Rioja is one of only two winemaking regions in Spain to have received the prestigious DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada) classification, the other being Priorato. 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 root stock 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 knows 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 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. The region is largely contained within the northeastern autonomía of La Rioja, from which it takes its name. The northern edge extends into the neighboring autonomías of Navarra and País Vasco, or Basque Country. Rioja is bordered to the north by the river Ebro, which plays a key role in the region’s terroir. In fact, Rioja is named for one of the river’s tributaries, the Oja (“Rioja” deriving from “Río Oja”). The Ebro runs through the appellation’s three sub-regions—Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta, and Rioja Baja—each of which yields a unique expression of the Tempranillo grape.
Rioja Alavesa: The smallest sub-zone, sitting in the northwestern corner of Rioja, north of the river Ebro. It is the coolest, wettest, and most elevated of the three areas, and its soil contains high levels of calcerous clay. Rioja Alavesa produces lighter-bodied wines.Rioja Alta: Constitutes most of the western half of Rioja, lying largely south of the Ebro. It has an Atlantic climate, and its soil is composed mostly of calcerous clay. Its vineyards are of varying elevations and produce wines with structure and high acidity.Rioja Baja: Composes the eastern half of Rioja, lying mostly south of the Ebro. It has a primarily Mediterranean climate with alluvial soil and is the hottest and driest sub-zone, producing wines with high extract and alcohol.
Rioja has a total of 57,000 hectares under vine and yields 250 million liters of wine annually, of which 85% is red. Tempranillo is the most widely planted red grape, with others including Mazuelo (Cariñena), Graciano, and Garnacha Tinto. The classic style of Rioja reds is soft, with muted fruit, firm acidity, and aromas of dill, vanilla, and cedar. In recent years, producers have also begun experimenting with a more modern style emphasizing French oak, higher extraction, and riper, darker fruit.
Although known for its reds, Rioja makes some wonderful whites and rosados (rosés) as well. The most common white grape is Viura (also known as Macabeo), which is often blended with Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca to produce crisp, fruity, and aromatic wines.