Rioja wines are among the most iconic and celebrated wines in the world. Located in the northern region of Spain, the Rioja wine region has a rich history dating back to Roman times, and it has become renowned for its high-quality, complex, and nuanced wines. However, despite their popularity, Rioja wines remain somewhat enigmatic and complex, with a multitude of styles, grape varieties, and production methods. In this comprehensive exploration guide, we will delve into the world of Rioja wines, unravel their mysteries, and provide you with a complete understanding of their unique character, flavor profiles, and how to enjoy them to the fullest. Whether you are a wine connoisseur or simply curious about this renowned wine region, this guide will provide you with everything you need to know to become a true Rioja wine expert.
7 Interesting Data about DOCa Rioja
The wine region of Rioja is designated as DOCa (Denominación de Origen Cualificada) since its establishment in 1991, making it the first DOC in Spain. The qualified designation DOCa recognizes the exceptional quality and authenticity of Rioja wines, setting rigorous standards for production and aging. Currently, there are only two DOCa in Spain, with Priorat being the second region to receive this designation.
- Rioja is the oldest Designation of Origin (DO) in Spain, dating back to 1925. It was also the first region in Spain to be granted the higher designation of DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada) in 1991.
- The DOCa Rioja is divided into three sub-regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Oriental, each with unique climate and soil characteristics that influence the wine’s flavor and aroma.
- Aging classification: Rioja wines must be aged for a minimum of one year in oak barrels and an additional year in the bottle before being released to the market. Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva are classifications based on aging periods (we’ll see them below).
- Rioja is the leading wine region in Spain, accounting for over 40% of the country’s total wine production.
- As of 2021, there are over 600 wineries in DOCa Rioja, ranging from small family-run operations to large commercial producers.
- Rioja has about 65.000 hectares of vineyards under cultivation (about 160,618 acres).
- While Rioja wines are primarily known for their red varieties, they can also be produced in rosé, white, and sparkling versions. These different styles allow for a range of flavor profiles and pairings to suit different tastes and occasions.
A brief history of Rioja Wines
The history of Rioja wines dates back to ancient times, with the first vineyards believed to have been planted by the Phoenicians over 2,000 years ago. The region’s unique climate and soil conditions proved ideal for grape cultivation, and Rioja wines quickly gained a reputation for their exceptional quality.
During the medieval period, Rioja wines were already well-known and widely traded. However, it was not until the 17th century that Rioja wines began to gain more recognition throughout Europe, particularly in England, where they were highly valued. In the 18th century, the export of Rioja wines increased significantly, and by the end of the century, Rioja had become one of the most important wine regions in Spain.
In the mid-19th century, Rioja wines became even more popular when French winemakers fleeing the phylloxera epidemic settled in the region, introducing new techniques and production methods.
But in the early 20th century, Rioja wines faced significant challenges, including the phylloxera epidemic, which devastated vineyards across Europe. Many Rioja winemakers were forced to replant their vineyards with resistant rootstocks, resulting in changes to the region’s grape varieties and winemaking techniques.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Rioja wines faced further challenges due to the Spanish Civil War and subsequent economic struggles. However, in the post-war years, Rioja wines began to experience a renaissance, with new investment in vineyards and winemaking facilities, and a renewed focus on quality.
Since the 1980s, Rioja wines have continued to evolve and improve, with winemakers adopting modern techniques and equipment while still retaining the region’s traditional winemaking methods. In 1991, the Rioja wine region was granted Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) status, the highest designation for Spanish wines, recognizing the region’s exceptional quality and status as a world-renowned wine region, leading to the creation of some of the world’s most prestigious and sought-after wines.
Today, Rioja wines continue to be revered by wine lovers around the globe, continue to be produced using traditional methods, and are recognized globally for their complexity, elegance, and depth of flavor. Rioja remains one of Spain’s most important wine regions.
What are the 3 Rioja areas?
The area has three major areas: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Oriental (formerly called “Rioja Baja”). Rioja has over 65,000 hectares and is known for its diverse character.
Rioja’s terroir is characterized by a combination of various factors, including climate, soil, and topography. The region’s climate is moderate continental with Atlantic influences, with a cooling effect from the nearby Bay of Biscay. Rioja’s soil is diverse, with a mix of clay, limestone, and iron-rich soils that contribute to the distinct flavor and aroma of the wines.
