La Rioja Wine Regions Guide

Embark on a journey through the soul of Spanish winemaking - a guide to the Rioja wine regions where tradition meets innovation, and every glass tells a story



Spain’s premier fine wine region is in a state of flux. Its historic winemaking culture has been called into question – the debate surrounding the value of blending versus terroir began here – while growers in Rioja Alavesa have toyed with the idea of creating a new, breakaway appellation in the Basque Country. Indeed, few great wine regions span so many terroirs, and yet, historically, Rioja marketed a single, overarching wine style: silky reds aged in wood for many years. This state of affairs is now simply intolerable from the perspective of younger winemakers.

However, that does not mean tradition is moribund in the hills of Rioja. Indeed, plenty of single-site cuvées and groundbreaking wines are made in the appellation today. Their high scores and growing popularity suggest this isn’t simply a flash in the pan. Yet long-aged Reservas – and Gran Reservas – are still astonishingly popular with oenophiles, not least because they offer such tremendous value – a complex and velvety red that is not released (unlike Bordeaux) until the wine is ready. The quality of Rioja Blancos (whites) has also soared recently. In the 20th century, Rioja had the Spanish, fine wine market to itself. Those days are long gone. But this spectacular region’s internal variety, traditions, and adaptability have kept it in the front rank.

Winemaking and regional classifications

Rioja Alta Gran Reserva
Rioja Alta Gran Reserva

Debating the subject of ‘classical versus contemporary’ winemaking in Rioja is analogous to throwing a rock at a hornet’s nest. On one side of the divide are staunch traditionalists like Lopez de Heredia. They conform to a paradigm that considers blending and maturation far more important than terroir. Thus, their wines are aged for many years (over five for Gran Reservas) in old American oak. Moreover, many bodegas still market their wines according to the time they spend in barrel, with Joven, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva priced in ascending order. This red and white Rioja interpretation can be sublime: elegant, soft, and unbelievably complex. There are plenty of consumers today who remain steadfastly loyal to this age-old wine style. It is their lightness of structure and silky texture that so many oenophiles find irresistible. This method of classifying wines has stood the test of time.

Yet there was a significant pushback in the late-20th century as younger winemakers sought a different path. Their argument was simple: extensive oak maturation subjugates the fruit and provides no sense of place. As a result, Rioja witnessed a revolution in winemaking techniques, with grapes sourced from estate vineyards, rather than being purchased from growers across the wider region. These exceptional raw materials are then macerated for a long time, extracting a great deal of color, extract, and tannin. Often matured for fewer than 16 months in French barrique, the result is a concentrated and powerful wine.

Is one approach to winemaking innately superior? No. It is simply a matter of individual choice. But it is undoubtedly true that the functions of growing and bottling are increasingly combined. That was not the case 40 years ago, nor does everyone necessarily welcome this development. Artisan producers like Benjamin Romeo and the multi-regional blenders – Marques de Caceres, Faustino, etc. – continue to regard each other with mutual suspicion.

La Rioja Wine Region Map

Download La Rioja Wine Region Map

Geography and terroir

Autumn's tapestry unfolds in La Rioja's vineyards


La Rioja is Spain’s most diverse and beautiful province. Protected by the massive wall of the rocky Sierra de Cantabria, the vineyards encircle the River Ebro in northeastern Spain. To the south lies the Sierra de la Demanda and Las Cameros mountain ranges. The region has long been subdivided into three districts: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Oriental (formerly Baja). Each of these subregions offers a unique set of growing conditions due to variances in soil and climate. Indeed, Rioja slopes from east to west, with the climate becoming increasingly drier and hotter in the east owing to the Mediterranean influence. A summer’s day in Rioja Oriental is a world apart from the temperatures on the higher slopes of Rioja Alavesa!

