Rioja is a DOCa wine produced in the La Rioja region in Spain. This area has a long and glorious vinicultural history. Rioja wine, especially the red, has been well known for many centuries. The Rioja vineyards were first planted by the traditional bringers of wine, the Romans.
Rioja is made from grapes grown not only in the Autonomous Community of La Rioja, but also in parts of Navarre and the Basque province of Álava. Rioja is further subdivided into three zones: Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa. Many wines have traditionally blended fruit from all three regions though there is a slow growth in single zone wines.
Rioja wines are typically made from a blend of various grape varieties. The region produces red, white and rose wines.
The red wines are mostly produced using the Tempranillo grape, with various amounts of other grapes used including Graciano, Garnacha Tinta and Mazuelo. Typical blends will consist of around 60% Tempranillo and up to 20% Garnacha, with smaller amounts of Graciano and Mazuelo added to the blend. The Tempranillo contributes the main flavors and aging potential to the wines while the Garnacha adds body and alcohol, the Graciano adds additional aromas, and the Mazuelo adds seasoning flavors.
The white wines mainly consist of the Viura, also known as Macabeo, grape. This is normally blended with som e Garnacha Blanca and Malvasia. The Viura adds mild fruitiness acidity and some aromas to the blend, with Malvasia adding aroma, and Garnacha Blanca adding body. The rose wines produced here are mostly made from the Garnacha grapes.
Rioja reds are classified, and labeled, in four categories:
Rioja: The youngest wines which spend less than a year in oak are simply labeled Rioja.
Rioja Gran Reserva: Rioja Gran Reserva must be aged at least five years, with a minimum of two years in oak and three years in the bottle.
The vineyards in La Rioja were first founded by the Ancient Romans around Logrono and Calahorra, where cellars started to appear to supply the Roman troops. The Santiago Way brought pilgrims to the heart of La Rioja. Travelers often sampled Rioja wines and its fame spread through word of mouth. Wine makers in La Rioja started to look for new markets and through Dutch and English merchants the wines produced here spread to new lands. The reputation of the wines from La Rioja grew, and during the mid 16th century, a prohibition was established to maintain the quality and integrity of the wines. This prohibition banned the producers from using grapes that hadn't grown inside La Rioja.
At the end of the 18th century, a Spanish wine maker by the name of Manuel Quintano traveled to Bordeaux to learn the French wine making techniques and to teach Spanish wine making techniques to the French. Upon his return to La Rioja he started introducing the oak barrel aging process in the Rioja wines. This greatly increased their longevity and opened a whole new market. However, the government foolishly imposed a law that all Rioja wines must have the same price, even if they had been aged in oak (which was expensive), so this economic disadvantage excluded oak barrels for almost a whole century.
After the phylloxera bug layed most of the French vineyards to waste in the mid 19th century many French growers made their way to Spain. The experience and knowledge of these French wine makers resulted in an unprecedented growth of the Rioja wines. The phylloxera bug finally appeared in La Rioja around 1890, but by then the solution had been discovered so the damage to vineyards here was limited. Nevertheless, the authorities restricted the exports so the local wine supplies would take priority.
By the start of the 20th century Rioja wines had a reputation as the best kind of Spanish wines. But the arrival of World War I, the Spanish Civil War and the World War II resulted in a decrease in the production and most of the vineyards were torn up and used to plant cereals to try and feed the hungry throughout Spain. After the wars the vines returned in 1960, and the 1970 Rioja vintage was recognized by wine critics from around the world as “the vintage of the century”, which of course increased sales as never before. In the 1980s there was a renewed interest in Spanish wines, and wine making regions like Ribera del Duero started getting more attention. In 1991, Rioja was awarded the DOCa status (Denominación de Origen Calificada) which recognized the premier wine region of Rioja.
The Rioja wines production area can be divided into three sub zones:
Upper Rioja: Upper Rioja is in the west of La Rioja, close to the shore of the Ebro river. This area has the highest elevation. The climate in this area is mostly continental. This is the biggest of all the Rioja wines production areas and produces almost 50% of all the wines. The vines within this area are around 60% Tempranillo, 12% Garnacha and another 4% is for other varieties of red grapes. With the rest of the vines grown being white grapes, mainly Viura. The wines produced in the Upper Rioja production zone are full bodied, with a medium alcohol content and high total acidity, and are suitable for aging in oak casks.
Lower Rioja: The Lower Rioja is in the east of La Rioja, and is the area with the lowest elevation. The climate is Mediterranean, quite hot and dry, which is perfect for the ripening of the grapes. Around 44% of the vines in this production area belong to the Garnacha variety, 38% to Tempranillo and 7% to the rest of red grape varieties. White grapes take up 11% of the plantation.
DOCa Rioja Alavesa: This is a sub zone of the DOCa Rioja with its vineyards in the south of the Basque Country. The vineyards here are situated right on the shore of the Ebro river at an altitude betwen 1150-1600 feet, where they benefit from extended hours of sun exposure. About 80% of the platings here consist of the Tempranillo grape, 4% other red grape varieties, and the rest are several varieties of white grapes.
The different Rioja reds can exhibit different qualities,
Rioja labeled reds tend to be the fruitiest red produced in Rioja. They have summery aromas of cherries and strawberries. They have a lush feel in the mouth with concentrated red or black fruit, abundant tannins, and complex aromas often rich with chocolate, licorice, spices, fresh tobacco, tar, and sweet flowers. They pair well with vegetable curry, Chinese, roast venison and grilled ribeye steak.
Rioja Crianza tend to have strong aromas of strawberries and cherries, with varying amounts of toasty vanilla flavors. They tend to be fruity and clean on the palate. They pair with dishes such as whole roasted fish and Lasagna.
Rioja Reserva often contain earthier aromas with less noticeable fresh fruit, but exhibit more complexity. They often have flavors of chocolate, sweet spices and fennel, anise and licorice. They pair with roast leg of lamb, mushroom risotto, ratatouille and grilled chorizo.
Rioja Gran Reserva are often a complex blend of subtle spice and soft fruit flavors. Cherries, Blackberries and cinnamon overlain with very developed flavors of cigar box, wet earth, leather, truffles and mushrooms. These are the highest quality Rioja wines, and pair well with winter stews, duck confit and roasted squab or pheasant.