Ultimate Guide to the La Rioja Wine Region

Spain’s La Rioja wine region, which is named for two rivers, delivers many fine wines. See our collection of wine pictures
iStockphoto/Eric Naud

­Spain has a rich history of crusaders, bullfights and ships filled with Spanish gold. But Spain is also home to one of th­e oldest and most well respected wine regions in the world: La Rioja. Named for two rivers and nestled in northern Spain, this region is tiny yet it delivers many fine wines.­

A large number of wine-producing countries use an Appellation of Origin, which is basically a coded name that tells you exactly where your wine comes from. Regions that have appellations are subject to strict regulations by their governing parties to ensure that the wine has been grown, harvested and produced with the highest quality standards. Spain's appellations include:

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  • Denominación de Pago (DO de Pago)
  • Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa/DOQ; Denominació d'Origen Qualificada in Catalan)
  • Denominación de Origen (DO; Denominació d'Origen in Catalan)
  • Vino de Calidad Producido en Región Determinada (VCPRD)
  • Vinos de la Tierra (VdlT)
  • Vino de Mesa [source: Bestline International Inc]

­La Rioja's designation is Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) [source: Vibrant Rioja]. The region received the very first DO in 1925. Then the ­label was updated to DOCa in 1991 [source: Wines from Spain]. Wines with this label are considered top quality.

So how did the smallest region in Spain become such a world-famous wine producer? If you guessed that the Romans were involved, you're right. But the story of La Rioja goes well beyond the Roman Empire. In this article, you'll discover the history and culture of the region, the agriculture and the famous Spanish wines of La Rioja.

Let's begin by exploring the history of La Rioja's first vines and the cultural flavors that have contributed to the region's savored wines.

La Rioja Wine Region History and Culture

Like many regions in Spain, La Rioja has been home to many groups of people over the centuries. The Phoenicians, Carthagians and the Moors all made their way to La Rioja. But the most notable group was the Romans. The Romans started wineries throughout the region, and many of these wineries have withstood the test of time [source: Cellar Tours].

After the Roman Empire collapsed, the Moors did little to keep the La Rioja wine tradition going. But when Spain became its own country in 1512, winemaking was reborn. During this time, Benedictine monks began cultivating the land and developing numerous wines [source: Cellar Tours]. Slowly but surely, Spanish viticulture was making its mark on the world.

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In the 1870s, a phylloxera infestation essentially wiped out vineyards in France. Vintners from Bordeaux decided to move to La Rioja to start over with fresh fruit. The French brought their techniques and money to the region and infused La Rioja with new life and improved wine production. By the time the phylloxera came to the La Rioja in 1890, the area was able to survive based on what the French had already learned about these dangerous grape pests [source: Hand Picked Selections].

Today, La Rioja offers wine routes, vineyard excursions and festivals to celebrate its historical wine culture. Visitors can explore monuments, ancient buildings and modern wineries in any number of tourist packages.

Read on to learn about La Rioja's agriculture and viticulture.

La Rioja Wine Region Agriculture

­In order to harvest any good crop, you need good land, good weather and ­ hardworking people. In La Rioja's three regions -- Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja -- all of these exist [source: Vibrant Rioja]. The region's land benefits from the following factors:

  • Well-balanced amounts of clay, sand and limestone
  • Slight alkaline levels
  • Moderate water supply
  • Low organic matter
  • Distinct microclimates that provide ideal weather conditions [source: Wines from Spain]

La Rioja is well known for its Tempranillo grapes, but the region's winemakers work with other varietals as well.

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There are many vineyards to choose from in La Rioja. Some of the most famous are:

  • Artadi
  • Granja de Nuestra Señora de Remelluri
  • Marqués de Murrieta
  • Marqués de Riscal
  • Martinez Bujanda
  • Miguel Merino
  • Muga [source: Cellar Tours]

Much of the region's land is used for the growing of grapes. Altogether, the grapes grow on 153,000 acres (62,000 hectares) throughout La Rioja [source: Wines from Spain].