Due to the diversity of locations, the topography of Rioja ranges from the Ebro River Valley to the Cantabrian Mountains, providing varying elevations and exposures to sunlight that further influence the grapes’ ripening and flavor. These unique terroir characteristics create a range of Rioja wines, from fruity and fresh to complex and robust, depending on the vineyard location and winemaker’s expertise.
The 3 sub-regions are:
- Rioja Alta: it is known for producing some of the most elegant and complex Rioja wines. Located in the northwest of Rioja, the area benefits from a continental climate with Atlantic influences, characterized by mild temperatures and abundant rainfall. The soils in Rioja Alta are predominantly clay and limestone, which lend a mineral character to the wines. The vineyards are planted at higher altitudes, up to 1,800 feet, which contributes to the wine’s freshness and acidity. The red wines from Rioja Alta are often described as having a classic style with flavors of red fruit, vanilla, and spice. The main cities of Rioja Alta are Haro, Santo Domingo de la Calzada, and Ezcaray. Haro is often considered the wine capital of Rioja and is home to many of the region’s most famous wineries. Santo Domingo de la Calzada is known for its historic cathedral and its location on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. Ezcaray is a picturesque town surrounded by mountains and forests, known for its traditional cuisine and outdoor activities such as hiking and skiing.
- Rioja Alavesa: located in the Basque province of Alava. The area is characterized by a continental climate with cooler temperatures and higher rainfall compared to Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja. The soils in Rioja Alavesa are predominantly made up of limestone and clay, which provide excellent drainage and contribute to the region’s distinctive style of wine. The region is known for producing high-quality Tempranillo wines, as well as Garnacha and Viura varietals. Rioja Alavesa is home to many wineries and vineyards, many of which have been owned and operated by the same families for generations. The main cities and towns of Rioja Alavesa include Laguardia, Elciego, Labastida, Samaniego, and Villabuena de Álava.
- Rioja Oriental: formerly Rioja Baja, is the easternmost sub-region of Rioja, located closer to the Mediterranean Sea. It has a warmer and drier climate than the other sub-regions, which leads to an earlier grape harvest. The soils in Rioja Oriental are mostly alluvial and contain a higher proportion of clay and limestone compared to Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. The region produces mostly Garnacha and Tempranillo grape varieties and its wines are known for their rich fruit flavors and full-bodied character. The main cities of Rioja Oriental are Calahorra, Alfaro, and Arnedo.
Rioja Wines Classification
DOC Rioja wines are classified either by their geographic origin or by their aging process.
>Wines by Origin
The geographic origin of DOC Rioja wines is defined by individual plots, which are classified as Viñedo Singular, Vinos de Municipio, or Vinos de Zona, depending on the specific geographic area. The classification system is based on the concept of terroir, with each level of classification indicating a greater level of specificity and uniqueness in terms of the grapes and the land from which they come.
- Viñedo Singular: it is a classification that aims to recognize and promote individual vineyards with unique characteristics that are capable of producing exceptional wines. In order to qualify as Viñedo Singular, a vineyard must meet certain requirements such as being at least 35 years old, being planted on a single variety of grape, the vinification, aging, storage, and bottling of wines must take place within the same winery, and having a track record of producing high-quality wines.
- Vinos de Municipio: refers to wines that are classified according to their place of origin within a specific municipality or town. The vinification, ageing, and bottling of Vinos de Municipio take place within the same municipality. However, there is an exception that allows up to 15% of the grapes to come from bordering municipalities if there are long-standing ties with the vineyard dating back at least ten years.
- Vinos de Zona: refers to wines that are produced within a specific area or zone of the Rioja region. Vinos de Zona is a more extensive designation and it recognizes the 3 sub-regions since 1970. This classification takes into account the geographic location of the winery within the Rioja region, which affects factors such as climate and soil composition. The wines must be made with a minimum of 85% of grapes from the specified zone, and the remaining 15% can come from other authorized zones within the Rioja region.
>Wine by Aging
Additionally, DOC Rioja wines are also classified by their aging, with the categories of Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva indicating the length of time the wine has spent aging in oak barrels and in the bottle before release.
