Rioja Wine Region

Rioja Wine Region
My recent visit to Rioja was a revelation. The red wines of Rioja are reliable and range in price from inexpensive to the opposite. The Rioja wine region is a wide east-west band along the banks of the River Ebro in northern Spain in a broad valley separated from France by a mountain range that also gives protection from severe weather.

I was surprised by the desert like aspects of the land, arid and covered in yellow stones with dried-up gullies cracking the ground. Here and there rocky outcrops are topped by ancient towns surrounded by defensive walls and towers.

Although wine has been grown in the region for at least two thousand years, it was two events in the latter part of the 19th Century that brought about Rioja’s current prominence as a wine region.

Bordeaux was one of the first vineyards wiped out by the Phylloxera louse. Several wine makers looked to start anew and nearby Spain, safe – they thought – beyond mountains, attracted their attention. The town of Haro was connected by the new railway to the coastal port at Bilbao. It was here winemakers built their wineries clustered around Haro rail station from where they could export wine to France and later the rest of the world.

There are more wineries in one compact area in Haro than anywhere else. Giants like Muga are next to small boutique wineries. Sandstone was excavated to make vast aging cellars and the stone used to make winery buildings.

The main black grape is Tempranillo, an early ripening variety that ages well and develops spicy tobacco tastes. It is often found as a 100% varietal but it combines well in blends with the other local black varieties, Garnacha (Grenache), Mazuela (Carignan) and Graciano.

Aging is the mantra in Rioja. Every red Rioja wine carries a coloured security ‘Trust Seal’ that guarantees the minimum period wine has been aged before sale.
Grand Reserva wines, with blue seal, have been aged for 5 years with a minimum of two years in barrel.

Reserva wines have aged at least 3 years with a year in barrel and a dark red seal.
Crianza has a minimum of 6 months in wood and a light red seal.

Wines outside these categories are sold as Joven (young) wines with green seals.

Such an emphasis on aging in Bordeaux sized 225 litre barriques means that Rioja has more barrels in one region than anywhere else. There are at least 3 million barrels in Rioja’s cellars at any one time.

Haro, where the first wineries were built, is in the Rioja administrative region named after the Rio (River) Oja in its middle, which is a minor river running North-South. The Rioja wine region now lies mostly outside the Rioja area with which it shares a name.

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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.

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