Read on to learn about some of the famous grapes and wines of La Rioja.

Famous Wines of the La Rioja Wine Region

As you may expect, La Rioja is serious about its wine classifications. The region's wines are classified according to how they are aged. You can choose from the following classifications:

  • Guarantee of Origin (DO) -- These wines have spent the least amount of time aging. In fact, they may not have aged at all. This means they are pretty affordable.
  • Crianza -- These wines are aged at least 12 months in oak barrels before they are aged -- this time in the bottle -- for a minimum of another 12 months.
  • Reserva -- The total aging time for barrel and bottle combined must be 36 months, with the first 12 months being spent in the barrel.
  • Gran Reserva -- These wines spend a lot of time aging to perfection. Requirements include 24 months in the barrel and a bottle time of 36 months [source: Vibrant Rioja].

The reds of La Rioja include:

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  • Tempranillo -- This grape constitutes 80 percent of the wine market in La Rioja because of its delicious flavors, including raspberry, coconut, currants and cherries.
  • Garnacha -- This varietal accounts for almost 20 percent of the region's market. It's known for being soft and low in tannins with a light raspberry flavor.
  • Mazuelo -- This is a lesser-known varietal that is used in few La Rioja reds. It has high tannins and acidity, giving it a strong punch.
  • Graciano -- This varietal is 100 percent Spanish. It produces a very bright red color and is extremely aromatic [source: Vibrant Rioja].

The whites of La Rioja include:

  • Viura -- This varietal produces a delicate, floral flavor and is the main grape for the production of white wine in La Rioja. It is not as popular as the Tempranillo; it is only responsible for a little more than 10 percent of all whites.
  • Malvasia -- If you like grapefruit, you will love wines made with Malvasia. The flavor is floral and crispy.
  • Garnacha Blanca -- This varietal helps add sweetness to white La Rioja wines. It produces aromas of apricot and honeysuckle [source: Vibrant Rioja].

If you can't make it to Spain but want to experience the delights and flavors of La Rioja region wines, try looking for it at your local wine shop or consider an online purchase.

For more wine-related information, visit the links on the next page.

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Sources

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  • Cellar Tours. "Medieval Fair and Wine Battle in Rioja." 05/31/08. (Accessed 02/12/09)http://www.cellartours.com/blog/spain/spanish-event/medieval-fair-and-wine-battle-in-rioja
  • Cellar Tours. "Profile of Wine Region, La Rioja." (Accessed 02/12/09)http://www.cellartours.com/spain/spanish-wine-regions/la-rioja.html
  • Cellar Tours. "Profile of Spanish Wineries, La Rioja." (Accessed 02/12/09)http://www.cellartours.com/spain/spanish-wineries/#la-rioja
  • Hand Picked Selections. "La Rioja." (Accessed 02/12/09)http://www.winemerchant.net/pages/appvar.php?name=Rioja
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  • Vibrant Rioja. "Three Regions." (Accessed 02/12/09)http://www.vibrantrioja.com/three_regions.html?pageKey=three_regions
  • Vibrant Rioja. "Varietals." (Accessed 02/12/09)http://www.vibrantrioja.com/varietals.html
  • Wines from Spain. "D.O.Ca Rioja: Introduction." (Accessed 02/12/09)http://www.winesfromspain.com/icex/cda/controller/pageGen/0,3346,1549487_4946338_4944445_1119_0,00.html
  • Wines from Spain. "D.O.Ca Rioja: Geography." (Accessed 02/12/09)http://www.winesfromspain.com/icex/cda/controller/pageGen/0,3346,1549487_4946338_4944445_1119_2,00.html
  • Wine Mag. "History of Wine Part 08: Phylloxera epidemic." (Accessed 02/10/09)http://www.winemag.co.za/content/online/appreciation/singlepage.asp?in=199