La Rioja Alta is the western, higher part south of the River Ebro. The soils are a mixture of clay-limestone, ferruginous clay, and alluvial matter close to the river banks. As a rule, the more hilly and inclement western area produces wines with good acidity and moderate alcohol; the climate in the village of Cenicero is transitioning from humid to semi-arid. Rioja Alavesa, meanwhile, is the smallest of the three subzones. It is found to the north of the Ebro, near the area called ‘Conchas de Haro.’ The calcareous soils are among the finest in Rioja, while high altitudes continue to produce some of the region’s most elegant and fresh wines.

This is a world apart, however, from the arid vineyards of Rioja Oriental. Located to the southeast of Logroño – a large part is south of the river – Rioja Oriental produces Rioja’s best Grenache wines. The soils are a mixture of alluvial silt and ferruginous clay; the landscape is a patchwork of small plots of old bush vines, ripening to high alcohol levels in the intense summer heat. In the 1900s, the zone was derided as too hot to produce wines of real interest and finesse. But, thanks to the pioneering work of Alvaro Palacios, that misconception has been laid to rest.

Sub Regions / Appellations

Key Grape Varietals

  • Chardonnay

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  • Garnacha Blanc

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  • Sauvignon Blanc

    Explore the best of Rioja wine regions with our expert guide. Discover this iconic Spanish wine region's history, terroir, and top wineries. Plan your trip today!

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  • Viura

    Explore the best of Rioja wine regions with our expert guide. Discover this iconic Spanish wine region's history, terroir, and top wineries. Plan your trip today!

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  • Cabernet Sauvignon

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  • Garnacha

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  • Graciano

    is a red grape variety that is primarily grown in Spain's Rioja region. Known for its thick skins, small berries, and low yields, this grape produces wines that are deeply colored, highly tannic, and full-bodied, with a range of aromas from dark fruit to spices and leather.

  • Mazuelo (Carignan)

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  • Tempranillo

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The lowdown

Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacalle and his son
Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacalle and his son

Spain’s most famous – and important – wine producer began the 21st century in a state of massive upheaval. Radically different values, ideas, and philosophies collided head-on, culminating in Bodegas Artadi announcing its decision to leave the appellation in 2015; the Association of Rioja Alavesa producers (ABRA) petitioned the Basque government to create a separate appellation for Rioja Alavesa wines in the following year.

When owner Juan-Carlos Lopez de Lacalle was asked about the motivation behind this decision, he said: “The Rioja DO is simply too large; there is no other singular appellation covering such a large vineyard area. Furthermore, Rioja is a designation that gives no due recognition to any differential in vineyard quality, and it is for this reason that we have been forced to leave.” With grievances running at an all-time high, the regulatory council feared that Rioja’s trailblazing wineries might also jump ship, empowered by the publication of Telmo Rodriguez’s terroir manifesto in 2016.

Yet a critical mass of high-profile wineries voicing their desire to stay in the system has alleviated any concerns within the Consejo Regulador of a ‘domino effect’ in the region. The situation was defused, at least in part, by the introduction of the Viñedos Singulares designation in 2017. Moreover, a key feature of the framework regulations is that both the single-vineyard name and the traditional Crianza/Reserva/Gran Reserva designations can concurrently appear on labels – the council is keen to avoid mutual exclusivity.

The classification continues to be adopted by a diverse portfolio of wineries. The Vinos de Municipio and Vinos de Zona tier are at the base of the hierarchy: the former refers to wines made from vineyard(s) in one specific municipality or village. The crème da la crème, however, is the Viñedos Singulares designation. When this appears on a label, you know that the wine is based on fruit grown in a single climat (vineyard site) and that every stage of the viticultural and winemaking process has complied with strict quality regulations.

This is all cause for celebration. After decades of bland, homogenous representation, Rioja is diversifying its offer. The decision to allow single-vineyard wines to be marketed on labels was just the beginning – a surge of innovation is sweeping across this corner of Spain. The authorities introduced a new category of Riojan sparkling wines in 2017 while liberalizing the rules concerning post-fermentation aging. Exports of white Rioja also continue to grow as the region becomes renowned as the source of oak-aged whites and reds. Viticultural and vinification techniques are being refined, with wineries like Ramón Bilbao investigating the advantages of fermentation and aging in concrete. Sustainability and climate change adaptation are also taking center stage in the debate about the region’s future. Rioja, despite the ever-increasing competition, is still number one.

