Rioja is in Northern Spain and straddles the Ebro river and is so called after a tributary of the Ebro – the Rio Oja. Rioja is undoubtedly Spain’s most important wine producing region being the first to gain DO classification in 1933 and the first of a select few to gain the prestigious classification of DOCa in 1991.
Rioja wines are predominately red – usually blended, they are principally made from Tempranillo, enhanced by Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo or any combination of the four. A Rioja may be made from a single varietal too. Whites are generally made from Viura, but Chardonnay, Tempranillo Blanca and Malvasia are permitted grape varieties.
Centred on the town of Logrono, the capital city of the province of La Rioja, the winemaking regions extend to the west – Rioja Alta, to the north – Rioja Alavesa and to the south and east – Rioja Oriental (or Baja). The three regions are distinct. Alavesa, in the Basque country and Alta have limestone soil and are influenced by the cooler air coming from the mountains And the wines are tighter, more minerally. The Oriental region has more alluvial soils and is influenced by the warmer Mediterranean air and makes softer, fruitier wines.
But the biggest influence on the taste of Rioja wines is the ageing process of Barrel Maturation. The shape and the size of the 225 litre barrica bordelesa introduced by the Bordeaux merchants in the 19th century is laid down in law. The regulations also specify the minimum ageing process for each category of wine. In Rioja, Crianza wines must spend one year in oak and one year in tank or bottle before release. Reserva wines must also spend one year in oak, but two years in tank or bottle. Those wines labelled as Gran Reserva must spend two years in barrel and a further three years ageing in barrel, tank or bottle before release. Traditionally the oak used for ageing the wines was American oak, often new oak, giving the wines the characteristic vanilla and spice tones. More recently, a mix of American and French oak barrels, not all of them new has been the norm and a slower, more oxidative approach to ageing has created wines that are distinctly Rioja but are less obvious.
Just over 40 percent of all Rioja falls into the aged category above – the rest is either rose, white or the unoaked Joven style.