This guide to the Rioja wine region in Northeastern Spain is part of our wine region series. Learn what makes beautiful and flavorful wine regions like DOCa Rioja special.
A Deep Look & Guide to the Beautiful and Flavor-prone Rioja Wine Region of Spain (DOCa)
I’ve really been aching to talk about this region with you all. I can honestly say that hands down, Rioja is by far my favorite wine growing region in the world. While there are plenty of other appellations that produce beautiful, well crafted wines — in both the old and new world, Rioja for me is more than just about the wine.
The Spanish Wine Region of Rioja
As a DOCa (Qualified Denomination of Origin) Rioja is recognized as one the highest quality wine producing regions in the world, and has been known as such since 1100 A.D. King Sancho of Navarra acknowledged the regions wine producing qualities as early as 1102. The region is regulated by a control board called the Consejo Regulador DOCa Rioja, which was established in 1926. The board regulates a variety of aspects related to the wine growing process and region. Including the types of grape varieties grown, aging techniques and maximum yields. Find out more about what’s regulated in Rioja here — it’s what’s best for the wines.
Where is Rioja Located in Spain?
The entire appellation of Rioja spans 60 miles along the banks of the Ebro river and resides within a valley South of the Cantabrian Mountains in Northeastern Spain. It’s further sub-divided into three wine-growing areas, Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa. The region as a whole, does very well growing a range of grape varieties due to it being located within a continental climate. The mountains provide atmospheric shelter and isolate it from nearby bodies of water, giving it predictable temperature and weather patterns. After many hundreds of years, wine growers have learned and taken advantage of the predictable climate patterns during each wine growing season.
Located at a relatively high elevation, Rioja Alta offers cooler climates throughout the growing season which helps the vines maintain a fair tannin structure and accentuate the structure of wines produced here. Wines from this area are both tasty while young and age very well, all while maintaining consistent, refreshing acidity.
Rioja Baja maintains a more Mediterranean climate. Traditionally warm and dry. Much of Rioja’s Garnacha comes from Rioja Baja, where the grape variety is used to balance the rusticness of Tempranillo from nearby areas. Wines exclusively from this region are best while young, and tend to have a distinct chalky and gravelly minerality to them since much of the soil here was deposited from ancient floods which pushed ancient fossilized sea life into the valley.
North of the river Ebro, Rioja Alavesa is the smallest wine growing area located within Rioja. Another region that sits at relatively high altitude, the beautiful Cantabrian mountains dominate the backdrop of this area. Since it’s the closest of the three Rioja sub-regions to the atlantic, it has consistently cool climates which help the grapes here maintain beautiful color and acid. The soil here is predominantly a clayish clalk and limestone, resulting in well defined minerality that to the experienced Rioja taster is easy to detect.
Wine Grape Varieties and Terroir in Rioja, Spain
The more wine I drink, the more I’ve come to appreciate terroir and the effect it has on the flavor profile of each individual wine. I like to remember that it’s important to think about terroir on a micro level, and while grape varieties have their consistencies, terroir can still have a dramatic effect. Think of each vineyard within a wine growing region as having its own, unique terroir.
The growing season in Rioja is traditionally long, giving grapes the opportunity to ripen fully while still maintaining refreshing acidity. The resulting wines tend to be very well structured and flavor intensive, partly as a result of the varying soil types throughout Rioja. Some Vintners in Rioja, will utilize grapes from multiple regions in an effort to acquire the best terroir variations from each region. With this in mind, here are the dominant varieties of grapes grown throughout the Rioja region.
- Tempranillo is by far Rioja’s most notable and dominantly grown grape variety. It’s believed to be native to Rioja itself and can be found in over 75% of vine acreage in Rioja. It ages well, and tends to be well structured with well balanced tannins, alcohol, acid and a unique fruity-rusticness.
- Originally believed to be native to Spain, Garnacha was recently found to have roots native to Sardinia (we’ll go more into this in another post). Regardless, Garnacha has been grown in Spain for centuries, and tends to have a lighter, fruity aromatic nature to it — commonly used to help balance Tempranillo in Rioja. It’s overall a hardy vine, and tolerates cooler climates well.
- Graciano is grown in very limited capacities outside of Rioja. It does well in cool climates and works well alongside clay and limestone soil compositions, of which Rioja has an abundance. It’s also known for its relatively static acid and phenolic content, so it’s used in limited quantities to assist in aging of Rioja wines.
- Typically used to accentuate the spicy aspect of Rioja wines, Maturana Tinta has a distinct purplish color to it. This grape maintains high acidity and a balsamic astringency according to Rioja DOCa. Truly a unique grape variety that is for the most part only grown in Rioja, Spain. It will be very interesting to see what other ways this grape may be utilized alongside the dominant varieties of Rioja in coming years.
- Mazuelo (also known as Carignan) enjoys slightly hotter climates, and accounts for as little as 3% of crop acreage in Rioja. It’s not overly flavoric, and is commonly used in Rioja as a way to enhance tannins, acid and color.