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Description to La Rioja

The autonomous region of La Rioja, with its capital Logroño, is located in the north of Spain and covers 5,045 km². It borders the regions of Castilla y León and Aragon to the west, south and east and the Basque Country and Navarra to the north. The northern border of La Rioja is roughly identical to the course of the River Ebro.

Rioja (the wine)

The Rioja wine-growing region is one of the most important in Europe and is classified as a DOCa. Although the majority of the 60,000 hectares of vineyards are in La Rioja, some of them are also located in the Basque Country (Alavesa subzone) and Navarra (parts of the Rioja Oriental subzone). The area has a very old wine-growing history. Numerous stone-carved fermentation basins have been preserved, which bear witness to viticulture as far back as ancient times. The guardaviñas found in Rioja Alta in Ábalos, Briones and San Asensio are particularly typical. These dome-like stone constructions were used as a shelter for winegrowers and their livestock in bad weather and for monitoring harvests.

 Rioja (Rioja Alta) - Guardaviña (Schutzhütte) und Weinberg

The area of origin

There is a long tradition of endeavouring to achieve designation of origin and exquisite quality. As early as 1560, winegrowers decided on a standardised brand for their barrels in order to guarantee the identity of the wines from this area. In 1635, the mayor of Logroño even banned the movement of carts through streets where wine cellars were located. This was due to concerns that vibrations caused by vehicles could spoil the grape must and affect the maturing process of the wines. The first written reference to quality control dates back to 1650. In 1787, the "Real Sociedad Económica de Cosecheros de Rioja" (Royal Economic Association of Rioja Winegrowers) was founded to promote winegrowing, winemaking and the wine trade. At the beginning of the 19th century, the custom of the Batalla del Vino (Battle of the Wine) festival emerged in the town of Haro, which is still celebrated annually today.

One of the Rioja pioneers was Marqués Camilo Hurtado de Amézaga (1827-1888), who built a Bordeaux-style bodega on his estate in 1860 and had vines planted from there. After the grapevine invasion in the mid-19th century, many French winegrowers emigrated to this region and gave impetus to viticulture. In 1902, a royal decree was issued defining the origin of Rioja wines and establishing labelling rules. A control council founded in 1926 was given the tasks of delimiting the Rioja region, monitoring the issue of a "guarantee seal" and protecting the name Rioja. In 1953, the Rioja Designation of Origin Control Board was founded, which checks whether the wine fulfils the strict regulations on the basis of organoleptic samples and analytical tests.

In 1991, a ministerial decree awarded the Rioja region of origin the attribute "calificada" (qualified), elevating it to the first highest Spanish quality level DOCa. The name is derived from the river Oja (Rio Oja). The area, which is over 100 kilometres long, lies on both banks of the Ebro and on the slopes of the neighbouring hills. It has a mild climate with short summers and beautiful autumns. The traditional vine training is the En Vaso (Gobelet) bush vine, but wire-frame cultivation is becoming increasingly popular. The vast Rioja area is divided into three subzones, which also differ in terms of soil conditions and wine quality; Rioja Alta is considered the best quality zone:

Rioja Alta

This zone, with Haro as its wine centre, lies south of the Ebro River and west of the provincial capital of Logroño, entirely in the province of La Rioja. The climate is characterised by hot summers, mild autumns and cool winters under the influence of the Atlantic Ocean. The vineyards lie on sedimentary soils mixed with calcareous and ferruginous clay. The dominant variety is Tempranillo, followed by Mazuelo and Graciano, all of which have somewhat thicker and more extract-rich skins than in the other Rioja regions. The best Riojas are produced here. The full-bodied red wines with high levels of acidity and tannins are ideal for ageing in barrels and can be stored for a long time.

Rioja - Riojas Alta Briones

Rioja Alavesa

This zone lies north of the Ebro River, entirely in the Basque Country. The climate is similar to that of Rioja Alta, with limestone-clay soils prevailing. The dominant grape variety is Tempranillo with a somewhat thinner skin. Light, fruity and flavoursome red wines with a medium alcohol and total acidity content predominate here. They can be consumed as young wines, but are also suitable for ageing in barrels. As a rule, they are not as storable as those from Rioja Alta.