Facts & Figures

Key wine styles

  • Red, white, and rosé wines: both single-varietal styles and blends
  • A small volume of traditional method sparkling wine

Appellation structure

  • Rioja DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada)

Hectares under vine

  • Approximately 65,000 hectares

Average annual production

  • 280 million liters of wine

Approximate number of producers (not including grape growers)

  • 567

Rioja gastronomy

Michelin Star dining in Vieja Bodega restaurant
Michelin Star dining in Vieja Bodega restaurant

Rioja’s gastronomy has long been driven by a surfeit of exceptional local produce: fruit and vegetables grown in market gardens, wild meat and game, and seafood taken from the Atlantic and, indeed, local rivers. So it’s little wonder that every dinner is memorable in the region’s bustling restaurants and tapas bars. Haro and Logroño can rival San Sebastian in serving exquisite, bite-sized morsels of tasty food prepared in a multitude of different ways.

But this is just the beginning. Solomillo al vino de Rioja (beefsteak macerated in Rioja and brandy, served with mushrooms) is one of the major highlights. At the same time, lamb chops, roast leg of lamb, young goat (cabrito), and quail deserve pairing with a silky old Gran Reserva. Milk-fed lamb, rubbed with garlic and roasted in a wood-fired oven, has a depth of flavor beyond description. Yet fish is not neglected: trout and crayfish whet the appetite – hake (merluza) is best grilled and served with a red pepper and tomato sauce. Did someone call for a Rioja Blanco?

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Where to Eat

  • La Vieja Bodega


    One of the most atmospheric restaurants in Rioja, this creative eatery featured stone walls, high ceilings, timber beams and crisp linen tablecloths. Cozy, friendly and with a great wine cellar as the name suggests.

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  • Echaurren “El Portal”


    Gourmets flock to this 2 Michelin starred gem, located in the medieval village of Ezcaray. Head chef Francis Paniego (who is also the consulting chef at Hotel Marques de Riscal) will send your taste buds on a surprising roller coaster, in this bright and airy space.

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  • Asador José Mari


    This winemaker’s favorite is THE place to come for roast baby lamb chops cooked over vines, served with Padron peppers. The food is traditional Riojano and good value and the wine list is great. After a simple, delicious meal, relax with a G&T at their chillout Ibiza style bar, DJ and all!

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  • Casa Zaldierna


    This very special gastronomic inn offers memorable meals in a dreamy little stone hamlet in the mountains of Rioja. The dining room is utterly charming, the staff could not be friendlier and the super high quality ingredients are carefully and thoughtfully sourced.

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  • Ikaro


    Michelin starred stylish and contemporary hot spot in Logroño. The setting is gorgeous with a gold, olive green, and grey color palette and organic table decor like cactus and tree bark platters. The cuisine is sophisticated and fun.

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  • Hector Oribe


    This one is an old winemaker’s favorite that keeps going from good to great. Their small, unpretentious and unassuming dining room in the historic hamlet of Páganos is home to some of the best Riojan Basque cuisine in the region. You can’t go wrong on the menu as the fish and meat dishes are all delish. Bib Gourmand.

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  • Bodegas Baigorri Restaurant


    Baigorri is one of the most ultra-modern design wineries in Rioja, and yet the cuisine served in their restaurant overlooking the barrels is wonderfully traditional. Riojan beans, spicy guindilla peppers, sautéed wild mushrooms and local cheeses are paired with estate wines.

