followed by Garnacha 8%, Mazuelo 2%, Graciano: 2%, and others. White Rioja also exists, and the vineyards destined for its production comprise 69% Viura, 12% Tempranillo Blanco, and several others.
Tempranillo thrives in the highlands, where the temperature variation is more significant, which allows the grapes to retain their acidity. The lower valleys are mainly planted with the more resilient Grenache, AKA Garnacha.
Rioja wines can be monovarietal, but blending grapes is the traditional way. Tempranillo adds structure and finesse to the wine, while Garnacha adds alcoholic strength. Graciano and Mazuelo are also Tempranillo’s common blending partners, but they’re used in small proportions.
Iconic Producers in Rioja
Marques de Murrieta. Based on Logroño, this historical estate was founded in 1852, and it’s the first winery in the region to export its wines. Murrieta’s wines are amongst the most traditional in the area, and their flagship wine, Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva, is one of the region’s most coveted labels. The estate is also known for using Cabernet Sauvignon in its blends.
La Rioja Alta. This is more than a winery — it’s a large group comprising several estates around the country. What started as a group of grape growers joining forces has become one of the most acclaimed wineries in Rioja. The estate’s Gran Reserva 890 and Gran Reserva 904 are the most attractive in the winery’s catalog.
R. Lopez de Heredia. Another historical winery. Founded in 1877, this is one of the most traditional wineries, and its wines are now considered old school. Viña Tondonia is the finest wine in the winery’s repertoire, and their white Rioja is also coveted.
C.V.N.E. This winery combines tradition, quality, and innovation. In 1940 it was a pioneer with the construction of the first concrete fermentation cellar in Spain. In the 80´s it was the pioneer with the first vinification non-aggressive plant, through the use of gravity. Their Imperial wine, 100 years-old this year, is worldwide known.
Marques de Riscal. Founded in 1858 by Guillermo Hurtado de Amézaga, they started bottling their first wines in 1862, claiming the oldest bottled Rioja wine. They are present in more than 110 countries and export over 65% of their production. One of the most international wineries in DO Rioja.
Muga. Another Rioja classic that was born in the famous town of Haro. Founded in 1932, Muga's winery is, since 1972, in a facility near the railway station. Operation is still family-run, which guarantees superb, traditional Riojas.
Perfect Pairings for Rioja Wine
Young Rioja is fruit forward and vibrant. It’s best enjoyed with dry-cured meat and hearty tapas. Well-aged Rioja is much more complex and sophisticated and offers undergrowth, leather and tobacco scents along with ripe and dried red fruit aromas. Reserva and Gran Reserva Rioja are ideal for hearty stews, lamb, game and fatty steaks.