Explore Rioja: Geography, History & Everything About Wine

Explore Rioja: Geography, History & Everything About Wine

By Indira Vegel Published December 2020

It seems like most of us are staying home either reminiscing about traveling experiences or daydreaming about the day we can pack our bags and explore the world again. Since the future of travel is a little uncertain, a good way to stay adventurous is to simply “try something new.” One easy and cost-effective way to do that is with a good bottle of wine.

Uncork your curiosity with wine from a region you are not too familiar with yet – Rioja, Spain. This region is rich in culture and cultivates beautiful wines. Sit back, sip on your freshly opened bottle and discover more about Rioja’s geography, history and every wine detail in between.

Two people enjoying wines from Rioja.

The unique geography

Rioja is located in north-central Spain along the Ebro River and bordered by the Cantabrian Mountains in the north and the Demanda Mountains to the south. It is possibly the most famous wine region in Spain and is about 210 square miles in size. The land is divided into three sub-regions that impact the wine:

  1. Rioja Oriental (lower Rioja): Hot and dry flatlands that produces fruit-forward wines.

  2. Rioja Alta (upper Rioja): A cooler climate area, that yields higher tannic and acidic wines.

  3. Rioja Alavesa: A part of upper Rioja with similar features in weather and wines.

The soil found in Rioja is highly suitable for quality viticulture as it has a balanced structure, slight alkaline level, low organic matter and a moderate water supply in the summer.

A rich history and culture

While Spanish wines are considered part of the Old World, dating back to 873, Rioja’s quality viticulture is relatively young. It wasn’t until the late 19th century, when French winemakers were forced to move to Rioja after French vineyards were destroyed by phylloxera, that the region adapted to new winemaking techniques. Processes like aging their wines in oak barrels are now an essential practice for Rioja wines.

Vineyard in Rioja.

Then in 1925, when el Consejo Regulador, or the Regulatory Council, was established to oversee rules and production of wine, Rioja wines were granted Designation of Origin (DO). DO is a stamp that identifies products as harvested or prepared in a specific geographical region. Rioja is the oldest DO region in Spain. In 1991, Denominación de Origen Calificada, Denomination of Qualified Origin (DOCa) was awarded to Rioja, making viticulture requirements particularly stringent when it comes to quality control, particularly focusing on the aging of the wines, guaranteeing that when a customer opens a bottle of Rioja they will not be disappointed.

Fun fact: Due to the nature of the wines, labeling laws and aging that DOCa requires, if wine production stopped in Rioja today, we could continue to drink amazing Rioja wines for many years to come. There is so much wine in the region that every year, thousands of people gather at the end of June to celebrate La Batalla de Vino Haro, Battle of Wine, or Haro Wine Festival. At this event, locals and tourists alike participate in a “battle,” throwing about 500 liters of red wine at each other until midday. Then, everyone participates in a festival with delicious tapas and live music, eventually making their way down to the bull ring to chase young bulls.

More about the wines

There are nearly 600 wineries in the region, plus many regulations, aging and classifications. Here is a brief breakdown of the aging classifications to help you with your wine selection while also mentioning the grapes used in most Rioja wines. You can use this information to explore more varietals in the near future.

Grapes from Rioja, Spain.

Let’s start with something easy. Per DOCa, these are the only permitted grape varietals:

Red wines can have the following grapes in the blend: Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano, Mazuelo and Maturana Tinta.

White wines can have the following grapes in the blend: Viura, Malvasía, Garnacha Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana, Turruntés, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo.

Rioja wines are famously known for their quality, elegance, complexity and aging potential, that may very well be due to the strict aging requirements they must follow. Under DOCa, there are four aging tiers, which come in handy when selecting the type of wine you want to drink:

Cosecha/Genérico: Originally designated for young whites and Rosés with little to no barrel-aging, distinguished by freshness and primary fruit flavors. These wines are very affordable, everyday Rioja wines.

Crianza: Red wines that must be aged for at least one year in a barrel and one year in a bottle. While white wines must spend a minimum of six months in a barrel. They are often everyday wines with juicy fruit flavors and subtle oak notes.

Reserva: Aged at least three years with a minimum of one year in barrels and six months in a bottle. These wines are expressive with concentrated fruit and spice. White wines must age a minimum of two years, with six months in a barrel. Reserva wines are a great alternative for Napa Valley, Brunello and Bordeaux drinkers.

Gran Reserva: Aged at least five years, with a minimum of two years in a barrel and two years in bottle. White wines must age a minimum of four years aging, with one year in the barrel. These wines are produced in the best vintages and among the world’s finest. They’re elegant, fragrant and age worthy. Grand Cru Burgundy and Barolo drinkers will appreciate and enjoy these wines.

One perk we have not mentioned yet is how affordable and fantastic Rioja wines are. In general, these wines are well-balanced, structured with moderate alcohol and they have just the right level of acidity with subtle flavors to enhance food, but not overpower the palate. With the holidays right around the corner, I hope you treat yourself to some Rioja wines. Enjoy them on their own, with a great meal or make them a gift.

You can explore our Rioja wine selection here.

Pricing, selection and vintages may vary by location.

Interested in learning more? Visit our ABC Articles page.