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Discover the Finest Riojan Wineries | Recommendations by Cellar Tours

  • Artadi

    Discover the best of Rioja Alavesa at Artadi Winery. Explore the award-winning wines, winery history, and vineyards. Plan your visit today! Read more
  • Bodega Contador (Benjamin Romeo)

    Discover the cult wines of Benjamin Romeo at Bodega Contador in Rioja Alavesa, from the family garage to a state-of-the-art winery. Start planning your visit! Read more
  • Castillo Cuzcurrita

    Discover the history, wines, and unique terroir of Castillo Cuzcurrita winery in Rioja Alta with Cellar Tours. Plan your visit today! Read more
  • Conde de los Andes

    Discover the exceptional wines and storied history of Conde de los Andes winery in Rioja with Cellar Tours. Plan your visit today Read more
  • Contino

    Explore the exceptional wines of Contino Winery in Rioja with Cellar Tours. Our expert guide offers insider access to this iconic estate. Plan your visit today! Read more
  • Heredad San Andrés (Cupani)

    Discover the exquisite wines and rich heritage of Heredad San Andrés winery in Rioja. Our expert guide offers insider access to this family-owned estate. Plan your visit today! Read more
  • Hermanos Peciña

    Explore the exceptional wines of Hermanos Peciña winery in Rioja with Cellar Tours—this iconic estate is known for its commitment to crafting wines with character and finesse. Plan your visit today! Read more
  • Marqués de Riscal

    Discover the iconic Marqués de Riscal Winery with Cellar Tours. Located in the heart of Rioja, this renowned winery boasts a rich history and a commitment to innovation in winemaking. Plan your visit today! Read more
  • Marqués de Murrieta

    Discover the captivating story of Marqués de Murrieta winery, and learn about its rich history, winemaking process, and world-class wines. Plan your visit today! Read more
  • Martinez Bujanda

    Martinez Bujanda are another exceptional winery in La Rioja. They are again a very old family, having established the business back in 1889. Read more
  • Miguel Merino

    Discover the charm of one of Spain's most renowned boutique wineries Miguel Merino. Learn about the winery's history and winemaking techniques. Plan your visit today! Read more
  • Muga

    Discover Muga Winery in Rioja, Spain. Experience their traditional winemaking techniques & signature Reserva and Gran Reserva blends. Plan your trip today! Read more
  • Remelluri

    Discover the exquisite wines of Remelluri winery. Experience the terroir-driven wines from this acclaimed boutique winery. Plan your trip today! Read more
  • Remirez de Ganuza

    Explore the art of winemaking at Remírez de Ganuza, one of Rioja's most iconic wineries. Let Cellar Tours guide you through its acclaimed portfolio of wines. Plan your visit today! Read more
  • Roda

    Discover the terroir-driven wines of Roda Winery. Explore their acclaimed vineyards and learn about their winemaking techniques. Plan your visit today! Read more
  • Torre de Oña

    Discover the exquisite wines of Torre de Oña winery. Learn about their sustainable vineyard practices and taste their handcrafted Tempranillo and Graciano wines. Plan your visit today! Read more
  • Valenciso

    Savor the artisanal wines of Valenciso. Learn about their traditional winemaking techniques and taste their acclaimed blends of Tempranillo and Graciano grapes. Plan your visit today! Read more
  • Valpiedra

    Experience the exceptional wines of Valpiedra. Learn about their viticulture practices and taste their renowned Tempranillo and Graciano grapes blends. Plan your visit today! Read more

Where to Stay

  • Los Parajes, Laguardia

    Los Parajes

    4 stars

    This darling little inn in the heart of medieval Laguardia is a great base for Rioja if you plan to stay for a few nights as you can walk around at night and enjoy the village’s buzzy wine bar scene, scenic walks, and neat restaurants. Nice jacuzzi/sauna area and wine tunnel bar. The restaurant here is really great too.

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  • Hotel Teatrisso

    Hotel Teatrisso

    4 stars

    Run by THE most charming young family, this is one of our fave hotels in Rioja. Located in a lovingly restored, stone palace in the medieval village of Cuzcurrita, their 12 theatrically themed rooms with exposed beams and hardwood floors are all unique. Breakfast is great, there is an honor bar, a cellar for wine tasting and the exuberant owners run many fun activities throughout the year. Personal fave!