- Cosecha: these are basic Rioja wines that are released to the market within a year of the harvest. They are typically made from a blend of grapes grown from different vineyards and are not subject to any aging requirements. These wines are intended for immediate consumption and are often used in Rioja for everyday meals and casual gatherings. They are typically less expensive than other Rioja wines, making them a popular choice for those looking for good quality wine at an affordable price.
- Crianza: Crianza wines are a category of DOCa Rioja wines that have been aged for a minimum of 1 year in oak barrels, and then further aged in the bottle for a minimum of 1 year before being released for sale. For white and rosé wines, the minimum oak barrel aging period is 6 months. Crianza wines tend to have a balance of fruitiness and oakiness, with a medium body and a smooth finish.
- Reserva: wines in this category have been aged for a minimum of 3 years in total, with at least one year of that time spent in oak barrels and 6 months in the bottles. White Reserva requires at least 2 years of aging, with at least 6 months in barrel. They are made from selected grapes and are produced in limited quantities, with a longer aging period than Crianza wines. Reserva wines are known for their complexity and balance, with subtle oak and fruit flavors.
- Gran Reserva: Gran Reserva red wines are the highest classification of Rioja wines, which are aged for a minimum of 5 years, 2 years in oak barrels and 3 years in the bottle before being released. White and rosé Gran Reservas require a minimum of 4 years of aging, including at least 6 months in oak barrels. Gran Reservas are considered to be the most complex and elegant of Rioja wines, with a delicate balance of fruit, oak, and tertiary aromas and flavors. They are also the most expensive and sought-after wines from the region.
New classification: Quality Sparkling Wines
Rioja sparkling wines have a long history dating back to the 19th century when the French winemakers fleeing the phylloxera epidemic settled in the region and introduced new techniques and production methods. Initially, the sparkling wines produced in Rioja were considered secondary, but over time they gained more recognition and became a popular category of wine in the region. Today, with the new Quality Sparkling Wines classification, Rioja sparkling wines are experiencing a renaissance, showcasing the region’s commitment to quality winemaking and innovation.
Bodegas Bilbaínas has been situated in the Barrio de la Estación de Haro since 1901, and they are well aware of the history of the location. The same premises where the Bordeaux-based company Savignon Frères produced their first wines for the French market since 1859, in the surrounding region of this Riojan town. Sparkling wines were also included in this production. After the Bordelais departed Rioja due to the phylloxera epidemic, Santiago Ugarte, the visionary founder of Bilbaínas, recognized the potential of export markets. He hired Charles Delouvin, a chef de cave from Reims, to bring the champagne method’s savoir-faire to the Riojan winery. French champagne was unable to meet the demands of the prosperous European market before the First World War. In 1913, Bilbaínas presented its own champagne, Lumen, as a result of Delouvin’s contributions. Bilbaínas re-released this icon in 2013 as a blanc de noirs, made entirely of Garnacha Tinta.
The Rioja Regulatory Council, which oversees the production and classification of Rioja wines, has recently introduced a new classification for Quality Sparkling Wines. This new category recognizes the increasing popularity and demand for high-quality sparkling wines and allows Rioja winemakers to produce and market their own sparkling wines under the Rioja name. To be classified as a Quality Sparkling Wine, the wine must meet strict quality standards and undergo a rigorous tasting and evaluation process. This new classification is expected to further enhance the reputation of Rioja wines and provide consumers with even more diverse and high-quality options to choose from.
The new Quality Sparkling Wines classification will be included on the back labels and seals issued by the Control Board, as well as on the front label of the wine bottle. Rioja Regulations authorize the use of all grape varieties to make Espumoso de Calidad de Rioja, with sparkling rosé wines requiring at least 25% red grapes. The application for vintage must be submitted prior to the start of the harvest, which is done by hand, and the grape-to-wine ratio is limited compared to the general limit. For the Crianza category, a minimum of 15 months is required, 24 months for Reserva, and 36 months for Gran Añada in this new category of quality sparkling wines.
What are the grape varieties used in Rioja Wines?
Rioja wines are renowned worldwide for their exceptional quality and distinctive character, which is largely due to the grape varieties used in their production.
The red wines are predominantly made from the Tempranillo grape, which gives the wine its signature notes of red fruit, vanilla, and leather. The Garnacha Tinta grape is also used in smaller proportions, contributing to the wine’s fruitiness and spice. Graciano and Mazuelo are less common but add complexity and structure to the blends.
