Spanish Wine Regions: Rioja

Published : 04/03/2017 11:10:12
Categories : Eatapas & more

An Introduction to the Spanish Wine Region of Rioja

Rioja is the jewel in Spain’s wine making crown but how much do you know about the region? Get your notepad out, here’s an introduction to the Spanish wine region of Rioja.

Introduction to Spanish Wine Designations of Origin

In Spain there are 69 Wine Designations of Origin, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Priorat, Penedés and Cava being the most renowned.

As a quick reminder, DO and PDO are awards for certified high quality products.

Wines can be DO labelled when they are compliant with the following requirements:

  • They are produced within the boundaries of a specific territory.
  • They are produced using only grapes grown in the DO territory.
  • They have special characteristics achievable only by producing them in the local area where they are elaborated.
  • They are obtained from vine varieties belonging to Vitis Vinifera.

The Rioja D.O.Ca

We continue our journey through the Spanish Wine Regions, this time we’re talking about Rioja. Rioja is the most famous Spanish region for wine production and one of the most renowned worldwide.

Along with Priorat, Rioja is the only other Spanish wine awarded with the Qualified Designation of Origin or D.O.Ca. seal. This means the Regulatory Council defines the maximum allowed production yield in addition to production areas, grape varieties, techniques and classification.

Rioja Regulatory Board fixed the following maximum allowed yields with the aim of guaranteeing the highest quality standard:

  1. 6,500 kilograms per hectare for red wine.
  2. 9,000 kilograms per hectare for white wine.

Rioja’s annual production stays in a range of 250 to 300 million litres, which 90% is represented by red wines, the rest being white and rosé.

In Spain more land is devoted to growing vines than in any other country in the world and much of that land is in Rioja. People have always taken wine very seriously in this region, except when the annual Wine Festival takes place in Haro at the end of June. Figure out why!!!!

Rioja in a Nutshell

Date of Birth: 1926

Geographical Location: Sitting in the North of Spain, 100Km south of Bilbao, Rioja is a part of the River Ebro valley squeezed between the Cantabrian Mountains and Sierra de la Demanda. Vineyards are located on both banks of the river at an average altitude of 500 metres. The area is made up of three sub-regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja.

Climate: Despite its small size, Rioja is characterised by many different microclimates. Here, the cold and wet Atlantic climate meets the hot and dry Mediterranean. Long winters alternate with hot, dry summers. Rain is usually infrequent but can sometimes fall at a moderate rate, normally concentrated in the spring and autumn months.

Red Grapes: Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano, Mazuelo and Maturana Tinta

White Grapes: Viura, Malvasia, Garnacha Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Blanca, Turruntés, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo.

Best Vintages: 1994, 1995, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2011 and 2012

Wines: Rioja wine is generally known for its versatility: young fruitful varieties and complex oak-aged types coexist in this terroir and share a common factor: Tempranillo grapes.

DO Website:

What is Rioja

The Rioja Wine Region is a land of diversity. Different kinds of soil, microclimates and grape varieties allow local “Bodegas” (the Spanish word for wineries) to produce a broad range of excellent wines.

Located in northern Spain at the border with the Basque Country, Rioja is a vibrant wine production area crosscut by the River Ebro. The banks of the river offer unique, natural conditions to grow vines.

Although the capital city of La Rioja county is Logroño, the historic city of Haro is far more important for wine. This is where the most relevant wineries are located and where the annual Wine Festival takes place.

As with all wine producing regions, climate, geography and soil strongly influence Rioja’s wines. The balance of the two climates that meet in this land, the cold and wet Atlantic climate and the hot and dry Mediterranean, results in ideal temperatures and level of rainfall. Here the Cantabrian Mountains provide a shelter from the cold and fierce Atlantic winds. Rivers Oja and Ebro keep the area watered and greatly influence the vines.

Rioja consists of three sub-regions with different soil and climate conditions:

  1. Rioja Alta.
  2. Rioja Baja.
  3. Rioja Alavesa.

The Rioja Alta climate is Atlantic. Here it is possible to find all the different kinds of soil typical of Rioja: chalky-clay, ferrous-clay and alluvial.

Rioja Alavesa is also significantly influenced by the Atlantic climate. Here the soil is mainly chalky-clay.

The Mediterranean climate dominated Rioja Baja is much drier and warmer. Its dominant soils are ferrous-clay and alluvial.

History of Rioja Wine

Rioja has an ancient history that dates back to the 11th century when the Phoenicians settled in Spain and begun cultivating vines. It wasn’t until the phylloxera aphid outbreak of the late 19th Century that Rioja really took centre stage.

The phylloxera blight destroyed many of the vineyards located in the south of France forcing local merchants to search for similar wines somewhere else. That’s when they arrived at Rioja. Accompanied by their expert knowledge, French winemakers taught Rioja Bodegas key techniques, like how to age wine in oak. Under the bordelaise influence Rioja thrived and started exporting wine in bulk to France.

Rioja wines fell out of fashion in the 80s when the commercial ambition of many local wineries turned to a lack of consistency and underperforming wines.

