La Rioja is a northern autonomía bordered by Navarra and País Vasco to the north. It is famous for the winemaking region Rioja, which is one of only two regions in Spain to have received the prestigious DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada) classification (Priorato is the other).
Rioja’s viticultural history dates back over 2,000 years and was guided by Christian monks throughout the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, Rioja began to enjoy an international reputation, exporting as far as France, England, Italy, the Netherlands, and even the American colonies. In fact, it was this trade that established American oak as the preferred wood for barrels, a tradition that remains today.
In the mid-1850s, Rioja’s wine export levels jumped dramatically when the phylloxera blight devastated French wine yields. Rioja was able to maintain its leading exporter status even when phylloxera hit Spain in the 1890s, rapidly copying the French solution of grafting resistant American rootstock to native vines. Today, Rioja remains Spain’s top exporting region.
DOCa Rioja has a significant impact on the culture of the surrounding region. The most noticeable example is the annual Wine Festival in the town of Haro, where participants engage in the Batalla de Vino and drench each other with wine. Rioja is also known for the ancient pilgrimage route the Way of Saint James and the monasteries and Roman architecture to be found alongside. It’s interesting also to note that DOCa Rioja extends northward into the Basque province of Álava, making Rioja one of the most culturally diverse wine regions in Spain.
As for cuisines, classic La Rioja dishes include white asparagus, chorizo, suckling lamb, and Piquillo peppers, all of which pair beautifully with elegant Rioja wines.
Rules for Rioja wine production were recorded as early as 1560, but it wasn’t until 1970 that the modern borders for Rioja were established. While largely contained within La Rioja, Rioja’s northern edge extends into the neighboring autonomías of Navarra and País Vasco.
Rioja is bordered to the north by the river Ebro, which plays a key role in the region’s terror. In fact, Rioja is named for one of the river’s tributaries, the Oja (Rioja = río oja). The Ebro runs through the appellation’s three sub-regions, Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja, each of which yields a unique expression of the Tempranillo grape.