The white Rioja wines, on the other hand, use Viura as their primary grape variety, known for its fresh acidity and citrus flavors. Other grape varieties commonly used in white Rioja wines include Malvasia, Verdejo, and Sauvignon Blanc, each adding its unique character to the wine. The result is a range of wines that showcase the diverse flavors and aromas of the Rioja region, and which have earned their place among the world’s most renowned and cherished wines.
AUTHORIZED WHITE GRAPES
- 68,7% Viura
- 12,6% Tempranillo Blanco
- 5,4% Verdejo
- 3,6% Garnacha Blanca
- 3,3% Sauvignon Blanc
- 2,6% Chardonnay
- 2,2% Malvasia
AUTHORIZED RED GRAPES
What are the characteristic taste and aromas of Rioja wines?
Tasting notes of Red Riojas
Red Rioja wines are known for their complex and layered flavors, with a balance of fruit, spice, and oak. Red fruits are often found in Rioja red wines, particularly in younger wines. Some common red fruit flavors found in Rioja red wines include cherry, raspberry, and strawberry. As the wine ages, Red Rioja wines tend to have notes of red and dark berries, vanilla, tobacco, leather, and earthy undertones, while white Rioja wines tend to have a more citrusy and floral aroma with hints of vanilla and honey.
Rioja wines also have a noticeable acidity and tannins that contribute to their structure and aging potential. Overall, Rioja wines are known for their elegant and nuanced taste and aroma.
In addition to the characteristic taste and aroma of Rioja wines, they also have a refreshing acidity that balances the richness of their flavors. Many Rioja wines have great aging potential due to their high levels of tannins and acidity, which can help preserve the wine over time. As Rioja wines age, they can develop more complex flavors and aromas, often becoming smoother and more elegant.
Tasting notes of White Riojas
White Rioja wines are majorly made from the Viura variety and can also include small amounts of Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca. These wines tend to be crisp and refreshing with a delicate floral and citrus aroma. White Riojas are often aged in oak barrels, which can impart a subtle hint of vanilla and spice. While red Riojas are more well-known, white Riojas are gaining popularity and recognition for their quality and great aging capacity.
Some Famous Wineries from Rioja
With more than 600 wineries, there are many famous bodegas in Rioja, but here are eight notable iconic ones:
- Bodegas Muga: Founded in 1932, this winery is located in Haro and is known for its traditional winemaking techniques and high-quality red wines.
- Bodegas Marqués de Riscal: Established in 1858, this winery is one of the oldest in Rioja and is located in Elciego. It is known for its iconic building designed by Frank Gehry and its innovative winemaking methods.
- Bodegas López de Heredia Viña Tondonia: Founded in 1877, this winery is located in Haro and is known for its long-aging, complex red wines. It is one of the few wineries in Rioja that still uses traditional winemaking techniques.
- Bodegas Bilbaínas: This winery is located in Haro and was founded in 1901. It is known for its Tempranillo-based red wines and its iconic Viña Pomal label.
- Bodegas Roda: Established in 1987, this winery is located in Haro and is known for its modern winemaking techniques and high-quality red wines made from Tempranillo and Graciano grapes.
- Bodegas Franco-Españolas: Founded in 1890, Bodegas Franco-Españolas is one of the oldest wineries in Rioja. It is known for producing a wide range of Rioja wines, including both traditional and modern styles.
- Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta: Founded in 1852, Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta is one of the oldest and most prestigious wineries in Rioja. It is known for producing some of the finest Rioja wines, including its iconic Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial.
- Bodegas Rioja Alta: it was founded in 1890 by a group of five Riojan and Basque families, who shared a passion for producing high-quality wines. Their vision and dedication have made Bodegas Rioja Alta one of the most prestigious wineries in the region today.
Planning a Rioja Wine Journey to learn more?
Planning a wine journey to Rioja can be an exciting and rewarding experience for wine lovers. Whether you’re a wine enthusiast or simply looking for a unique travel experience, a trip to Rioja is sure to be one you’ll never forget. To begin, it is important to research and plan ahead by choosing which wineries to visit. In addition to visiting the best wineries around, there are many other activities to enjoy in the Rioja region, such as exploring historic towns, and enjoying local cuisine. Why not join our small group tour led by two WSET 3 certified resident tour directors and get involved in a very personal and intimate experience?