Over the past 25 years Rioja has enjoyed a renaissance leading to more modern, flavourful and internationally appealing wines. In the 21st Century winemakers have focused more on quality and diversification.

Now Rioja is a vibrant region that gives birth to some of the most valued wines in the world. It’s by far the most famous Spanish wine region.

Images: Bodegas Finca de los Arandinos

Wines from Rioja


Spain is the 3rd largest producer in the world and Rioja is a key force behind this. 90% of wine production is red, with Rosé and White making up the other 10%. Rioja’s grapes have lower yield if compared to Bordeaux Region and therefore produce less wine.

The king of the grapes found in Rioja is Tempranillo, making up more than 70% of vines grown.

Rioja has one of the world’s largest concentrations of oak barrels and its wines are classified according to the period of time they have spent ageing.

The differences of climate and soil in the three production sub-areas allow for a terrific diversity of wine.

Wines from Rioja Alta are famous for their freshness and their level of acidity. They have an extraordinary ageing potential in oak casks. This sub-region is known for producing classic and elegant wines.

Rioja Alavesa has a reputation for wines that are acid driven and firm in structure.

In Rioja Baja it’s much easier to be surprised by young wines made with high percentages of Garnacha. Wines produced in this area are rich in fruit and alcohol due to the greater Mediterranean climate influence.

We are proud to stock several excellent wines from Rioja in our online store:

Images: Bodegas La Rioja Alta SA

Classification of Rioja Red Wines


There are four categories of Wine in Rioja:

  1. Vino Joven: 1 or 2 year old and not oak aged.
  2. Crianza: aged for not less than 2 years with at least 12 months in oak casks.
  3. Reserva: aged for not less than 3 years with at least 1 year in oak cask.
  4. Gran Reserva: produced using grapes from exceptional vintages. It must be aged for at least 2 years in oak-casks and 3 more years in bottle before release to the market.

Rioja Grape Varieties


The grape varieties currently admitted by the D.O.Ca. Regulatory Council are:

  • White Grapes: Viura, Malvasia, Garnacha Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Blanca, Turruntés, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo.
  • Red Grapes: Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano, Mazuelo and Maturana Tinta.

In spite of the broad diversity of grapes, Tempranillo is the clear king. It accounts for 75% of Rioja’s vineyards and it’s a special variety for two key reasons. It’s a great grape for ageing as it can spend a long period of time in casks. It also offers a great balance of acidity and tannins.

Temprano is the Spanish word for early or premature which is interesting as Tempranillo is renowned for its tendency to ripen early.

In Spain Tempranillo is also known as Tinta Fina, Tinta del País or Tinta de Toro depending on where it is grown.

The traditional practice of Bodegas is to blend Tempranillo with Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo from different vineyards to seek the complementary elements that contribute to create the classic balanced and silky Rioja wines.

Rioja Vintage Chart

2016: Very Good

2015: Very Good

2014: Good

2013: Good

2012: Very Good

2011: Excellent

2010: Excellent

2009: Very Good

2008: Very Good

2007: Very Good

2006: Very Good

2005: Excellent

2004: Excellent

2003: Good

2002: Good

2001: Excellent

2000: Good

What dishes go well with Rioja Wines


When we choose food to pair with wines coming from a certain region, first we think about geographical proximity and local traditions. Then we consider the occasion.

Rioja’s gastronomy is based on stews, cheese, cured meats, peppers, mushrooms, pulses, game and Atlantic fish like Cod or Albacore.

Let’s start from Vino Joven. Young reds are ideal wines for Tapas as they complement a wide variety of dishes. Fresh and fruity, Rioja’s Vino Joven pairs extremely well with intense cured meats like Ibérico Ham, Morcilla or Mortadella. In our opinion Chorizo is the perfect match for the palate. It also goes particularly well with Grilled Octopus or the typical Pulpo a la Gallega with paprika.

Rioja’s Crianza Wines are great with aged sheep cheese, like Manchego or Zamorano accompanied with quince jam. Crianza’s aromas of fruit and spices, together with their typical refreshing acidity, match particularly well with cheese.

Lamb and Rioja are a classic pairing. Reserva wines are an especially good match. However if you want to surprise your guests on a special occasion try lamb chops with Gran Reserva. The intense depth and silky texture offered by these wines greatly combine with the smooth and delicate taste of suckling lamb. Reserva wines stand out even when paired with a full-flavoured dish like meatball stew.  

 In general Gran Reserva Wines should be paired with elaborate and complex recipes but never with dishes of very strong flavours. That’s because aged wines become more delicate and elegant over time. We suggest trying these wines with baked fish.

Have you ever considered pairing chocolate with red wine? Well, you’ll be surprised by how delicious the combination of Gran Reserva with dark chocolate actually is.

Also Rioja White Wines deserve a quick mention.

Viura wines are a good match for Foie Gras, Almonds, Roasted Turkey Baked Fish and Squids.

Images: Rioja DOCa

Has this got your mouth watering for a classic bottle of Rioja? Or perhaps a plate or two of tapas? Browse our full collection of wines here. And don’t forget to check out ourfull range of authentic Spanish tapas while you’re at it!

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