Rioja is a wine region, with Denomination de Origen Calificada (D.O.Ca. Qualified designation of origin) named after La Rioja, in Spain. Rioja is made from grapes grown not only in the Autonomous Community ofLa Rioja, but also in parts of Navarre and the Basque province of Álava. Rioja is further subdivided into three zones: Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa. Many wines have traditionally blended fruit from all three regions though there is a slow growth in single-zone wines.
He harvesting of wine in La Rioja has an ancient lineage with origins dating back to the Phoenicians and the Celtiberians. The earliest written evidence of the existence of the grape in La Rioja dates to 873, in the form of a document from the Public Notary of San Millán dealing with a donation to the San Andrés de Trepeana (Treviana) Monastery. As was the case in many Mediterranean lands in mediaeval times, monks were the main practitioners of winemaking in La Rioja and great advocates of its virtues. In the thirteenth century, Gonzalo de Berceo, clergyman of the Suso Monastery in San Millán de la Cogolla (La Rioja) and Spain's earliest known poet, mentions the wine in some of his works.
In the year 1063, the first testimony of viticulture in La Rioja appears in the "Carta de población de Longares" (Letter to the Settlers of Longares). The King of Navarra and Aragon gave the first legal recognition of Rioja wine in 1102. Vineyards occupied the usual part of rural landscapes in medieval Rioja during the High Middle Ages (10th-13th century) There are proofs of Rioja wine export towards other regions as early as the late 13th century, which testifies the beginnings of a commercial production. From the 15th century on, the Rioja Alta specialized in wine growing. In 1560, harvesters from Longares chose a symbol to represent the quality of the wines. In 1635, the mayor of Logroño prohibited the passing of carts through streets near wine cellars, in case the vibrations caused a deterioration of the quality of the wine. Several years later, in 1650, the first document to protect the quality of Rioja wines was drawn up. In 1790, at the inaugural meeting of the Real Society Economic de Cosecheros de La Rioja (Royal Economic Society of Rioja Winegrowers), many initiatives as to how to construct, fix, and maintain the roads and other forms of access for transportation of wine were discussed. The Society was established to promote the cultivation and commercialization of Rioja wines and 52 Rioja localities participated.
In 1852, Luciano Murrieta created the first fine wine of the Duque de la Victoria area, having learned the process in Bordeaux. In 1892, the Viticulture and Enology Station of Haro was founded for quality-control purposes. In 1902, a Royal Decree determining the origin of Rioja wines is promulgated. The Consejo Regulador (Regulating Council) was created in 1926 with the objective of limiting the zones of production, expanding the warranty of the wine and controlling the use of the name "Rioja". This Council became legally structured in 1945 and was finally inaugurated in 1953. In 1970 the Regulations for Denomination de Origen were approved as well as Regulations for the Regulating Council. In 1991, the prestigious "Calificada" (Qualified) nomination was awarded to La Rioja, making it Spain's first Denomination de Origen Calificada (DOCa).
In 2008, the Regulatory Council for the La Rioja Denomination of Origin created a new logo to go on all bottles of wine produced under this designation. From now on bottles of wine from the La Rioja Qualified Denomination of Origin will no longer bear the familiar logo. In an attempt to appeal to younger wine-lovers, the long-standing logo will now be replaced with a brighter, more modern logo with cleaner lines. The aim is to reflect the new, modern aspects of wine-growing in La Rioja without detracting from the traditional wines. In theory, the new logo represents a Tempranillo vine symbolizing “heritage, creativity and dynamism”. Consumers should start seeing the labels in October 2008. The Joven from 2008, Crianza from 2006, Reserva from 2005, and Gran Reserva from 2003 being released this year should bear the new label, in theory.
Located south of the Cantabrian Mountains along the Ebro river, La Rioja benefits from a continental climate. The mountains help to isolate the region which has a moderating effect on the climate. They also protect the vineyards from the fierce winds that are typical of northern Spain. The region is also home to the Oja river (Rio Oja), believed to have given the region its name. Most of the region is situated on a plateau, a little more than 1,500 feet (460 m) above sea level. The area is subdivided into three regions - Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja. La Rioja Alavesa and la Rioja Alta, located closer to the mountains, are at slightly higher elevations and have a cooler climate. La Rioja Baja to the southeast is drier and warmer. Annual rainfall in the region ranges from 12 inches (300 mm) in parts of Baja to more than 20 inches (510 mm) in La Rioja Alta and Alavesa. Many of Rioja's vineyards are found along the Ebro valley between the towns of Haro and Alfaro.
He three principal regions of La Rioja are Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja with each area producing its own unique expression of Rioja wine. Most of the territory subjected to the Rioja Protected designation of origin is in the La Rioja region, even though their limits do not coincide exactly. There is a narrow strip in the left bank of the Ebro river lying in the southernmost part of Álava included in the La Rioja wine region, whereas the south-southwestern part of the La Rioja region is not a part of this Protected designation of origin.
Rioja Alta: Located on the western edge of the region and at higher elevations than the other areas, the Rioja Alta is known more for its "old world" style of wine. A higher elevation equates to a shorter growing season, which in turn produces brighter fruit flavors and a wine that is lighter on the palate.
Rioja Alavesa:Despite sharing a similar climate as the Alta region, the Rioja Alavesa produces wines with a fuller body and higher acidity. Vineyards in the area have a low vine density with large spacing between rows. This is due to the relatively poor conditions of the soil with the vines needing more distance from each other and less competition for the nutrients in the surrounding soil.