Rioja Oriental (formerly Rioja Baja)

This zone is the easternmost area and extends east of Logroño across two autonomous provinces, namely Navarra (which, confusingly, is also a DO area in its own right) and La Rioja. In this warmest and driest zone, the climate is Mediterranean with low rainfall. The vineyards are mainly located on ferruginous clays with sediments. The dominant grape variety is Garnacha Tinta. It produces red wines rich in extracts and alcohol with up to 15% alcohol by volume, as well as rosé wines. The aromatic and often early-ripening wines, which can generally be enjoyed young, are not considered as noble as those from the other Rioja regions.

The grape varieties & wine types

The most important and typical Rioja grape variety is Tempranillo, which accounts for almost two thirds of the vineyard area with just under 28,000 hectares. The most common white variety is Viura (Macabeo) with 8,000 hectares. Around 75% of Rioja is produced as red wine. Quite a few people do not realise that there are also other versions, as Rioja is usually associated with red wine. The rest is made up of 15%rosé wines and 10% white wines. Unlike the classic indigenous Rioja varieties, the "non-resident" Rioja varieties may not be labelled. The former custom of wrapping the bottles with the traditional gold-coloured Alambrado wire mesh is now only practised by relatively few producers.

Red wine and rosé (vino tinto and vino rosado)

These are made from 80% of the red wine varieties Tempranillo with proportions of Garnacha Tinta, Graciano and Mazuelo, as well as the varieties Maturana Parda and Maturana Tinta (Trousseau Noir), which have been authorised since 2007. White wine varieties are also permitted, but this is rarely practised. This is a maximum of 5% for whole-grape blends and a maximum of 15% for carbonic maceration. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot may also be used with special authorisation. The red wines are almost exclusively vinified dry, the rosé wine also semi-sweet.

White wine (Vino blanco)

This is made from Viura (Macabeo), Malvasía Riojana (Alarije) and Garnacha Blanca, as well as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc (maximum 50% together), Maturana Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Turruntés (Torrontés) and Verdejo, which have been authorised since 2007. It is also mostly vinified dry.

IGP wines (country wines)

There is also a large IGP area along four river valleys called Valles de Sadacia; see there.

The quality levels

The traditional, dominant vinification is characterised by long barrel ageing in 225-litre American oak barrels. This produces wines with an almost brownish colour, typical vanilla, spice and lemon notes and soft tannins. The ageing periods are minimum requirements, but many traditional bodegas extend this extremely. There are four categories depending on the length of maturation in barrel and bottle:

Joven (youth = young wine)

Young Rioja (in white, red and rosé) only bears the designation "Garantia de Origen" and comes onto the market just a few months after the harvest. However, it can also be matured or aged briefly in oak barrels. These ready-to-drink wines are to be enjoyed young. The production share is 40%.

Crianza (training = ageing)

The red wines must mature for at least 24 months, of which at least 12 months must be in the barrel and the rest in the bottle, before they can be marketed. For rosé and white wines, it is 18 months (previously also 24), of which 6 months must be in the barrel. The production share is 40%.

Reserva

Red wines must mature for at least 36 months, of which at least 12 months must be in cask. For white wines, 24 months apply with at least six months in the barrel. Rosados (rosé wines) are not available as Reserva or Gran Riserva. The production share is around 15%.

Gran Reserva

The red wines must mature for five years, two of which must be in barrels. Some bodegas produce long-life white wines with six months in the barrel and 42 months in the bottle. The production share is only 3%.

The new quality terms

In 2019, the Consejo Regulador Rioja (Rioja Regulatory Council) defined new quality criteria. The aim is to strengthen consumer confidence in the Rioja brand. To this end, new terms were created that can appear on the label. These relate to the origin, the age of the vines, the ageing of the wines in terms of container and maturation period as well as production quantities. In future, the new terms are to be reviewed every six months to ensure that they continue to develop. All new terms will appear at the bottom of the label.

