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Comprehensive description of all European growing areas, their grape varieties, traditions and legal rules with maps.

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 Castile-León and Aragon to the west, south and east, and the regions of the Basque Country and Navarre 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 DOCa. Most of the vineyards, 60,000 hectares, are located in La Rioja, but part of it is also in the regions of the Basque Country (Subzone Alavesa) and Navarre (parts of Subzone Rioja Oriental). The area has a very old viticultural history. Numerous fermentation vats carved in stone have been preserved, testifying to wine growing as far back as ancient times. The most typical are the guardaviñas found in Rioja Alta in Ábalos, Briones and San Asensio. These dome-like stone constructions were used as shelters for winegrowers and their livestock in bad weather and for monitoring the harvests.

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

The area of origin

Efforts to designate origin and select quality have a long tradition. As early as 1560, the winegrowers decided on a uniform brand for their barrels to guarantee the identity of the wines from this area. In 1635, the mayor of Logroño even forbade the circulation of carts through streets where wine cellars were located. This was done out of concern that vibrations caused by vehicles could spoil the grape must and affect the ripening 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 wine trading. At the beginning of the 19th century, the custom of the Batalla del Vino (Battle of the Wine) festival was born in the town of Haro and is still celebrated annually.

One of the Rioja pioneers was Marqués Camilo Hurtado de Amézaga (1827-1888), who in 1860 built a Bordeaux-style bodega on his estate and planted vines from there. After the phylloxera invasion in the mid-19th century, many French winegrowers emigrated to the area and gave impetus to viticulture. In 1902, a royal decree was issued defining the origin of Rioja wines and a labelling rule. A control council, founded in 1926, was given the tasks of delimiting the Rioja area, supervising the issue of a "guarantee seal" and protecting the name Rioja. In 1953, the Control Council of the Rioja Denomination of Origin was created to verify, on the basis of organoleptic samples and analytical tests, whether the wine meets the strict regulations.

In 1991, a ministerial decree awarded the Rioja region of origin the attribute "calificada" (qualified), thus elevating it to the first highest Spanish quality level DOCa. The name derives from the river Oja (Rio Oja). The area, which is over 100 kilometres long, lies on both banks of the Ebro River and on the slopes of the adjacent hills. It has a mild climate with short summers and beautiful autumns. The traditional vine training is the bushy en vaso (gobelet), but wire-frame vines are becoming increasingly popular. The vast Rioja area is divided into three subzones, which also differ in 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 Logroño, entirely in the province of La Rioja. Under the influence of the Atlantic, the climate is characterised by hot summers, mild autumns and cool winters. The vineyards are situated on sedimentary soils mixed with calcareous and ferruginous clay. The dominant variety is Tempranillo, followed by Mazuelo and Graciano, all of which have slightly thicker and more extract-rich skins than in other Rioja areas. This is where the best Riojas are produced. The full-bodied red wines with high levels of acidity and tannins are excellent for barrel age ing 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 predominating. The dominant grape variety is Tempranillo with a somewhat thinner skin. Light, fruity and spicy red wines with medium alcohol and total acidity predominate here. They can be consumed as young wines, but are also suitable for barrel ageing. 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 stretches east of Logroño across two autonomous provinces, namely Navarra (which, confusingly, is also a separate DO area) and La Rioja. This warmest and driest zone has a Mediterranean climate with lower rainfall. The vineyards are predominantly on ferruginous clays with sediments. The dominant grape variety is Garnacha Tinta. There are extract-rich, high-alcohol red wines with up to 15% alcohol by volume, as well as rosé wines. The aromatic and often precocious wines, which can usually be enjoyed young, are not considered as noble as those of 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 almost 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 don't even know that there are other versions, because Rioja is mostly associated with red wine. The rest is rosé wines with 15% and white wines with 10%. In contrast to the classic indigenous varieties, the "non-resident" Rioja varieties may not be listed on the label. The former custom of wrapping the bottles with the traditional gold-coloured wire mesh alambrado is now practised by relatively few producers.

Red wine and rosé (vino tinto and vino rosado)

These are made of 80% red wine varieties Tempranillo with portions of Garnacha Tinta, Graciano and Mazuelo, as well as the varieties Maturana Parda and Maturana Tinta (Trousseau Noir), which have been permitted 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. With special permission, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot may also be used. The red wines are almost exclusively vinified dry, the rosé wine also semi-sweet.

White wine (Vino blanco)

White wine is made from Viura (Macabeo), Malvasía Riojana (Alarije) and Garnacha Blanca, as well as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc (together maximum 50%), Maturana Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Turruntés (Torrontés) and Verdejo, which have been permitted 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

Traditional, dominant winemaking is characterised by long barrique 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 maturation times are minimum requirements, but many traditional bodegas extend this extremely. Depending on the length of maturation in barrel and bottle, there are four categories:

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 for a short time in oak barrels. These ready-to-drink wines are to be enjoyed young. The production share is 40%.

Crianza (training = maturation)

Red wines must be matured for at least 24 months, of which at least 12 months 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 in the barrel. The production share is 40%.


Red wines must be matured for at least 36 months, of which at least 12 months in the barrel. For white wines it is 24 months 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

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

The new quality terms

In 2019, new quality criteria were set by the Consejo Regulador Rioja (Board of Directors). This is intended to strengthen consumer confidence in the Rioja brand. For this purpose, new terms have been created that can appear on the label. These concern the origin, the age of the vines, the ageing of the wines in terms of container and maturing time as well as production quantities. In future, the new terms are to be checked for further development every six months. All new terms will be placed 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.

Viñascentenarias or Viñas prefiloxéricas

90% of the wine must be made from vines older than 100 years (centenarias) or planted before 1900 (prefiloxéricas = before phylloxera).

Viñedos de altura

90% of the wine must come from vines planted at an altitude of more than 550 metres.

Madurados en Bodegas (aged in the winery)

May only be used without references or images referring 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 indicate 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 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)

The producer is also the owner of the brand.

Nuevas elaboraciones con lías / hormigón / tinajas de barro

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


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

Viñedos singulares

Within the Rioja area, it has been possible since 2017 to designate smaller areas of origin such as parishes, municipalities and vineyards as special terroir on the Rüpcken label. For classification 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 l/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 completion of fermentation and a second shortly before release for marketing. In these, the quality must be judged as "excellent" by the majority of the tasters. Currently (2023) there are around 150 single vineyard sites owned by 90 owners with a total of 246 hectares.

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 about three million hectolitres of wine annually, 40% of which is exported worldwide. Well-known producers are 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, 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: By Patricia Maine Degrave on Pixabay
Vineyard: By Pradillacarlos on Pixabay
Briones: By Emilio García from Parla, Spain - Viñedos, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

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