Rioja, the most famous wine region in Spain, lies mostly within the autonomous community of La Rioja in the north of the country. The region is thought to derive its name from the Oja River (el Rio Oja), a tributary of the Ebro. Rioja covers a stretch of land 60 miles (100 kilometers) long and 25 miles (40 km) wide that straddles both banks (although predominantly the south) of the eastward-flowing Ebro and encompasses parts of the Alava province of the País Vasco (Basque Country) and Navarra regions. The designation's boundaries are naturally demarcated by the local geography: the Sierra de la Demanda mountain range in the south and the Sierra de Cantabria range to the north and west. These features combine to create the enviable grape-growing conditions of Rioja. The region's red wines, based on Tempranillo, have cemented its place among Europe's finest designations and firmly secured Spain's position on the world's wine map.
Rioja was awarded DO (Denominación de Origen) status in 1925, making it the first in the country to receive this. In 1991, it was upgraded to the highest status, DOCa. Again it was the first designation in Spain to obtain it, due to its proven record in consistently producing top-quality wines.
Winemaking here is thought to date back to Roman times, as shown by the presses and cellars found during archaeological excavations in the area. Following a slump during Moorish occupation, Rioja flourished again after Christians settled back in the area, fuelled by wine's significance in their traditions.
As in neighboring Navarra, many monasteries were set up in Rioja along El Camino de Santiago (St. James' Way) to host the many pilgrims who passed through on their way to a shrine (now cathedral) in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, where tradition holds the Apostle James is buried. Viticulture was part of this.
Successive powdery mildew and phylloxera outbreaks that devastated French viticulture in the 19th Century greatly increased demand for Rioja's wines and saw the first commercial bodega (winery) set up – belonging to the Marques de Murrieta – followed shortly after by the Marques de Riscal. Phylloxera finally hit Rioja at the turn of the century and plunged it into massive decline. Successive wars only added to its woes. In the 1970s, life was breathed back into the industry, with some foreign help. Today, Riojan wines are much sought after locally and internationally and command some of the highest prices of all Spanish wines.
The confluence of the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean's influences teamed with the mountain formations create a special and favorable environment for vines. It is these friendly grape-growing conditions, with varied soil types and complex topography, which set Rioja apart from other Spanish wine regions.
Generally speaking, the Cantabrian Mountains in the north and west not only provide perfect shelter from the wet and cold influences of the Atlantic Ocean, making it relatively mild, but also protect Rioja's vineyards from the severe, moisture-bearing winds that are typical in this region. However, temperatures can vary across Rioja. Additionally, there are considerable variations in the mix of the local soils, ranging from chalk to iron, limestone and clay. For these reasons (as well as administrative ones), Rioja is separated into three sub-regions: Rioja Alavesa in the north, Rioja Alta to the west and Rioja Baja to the east. Producers often source grapes from each of these sub-regions, adding to their wines' complexity.
The diversity of the terroir is reflected in Rioja's wines, which range from easy-drinking, young reds to more rustic, fuller styles which are capable of being cellared for many years. Rioja's claim to fame is Tempranillo, Spain's classic grape variety, which thrives on the clay- and limestone-based soils of the best vineyard sites. Nevertheless, most of the wines are typically blends, in which Garnacha is employed to add its distinctive power and perfume. Garnacha is also used in Rioja's rosé wines, as well as in various others. Mazuelo (Carignan) and Graciano also find their way into Rioja wines, although in smaller quantities. Cabernet Sauvignon also finds favor as a blending partner for those who are authorized to use it, most notably, Marqués de Riscal.
It is the winemaking process that distinguishes Riojan wines from other Spanish regions; most top red Rioja wines are matured in new American-oak barrels, although many wineries have successfully experimented with a combination of American and French oak. This imparts characteristic coconut and vanilla notes on the wines. The local Consejo Regulador (wine authority) stipulates the size that oak casks must be: 225 liters (60 US gallons). The wines are categorized according to the amount of time they have been aged, as in Joven (young), Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. Joven wines usually see no oak and are consumed within one to two years of their release. Crianza and Reserva wines must spend a minimum of one year in oak, and Gran Reservas two years.
Around 85% of all Rioja wines are red. The rest are rosado and blanco (white). Rioja also produces quality white wines based on Viura (known as Macabeo elsewhere in Spain) and Malvasia de Rioja. The barrel-fermented examples are much sought after. Garnacha Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Blanca, Verdejo, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are all authorized for use.
Parts of the sparkling Cava designation overlap with the Rioja DOCa. Three geographically separate zones are housed within the Rioja boundaries, around the towns of Haro in the west, Logrono in the centre and Gravalos in the southeast.