Rioja is one of the best-known Spanish wines. Located in the northern, central area of Spain, Rioja is divided into three regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja. The region benefits from a continental climate and produces some truly stunning wines.
Wine harvesting has an ancient heritage in Rioja, with origins dating back to the Phoenicians and Celtiberians, but the first written evidence of wine making dates back to 873 AD. In mediaeval times, monks were the main producers of wine, as was the case for many Mediterranean regions.
The King of Navarra and Aragon first legally recognised Rioja wines in 1102, and the first document to protect and ensure the quality of Rioja comes from 1650. In 1787, the Royal Economic Society of Rioja Growers was created with the aim of promoting and cultivating wine production, and in the middle of the 19th century, Luciano Murrieta, having learned how to do so in Bordeaux, manage to create the first fine wine from the Duque de la Victoria area.
The Regulations for Denominacion de Origen for Rioja were approved in 1970. Perhaps the feather in Rioja’s cap is the fact that in 1991 the wine was awarded the Calificada (Qualified) nomination, making it the first wine region in Spain to have the DOC status. The DOC is the highest category in Spanish wine regulations and is reserved for wine regions with above average grape prices and exacting quality controls. To date, only Rioja and Priorat have this distinction.
Most of the Rioja region is located on a plateau about 450 metres above sea level, its higher elevation provides it with a cooler climate. Annual rainfall in the region averages from about 300mm to 510 mm, depending on the subregion.
Located in the west of the region, Rioja Alta has a higher elevations and a slightly cooler climate than the other two regions. The higher elevation means that Rioja Alta has a shorter growing season.
Rioja Alavesa has a similar climate to Rioja Alta, but poor soil conditions means the grapevines need more distance between each other, which leads to a low vine density in the area.
Rioja Baja has a much more Mediterranean climate than the other two regions of La Rioja and is therefore the warmest and driest of the three.
There are about 64,000 hectares planted in all of Rioja, which produces about 280 to 300 million litres of wine per year. 90 percent of that output is red wine, with the other 10 percent being a mixture of white wine and rosé.
A distinctive characteristic of wines from Rioja is that they are oak aged, a technique first learned in Bordeaux before being brought to the area. In former times, it was not uncommon for wineries, or bodegas, in Rioja to age their wines for 15 to 20 years before releasing them, and the standard bodega in the region still owns between 10,000 and 40,000 oak barrels.
Wine from Rioja is separated into one of four categories: Rioja, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva. Rioja are wines in their first or second year, whereas Crianza wines have a minimum of one year in the cast and a few months in the bottle. Reserva have been aged for a minimum of three years, with at least one year in the cask, and Gran Reserva have spent at least two years in the cask and three in the bottle.
There are a few main grape varieties grown in Rioja, but the two most prevalent are Tempranillo and Garnacha Tinta.
Tempranillo is the most common grape, making up more than 75 percent of the region’s vineyards. It has a thick skin and ripens quickly, which can be beneficial in extreme climates.
Garnacha Tinta is a grape variety native to Spain and is the most extensively grown grape variety in the world. In Rioja, Garnach Tinta complements Tempranillo well, and is a hardy plant that is particularly adept at withstanding pests and major vine diseases.
Wines produced in Rioja have Tempranillo as the main element and are balanced in alcohol content, colour, and acidity. Rioja wines are fruity when young and become more velvety as they age.
Some of the most notable producers in the region are Marqués de Riscal (Rioja Alavesa), Dinastia Vivanco (Rioja Alta), Marqués de Murrieta (whose founder, Luciano Murrieta, was the first producer of fine wine in the region), and Bodegas López de Heredia “Viña Tondonia”.
Artuke Winery and Vineyard, named after the two brothers who own it, Arturo and Kike, aims to make interesting, unique wines in the heart of Rioja, something they succeed in doing with great aplomb. Inspired by France’s Burgundy region, their wines take inspiration from the region while remaining well and truly their own.