Rioja Wine Region of Spain DOCa Rioja, Tempranillo Vines

Budding tempranillo vines flourish in the Rioja sub region of Rioja Alavesa. Photo was captured around sunset during my last trip to Spain in May of 2015.

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?

Rioja Wine Region, 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.

DOCa Rioja Wine Region in Spain - Soil Map of La Rioja

Click to see the various soil compositions throughout Rioja. Map courtesy DOCa Rioja.

Rioja Alta

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

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.

Rioja Wine Region of Spain | Rioja Alavesa y Baja

Rioja Alavesa

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.

Rioja Wine Region - Spanish Wine Regional Guide

Vines begin to bud in Rioja during the early wine growing season of May, 2015.

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

  • 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.

Garnacha

  • 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.
Rioja Wine Region DOCa - Spanish Wine Regions

Not only do the grape vines in DOCa Rioja produce great wine, they’re surrounded by natural beauty.  These poppies enjoy beautiful weather during the Spring season alongside Tempranillo vines.

Graciano

  • 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.

Maturana Tinta

  • 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

  • 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.

Photos: FIU.edu, DOCa Rioja, Campo Viejo y Pura-Aventura
Sources: DOCa Rioja, Wine-Searcher.com, Wine-access.com

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29 Comments

  • Great post! One of my favorite wines is Tempranillo, but I didn’t know much about it until now. I need to put this region of Spain on my list!

    • Tempranillo is my favorite grape in the world! Spice, bright fruit and the perfect body. It’s even better when blended with smaller concentrations of Spain’s other grapes — especially Garnacha.

  • We visited Rioja last year for wine tasting and absolutely loved it. We went in the fall when the leaves were changing colors and the whole valley was just spectacular to look at. So many great wineries and places to eat. It was one of our favorite wine regions in the world.

    • Very nice! So glad to hear you enjoyed your experience. I can’t wait to visit in the Fall next when the current vintage is in the process of being crafted. It was beautiful in the Spring, and being from New England I can understand the appreciation for Fall colors. I think this region offers so much diversity and flavor, and even buying wine in Logrono — you can get a glass of world class wine for around 2 euros. Doesn’t get much better than that!

    • Julie

      I am going to the area next Fall. Any suggestions for wineries, restaurants and/or hotels?

  • Loved this post…such vivid details! Next time I am in Spain, I will certainly make a trip there 🙂

  • Very informative article with amazing photos! Since I started learning Spanish recently, we have been told about Rioja already. Now that I have read about your experience, I am dripping saliva to taste it in person.

    • Glad to hear you’re starting to learn Spanish, Svet. Naturally, it was invaluable to me when visiting Spain. Rioja is a very special place and it helps when you know exactly what to ask for :).

  • Off-late I have started to become a wine person, from a die hard beer lover. This is such an informative post, and surely one that will be stuck in my head, before I visit Spain.

  • After moving back to Virginia in my adulthood and finally enjoying the vineyards in the area, I’m starting to love the idea of traveling through wine! I’d love to visit this part of Spain and give this particular wine a try.

  • When I went to Spain, I was impressed by the quality of all the local, house wines but I never knew anything about the wine regions or how it was made. Thanks for sharing insight into that half of things!

    • That’s what’s so great about Spain! The local “house” wines are actually beautifully crafted wines from Rioja or Ribera. You can get a gorgeous Reserva or Gran Reserva at any number of tapas restaurants for around 2 euros a glass. A bottle is around 10. That same bottle at a restaurant in the US will run you $50+!

      • Angela Dittoe

        Last year I brought my son, a chef, a small bottle of a Rioja wine which I bought in the Madrid airport. He loved it. This year, he asked for a full size bottle. Can you name a few great ones that I could choose from? We head back to Spain in a week and a half.