Viñas viejas

90% of the wine must be made from vines that are at least 35 to 100 years old

Viñas centenarias or Viñas prefiloxéricas

90% of the wine must be made from vines that are more than 100 years old (centenarias) or if they were planted before 1900 (prefiloxéricas = before phylloxera).

Viñedos de altura

90% of the wine must be made from vines planted at an altitude of over 550 metres.

Madurados en Bodegas (matured in the winery)

May only be used without references or images relating to barrique, oak or wood. The terms "envejecido" or "aged" may not be used.

Ediciones or colecciones seleccionadas y limitadas (limited quantities)

Here the producer must state the number of bottles produced and what the edition or collection refers to.

Viñedos en propiedad (producer vineyard)

A wine with at least 90% vines from the producer's own cultivated vineyards. The vineyards must have been cultivated by the producer for at least ten years without interruption.

Embotellados en la propiedad (Producer bottling)

Producer is also the owner of the brand.

Nuevas elaboraciones con lías / hormigón / tinajas de barro

The terms "Lias"(yeast), hormigón (concrete tank) or "tinajas de barro"(ceramic) may be used without the addition of "madurado" (matured).

Cosecha

When using this term, the vintage must also be mentioned.

Viñedos singulares

Within the Rioja region, it has been possible since 2017 to designate smaller areas of origin such as districts, municipalities and vineyards as a special terroir on the back label. To be classified as single vineyard, the vines must be at least 35 years old. Yields are limited to 5,000 kg/ha for red wine varieties and 6,922 kg/ha for white wine varieties. The juice yield is limited to 65 litres/100 kg of grapes, cultivation must be environmentally friendly and the grapes must be harvested by hand. In addition, the wines must undergo two quality wine tastings; one shortly after the end of fermentation and a second shortly before release for marketing. The quality must be assessed as "excellent" by the majority of tasters. There are currently (2023) around 150 individual vineyards from 90 owners with a total of 246 hectares.

Vino de Pueblo (previously Vino de Municipio)

From the 2024 vintage, the designation of origin for local wines was changed from "Vino de Municipio" to "Vino de Pueblo". All 144 municipalities in the three Rioja subzones may be named on the label. The wines may contain a maximum of 15% grapes or wine from a neighbouring municipality. If the wine comes 100% from a single municipality, "viñedo en" may be indicated. The regulations for single vineyard wines "vinedos singulares" are unaffected by this.

The producers

There are around 20,000 winegrowers, but 98% of them only produce grapes and deliver them to large wineries or bodegas. The more than 500 bodegas produce around three million hectolitres of wine every year, 40% of which is exported worldwide. Well-known producers include Alicia Rojas, Barón de Ley, Berberana, Bilbaínas, Bodegas Altanza, Bodegas Franco Españolas, Bretón Criadores, Campillo, Carlos Serres, Castillo de Fuenmayor, Corrál, CVNE, Domecq Bodegas, El Coto de Rioja, Faustino, Finca Allende, Larchago, La Rioja Alta, López de Heredia, Luis Cañas (Bodega Amaren), Marqués de Cáceres, Marqués de Griñón, Marqués de Murrieta, Marqués de Riscal, Marqués de Vargas, Martínez Bujanda, Monteabellón, Montecillo, Muga, Ontañón, Palacios Vinos de Finca, Paternina, Primicia, Puelles, Ramón Bilbao, Remírez de Ganuza, Riojanas, Roda, Telmo Rodríguez, Torre de Oña, Viña Salceda, Viñedos de Aldeanueva, Viñedos del Contino, Viñedos y Bodegas de La Marquesa and Winner Wines.

Guardaviña: From Patricia Maine Degrave on Pixabay
Vineyard: From Pradillacarlos on Pixabay
Briones: By Emilio García from Parla, Spain - Viñedos, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

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