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  • Marques de Riscal Hotel

    Hotel Marqués de Riscal

    4 stars

    The Frank Gehry designed hotel at the historic wine estate of Marques de Riscal was a game changer when it opened in 2006 in a wine region that previously had no luxury hotel options. The ultra modern design, contrasting with the ancient church and the hamlet of El Ciego is one of the most photographed and iconic locations in Rioja. Rooms are very “Marie Kondo” and the hotel offers a spa, casual bistro, wine bar and gastronomic restaurant.

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  • la-rioja - hotel-viura.jpg

    Hotel Viura

    4 stars

    For design and wine lovers, this striking, contemporary hotel set in one of the most traditional winemaking villages in Rioja is just right for you. A lovely terrace with views of the Sierra de la Cantabria Mountains, free bike rental, gastronomic restaurant, and the vicinity to so many great cellars (Izadi, Luis Cañas, etc) are major value adds.

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Rioja is no stranger to the vine. Since the pre-Roman period, vineyards have been cultivated on these ancient soils; the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Moors, and finally, medieval Crusaders have all played a role in the area’s rich history. The Romans came to Hispania to fight the Carthaginians and take possession of the country’s huge mineral wealth. Their mighty empire reigned supreme for centuries, controlling most of Western Europe. However, the fall of the empire in the 5th century left Rioja in the hands of the Visigoths invaders from northern Europe. Politically disorganized and prone to internecine squabbles, they fell victim to the Moors in 711.

The Muslim Arab and Berber rulers created a noble and sophisticated civilization in Spain known as ‘Al Andalus.’ Nevertheless, winemaking all but ceased to be during this period, as Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol; it wasn’t until after the Catholic monarchs liberated Spain that wine-growing returned to the Rioja region. Then, in the 11th century, newly created Christian Kingdoms – Leon, Castile, Navarra, Aragon, and Catalunya – advanced into the south, retaking land from the Moors. Meanwhile, the Benedictine monks of Cluny in Burgundy helped establish three monasteries in the region following the reconquest. The planting of vines inevitably followed suit.

By the fourteenth century, English traders had acquired a taste for Rioja wines, a blend of white and red wines called Blancos Pardillos. Three hundred years later, the Mayor of Logroño banned carriages from passing along the roads near the bodegas, worried that they would disturb the wines! In the 18th century, the Royal Economic Society of Rioja Wine Producers was established to encourage the cultivation of vines in addition to Rioja’s commercial development.

Yet until the late 1800s, Rioja remained a provincial backwater, certainly when bench-marked against Bordeaux and Burgundy. That all changed in the second half of the 19th century when Bordeaux vineyards were first affected with mildew and then phylloxera. Inevitably, some Bordeaux wine producers came to the Rioja region, imparting their knowledge and techniques – most crucially, the aging of wine in barrels – in return for existing wine stocks. As a result, many of Rioja’s most famous wineries were founded during this period, including Marques de Riscal, Lopez de Heredia, and Marques de Murrieta. Today, there are over 550 bodegas in the zone, producing a wide variety of styles, from sun-kissed rosé to single-vineyard vinos de autor’ (icon wines).

Nearby Charming Towns and Cities

  • Briones

    Immerse yourself in Briones's vibrant flavors and uncover hidden culinary gems with our expert insider guides. Plan an unforgettable trip today!

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  • Haro

    Immerse yourself in Haro's vibrant flavors and uncover hidden culinary gems with our expert insider guides. Plan an unforgettable trip today!

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  • Laguardia

    Immerse yourself in Laguardia's vibrant flavors and uncover hidden culinary gems with our expert insider guides. Plan an unforgettable trip today!

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  • Logroño

    Immerse yourself in Logroño's vibrant flavors and uncover hidden culinary gems with our expert insider guides. Plan an unforgettable trip today!

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  • Vitoria-Gasteiz

    Immerse yourself in Vitoria-Gasteiz's vibrant flavors and uncover hidden culinary gems with our expert insider guides. Plan an unforgettable trip today!

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