        • Hi Angela,

          While I’m not sure what Madrid-Barajas will have in their inventory next week, keep an eye out for the Valserrano Rioja Crianza 2011 (the Reserva is also great if he fancies a bit more oak and berry).
          Also keep an eye out for the Cuna de Reyes Crianza – one of the best balanced black and blue fruit forward wines I tried while in Logroño. D. Vivanco also makes a great Crianza and Reserva. Bodegas Olarra Summa Reserva 2008 is superb. Also worth noting is the Marques de Caceres Rioja Crianza and the Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva.

          • Angela Dittoe

            Thank you so much for your help. I bought him Faustino VII last time, which probably wasn’t the best; however, he really liked it. Would one of these be similar but of better quality? I would love to get him one that would be expensive in the states, but not in Spain. We are not going to the Rioja region, we are flying into Malaga, then traveling through Andalusia. If I don’t hear from you, I will definitely use one of your suggestions. Again, thank you from a wine novice.

          • From what I know of Faustino VII, it’s a bit on the lighter side. But keep in mind that most Rioja producers produce Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva versions (different aging requirements). Each one will taste different but have a similar underlying palate (not sure which version you purchased). That being said if he liked Faustino, I would go with a Crianza, since they tend to be less bold and more fruit forward. The Valserrano hits the mark there with light red fruit and spice. D. Vivanco is also somewhat similar. Also keep an eye out for the Monte Real Crianza & Reserva.

            Even if you’re not visiting the Rioja region, most Spaniards drink a lot of Rioja and Ribera del Duero wine, especially in Madrid. Very high quality bottles will only cost between 8-10 euros (in the states they can be over $30). So, it’s accessible and affordable throughout Spain. On a separate note, if you’re visiting Andalucia, especially Sevilla, you MUST try the 2012 Zancuo Tempranillo / Syrah. One of the best Spanish wines I’ve tried from the Andalucía fuera DO.

          • Angela Dittoe

            Thank you again. I’m on a mission!

  • I love Spain and all things Spanish, especially the wine! Temperanillo is a personal favorite.

  • I would love to go to the Rioja region to do wine tasting. I had no idea so many different wines came from here. Very informative post. I’ve only heard of Tempranillo but would love to try other wines. Thanks for sharing

  • David Schlesinger

    Grieg,
    Next October I am taking my wife for her retirement trip to Spain. We live in California. Will plan on staying in Bilbao or a Parador somewhere near. As a Certified Sommelier and working the various wines stores over the pas few years I am interested in a variety of wineries in the area. Do you have any suggestions? I do not necessarily want a full guided tour because I like to discover things not on a tour. Any ideas?

    • Hey David,

      What a fantastic trip, you both will have so much fun. Let me ask you, are you seeking wineries exclusively near Bilbao? Or is all of Basque country up for grabs? Or, are you visiting Rioja from Bilbao? I would suggest staying in Logroño if you intend to visit Rioja, just for simplicities sake, though the drive is quite scenic if you decide to do a day trip. Without a doubt, visit Bodegas Lopez de Heredia in Haro and try their Viña Tondonia (Reserva’s are best)! Take a bottle home with you… What’s nice about Haro is there are numerous wineries very close to each other, all worth visiting in their own right.

  • Thank you for posting that. I like red wines from Rioja. Few years ago I tried to arrange a visit to some of the Spanish wineries, but even did not get the replies to my emails. Could you recommend some wineries in Spain who accept individual travellers visits? You may also be interested checking my post about my wineries visits in different countries: http://www.thesanetravel.com/index.php/travel-tips/plan-your-own-trip/66-plan-your-vineyard-visit

  • This is a very interesting post about a region I knew little about. Now I really want to check it out and taste the wonderful wines. I will even look for some of them in the stores around me. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thanks Christine! Rioja is definitely one of the most well known Spanish wine regions here in the U.S., so you won’t have any trouble finding wines at your local grocery store. Total Wine has some great options this month, and we’ve also reviewed a large number on this site if you’re interested.

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