Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya…
And i’m here to teach you a little bit about Spanish wine.
Today we’ll be looking at La Rioja.
Rioja is both a state, and a DOC in Spain. Part of Navarre and the Basque province of Alava are included in the DOC, which is split in to three sub regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Balja and Rioja Alavesa. The total area is about 75 miles, which is about the size of Napa. There is a total of 123,000 planted acres, which is not a small feet in an area of high plains desert, with a rough looking iron soil which is mined for brick making.
Typically, in Rioja, you find Tempranillo, Viura, Garnacha, Graciano, and Mazuelo – which is Carignane.
It seems that wine has been made here since ancient times, and archaeologists have found evidence tha the Phoenicians and the Celtiberians made wine here. OF course, the monestaries aslo kept a brist business in wine making, creating it as a cash business.
In 1926, a regulatory council was created to control the zones and quality of La Rioja, and who can produce wine in the DOC. In 1991, it was “Qualified”, and became Spain’s first Denominación de Origen Calificada, which was quite a feet. Rioja still suffers from the problem of being seen as an old person’s drink, but that is rapidly changing.
Located south of the Cantabrian Mountains along the Ebro river, Rioja has a continental climate. It feels a lot more like the desert, but is very reminiscant of Calavaras – hot in the summer (up to 35 degrees C, or 110 F) and cold in the winter (it was about 2.5-4 degrees C when we were there, which is the low to mid 30s. brrr). The mountains and mesedas (mesas in Latin Spanish) moderate the temperatures in the valley below, and protect it from the winds. I couldn’t really say that about one of the wineries we went to however, which felt very much like Wuthering Heights with the windswept escarpment on a hilltop.
There are three distinct areas in La Rioja: Rioja Alavesa; Rioja Alta; and Rioja Baja. Each area has it’s own expression of the wines, and is very much like Dry Creek vs Russian River.
Rioja wines are typically red, but there are some white varieties as well. Tinto, or red, can be a blend of varietals but it’s most commonly tempranillo, but also include Garnacha (my favorite) and a touch of Mazuelo (Carignane to you and me) as well as For Rioja Blanca, it is mostly Macabea (or Viura), with a touch of Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca. There is also a lot of Rose made here, and is primarily made from Garnacha.
The soil in Rioja has a lot of iron, giving it a charachteristic red color – possibly the reason it’s called Rioja? It also has a lot of chalk in the limestone and sandstone soil, which presents a minerality in the whites wines produced here.
Most of the red wines in Rioja are aged in Oak, weith a large influence of American Oak, as well as French oak barrels used for aging. Since American oak tends to be stronger and provides a bigger influence, it’s great for these bold red wines. The tintos (reds) can be aged for up to 15 years in some cases!
Tintas are classified in to four categories. The most basic is just called “Rioja” which is aged less than 2 years. Next, the “crianza” is aged at LEAST 2 years, with 1 of those in oak. Getting better, you have “Rioja Reserva” is aged at least 3 years, 2 in oak and one in the bottle. Finally, the best of the best “Rioja Gran Reserva” is aged at least 2 years in oak, and three more years in the bottle. Phew!
Wineries are known as bodegas, but you might also call a cellar or a warehouse a bodgega just to confuse you.
So now, that you know a little about La Rioja, you can follow along as I taste my way through!