Rioja is a wine region in Northern Spain with plantings dating back to the 9th century. Although there have been regulating authorities looking over production of wine in Rioja for over 200 years, it did not receive a DO status until 1970 and it achieved DOC in 1991. They were the first wine region in Spain to receive this status.
The region is just south of the Cantabrian Mountains. The mountains protect Rioja from the notably strong winds in this part of Spain. The appellation sits about 1500 feet above sea level on a plateau. Soil composition is mostly made up of clay that is highly concentrated with iron and chalk. Rioja is split into three separate sub regions; Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. Rioja produces white wine as well as rose, but the majority of production is limited to red wine or “Tinto”. Tinto’s are dominated by the Tempranillo grape accompanied by plantings of Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo or Carignan.
One thing that makes Rioja wines very distinguishable is the use of Oak. Rioja winemakers early on seemed to strive to imitate what was happening in Bordeaux. Originally producers would use exclusively French Oak but because of cost they started to import American Oak and cooper the barrels themselves. This combination of wood gives the wines a very distinct flavor profile.
This use of oak in along with ageing techniques is actually classified in Rioja as well. There are four different classifications which have specific requirements in regards to labeling.
Rioja- This is the youngest classification and this is wine that has been aged less than 1 year in oak.
Crianza- This is wine that is aged a minimum of 2 years 1 of which is in oak.
Reserva- This wine is aged at least 3 years, 1 of which is in oak
Gran Reserva- This wine is aged a minimum of 5 years, 2 of which are in oak.
This gives the consumer a great idea of flavor profile just by the labeling. It creates a consistency in process and develops a general identity for the appellation. This is a storied wine region and if you have not enjoyed Rioja before, it is an absolute must try.