Spain’s best-known wine, Rioja, comes from the sprawling Rioja region in the northern part of the country, not far from the French border. Though wines have been made in Rioja for millennia, the quintessential Riojas were shaped in the late 1800s by Bordeaux winemakers who migrated to Rioja after phylloxera infestations decimated their vineyards. French winemaking techniques, which include careful blending and the extensive use of small oak barrels for aging, still define many Rioja wines.
The Rioja DOCa – Spain’s highest quality appellation designation, Denominación de Origen Calificada – centers on the town of Logroño and follows the Ebro River. The name comes from Río Oja, a tributary of the Ebro. Established in 1926, Rioja was Spain’s first DO. In 1991, in recognition of its premium wines, it was named the first Spanish DOCa.
The appellation is divided into three subregions: La Rioja Alavesa in the northwest, La Rioja Alta in the southwest, and La Rioja Baja in the east. The cooler, wetter climate of the two western subzones generally produces medium-bodied wines. The hotter, drier eastern section, La Rioja Baja, produces bigger and more powerful wines.
Most Riojas are red, and Tempranillo is the primary red grape used. The native grapes Garnacha Tinta (Grenache in France), Mazuelo (Carignan) and Graciano are also permitted in the blend. These Riojas can be in the elegant Bordeaux style, with some vanilla notes from the oak aging; in a very traditional style characterized by lengthy aging and slight sweetness; or, increasingly, in a more modern style with less aging, which emphasizes deep and fresh fruit flavors. These last wines are more likely to have international varieties, like Cabernet, in the blend.
White Rioja wines are made from Macabeo, Garnacha Blanca and Malvasía grapes. Historically, these were also heavily oaked, but fresher, crisper white wines are now the style in Rioja.
Like all Spanish DO and DOC wines, Riojas are labeled according to age:
Joven, or young wines, have little or no oak aging and are typically fresh and fruity.
Crianza is red wine aged for a minimum of two years or white wine aged six months.
Reserva is red wine aged at least three years or white wine aged two years.
Grand Reserva is red wine aged at least five years or white wine aged four years.