Rioja Region and its Wines

The Rioja region and its wines.

The Rio Oja (River Oja) is how the region gets its name. Notably, the Río Oja is a tributary of the River Ebro. The Ebro is the main river which flows through the region. Eventually, emptying into the Mediterranean Sea.

To clarify, the Rioja region is split into 3 parts, namely Rioja Baja in the East, Rioja Alta in the West and Rioja Alavesa in the North. Logroño is the capital of the region. This is situated in the middle of Rioja in the Rioja Alta region and consequently close to the borders of Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. 

The geography, in particular,  has a huge influence on the Rioja region and its wines providing many microclimates and different elevations. An overall region map can be found here.

Rioja Alavesa

Rioja Alavesa covers an area  315.83 km² and is the smallest of the 3 regions. The region possesses 11,500 hectares of vineyards. Rioja Alavesa is closest to the Cantabrian mountains in the north of the region.

The mountains serve the purpose of protecting Rioja from the worst of the weather from the north. They also raise the vineyards of Rioja Alavesa higher than the rest of Rioja at 1300-4000ft. The cooler temperatures help the grapes obtain a good colour and moderate levels of acidity.

Rioja Baja

Rioja Baja is undoubtedly the hottest and driest of the three regions in Rioja. Temperatures in summer can reach 35 °C. Influenced by the Mediterranean Sea to the east, the climate is hot and dry and of course prone to the occasional drought. The soil is a mix of alluvial silt, thanks to the Rio Ebro, and clay.  

During the growing season, the heat affects the grapes by reducing the acidity in the grape. Creating richly coloured and very alcoholic reds, the wines tend to be blended. Thus increasing acidity and lowering the alcohol levels.

Rioja Alta

Rioja Alta is the westernmost of Rioja’s regions. Comparatively dry, the soil has many nutrients deposited by the tributaries of the Ebro River. The makeup of the soil is mainly limestone and clay, this clay is rich in iron. Rioja Alta produces reds with moderate alcohol levels. Also, less ripeness than the Rioja Baja region.  Old school wines are the norm in this region.

The Rioja region and its wines

The Rioja region and its wines

Rioja Wine

Predominantly, Rioja wines are made from the Tempranillo grape.  Itself fairly neutral, Tempranillo is usually blended with other grapes such as Mazuelo and Grenache. Often aged in oak barrels, the wine readily takes on the flavours of the oak. Oak barrels also affect the colouration of the wine.

In particular, the longer it is in the barrel the more mellow the colour. The bright cherry red of the younger wines, for instance, is contrasted by the older Gran Reservas’ tile, almost terracotta type red. To clarify, the oak used is usually American or French. In contrast, I did try a Russian oak one at Bodega Valdelana.

The Rioja region and its wines

Wine colours, enhanced slightly, to illustrate the difference in colour – Taken at Bodega Valdelana

Rioja Wines, as you may know, have their own unique series of Classification – Consejo Regulador DOCa Rioja. For details, check the bottle, usually on the back, for any of the four marks below.

Green=Young                          Red=Crianza              Dark Red=Reserva           Blue=Gran Reserva

Yay! A pretty label you might say, but what does it mean? Below is a table explaining, a Crianza from a Gran Reserva




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The Rioja region and its wines – Conclusion

I used to think that I only liked Gran Reservas, I generally still do but I have now come across some Crianzas and younger wines which are very note-worthy. Once again, it’s personal taste. Some prefer young wines with an acidic bite and no oak while some prefer heavier, oakier Gran Reservas.

But all, and I mean all, are worth trying just to see! Campo Viejo stunned me with a wonderful wine. Making it in a very different style to their standard yellow label variety Crianza, I was especially impressed. A bottle came home with me! As I always say, keep an open mind.

A Bears Eye View

  • Rioja is split into three regions.
  • The region is named after the River Oja (Rio Oja).
  • All Rioja wines have a DOC label on the back.
  • In general, the brighter the red, the younger the wine.

This is a quick guide to the Rioja region and its wines. This is part of a series of articles about Rioja wines. All the links to the others can be found here. The next in the series is about finding a good tour guide

Planning a trip to the Rioja Bodegas (Wineries)




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