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
Last updated: February 15, 2024
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
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.
A Guide to the Wine Types and Classifications in La Rioja: Read more
Geography and terroir
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.
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.
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?
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).
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