Rioja Baja: Unlike the more continental climate of the Alta and Alavesa, the Rioja Baja is strongly influenced by a Mediterranean climate which makes this area the warmest and driest of the Rioja. In the summer months, drought can be a significant viticulture hazard, though since the late 1990s irrigation has been permitted. Temperatures in the summer typically reach 35 °C (95 °F). A number of the vineyards are actually located in nearby Navarra but the wine produced from those grapes belongs to the Rioja appellation. Unlike the typically pale Rioja wine, Baja wines are very deeply coloured and can be highly alcoholic with some wines at 18% alcohol by volume. They typically do not have much acidity or aroma and are generally used as blending components with wines from other parts of the Rioja.
Rioja wines are normally a blend of various grape varieties, and can be either red (tinto), white (blanco) or rosé (rosado). La Rioja has a total of 57,000 hectares cultivated, yielding 250 million litres of wine annually, of which 85% is red. The harvest time for most Rioja vineyards is September–October with the northern Rioja Alta having the latest harvest in late October. The soil here is clay based with a high concentration of chalk and iron. There is also significant concentration of limestone, sandstone and alluvial silt.
Among the tintos, the best-known and most widely used variety is Tempranillo. Other grapes used include Garnacha Tinta, Graciano, and Mazuelo. A typical blend will consist of approximately 60% Tempranillo and up to 20% Garnacha, with much smaller proportions of Mazuelo and Graciano. Each grape adds a unique component to the wine with Tempranillo contributing the main flavors and aging potential to the wine; Garnacha adding body and alcohol; Mazuelo adding seasoning flavors and Graciano adding additional aromas. Some estates have received special dispensation to include Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend due to historical inclusion of that grape in their wine that predates the formation of the Consejo Regulador.
With Rioja Blanco, Viura is the prominent grape (also known as Macabeo) and is normally blended with some Malvasía and Garnacha blanca. In the white wines the Viura contributes mild fruitness, acidity and some aroma to the blend with Garnacha blanca adding body and Malvasía adding aroma. Rosados are mostly derived from Garnacha grapes. The "international varieties" of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have gained some attention and use through experimental plantings by some bodegas but their use has created wines distinctly different from the typical Rioja.
Some of the most sought after grapes come from the limestone/sandstone based "old vine" vineyards in the Alavesa and Alta regions. The 40 year plus old vines are prized due to their low yields and more concentrated flavors. A unique DO regulation stipulates that the cost of the grapes used to make Rioja must exceed by at least 200% the national average of wine grapes used in all Spanish wines.
A distinct characteristic of Rioja wine is the effect of oak aging. First introduced in the early 18th century by Bordeaux influenced winemakers, the use of oak and the pronounced vanillaflavors in the wines has been a virtual trademark of the region though some modern winemakers are experimenting with making wines less influenced by oak. Originally French oak was used but as the cost of the barrels increased many bodegas began to buy American oak planks and fashion them into barrels at Spanish cooperages in a style more closely resembling the French method. This included hand splitting the wood, rather than sawing, and allowing the planks time to dry and "season" in the outdoors versus drying in the kiln. In recent times, more bodegas have begun using French oak and many will age wines in both American and French oak for blending purposes.
In the past, it was not uncommon for some bodegas to age their red wines for 15–20 years or even more before their release.
The use of oak in white wine has declined significantly in recent times when before the norm was traditionally 2–5 years in oak. This created slightly oxidized wines with flavors of caramel, coffee, and roasted nuts that did not appeal to a large market of consumers with some of the more negative examples showing characteristics of rubber and petrol flavors. Today the focus of white wine makers has been to enhance the vibrancy and fruit flavors of the wine.
Some winemakers utilize a derivative of carbonic maceration in which whole clusters are placed in large open vats allowed to ferment inside the individual grape berries, without the addition of yeast, for a few days before they are crushed.
In the 1960s, Bodegas Rioja Santiago developed the first bottled version of the wine punch Sangría, based on Rioja wine, and exhibited it at the 1964 New York World's Fair. An importsubsidiary of Pepsi Cola purchased the rights to the wine and began marketing it worldwide.
Rioja red wines are classified into four categories. The first, simply labeled Rioja, is the youngest, spending less than a year in an oak aging barrel. A crianza is wine aged for at least two years, at least one of which was in oak. Rioja Reserva is aged for at least three years, of which at least one year is in oak. Finally, Rioja Gran Reserva wines have been aged at least two years in oak and three years in bottle. Reserva and Gran Reserva wines are not necessarily produced each year. Also produced are wines in a semi-crianza style, those that have had a couple of months oak influence but not enough to be called a full crianza. The designation of crianza, Reserva etc. might not always appear on the front label but may appear on a neck or back label in the form of a stamp designation known as Consejo.
In Spain, wineries are commonly referred to as bodegas though this term may also refer to a wine cellar or warehouse. For quite some time, the Rioja wine industry has been dominated by local family vineyards and co-operatives that have bought the grapes and make the wine. Some bodegas would buy fermented wine from the co-ops and age the wine to sell under their own label. In recent times there has been more emphasis on securing vineyard land and making estate bottled wines from the bodegas.
Like most Spanish wine regions, Rioja is an integral part of Spanish culture and cuisine. In the town of Haro there is an annual Wine Festival that is noted for its Batalla de Vino where participants conduct a food fight of sorts with wine.