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La Rioja Wine Region

Karyn Lewis
WOW I – Fall 2006
Characteristics unique to the region
The Rioja wine region is located in northern Spain, in the valley of the Ebro river. Situated in the
three provinces of La Rioja, Alava and Navarra, it’s divided into three regions. These include the
Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa in the west, and the Rioja Baja in the east. The vineyards cover
approximately148,200 acres and vary in altitude from 300-600 meters. The Rioja region is
sheltered from the worst Atlantic weather-related influences by nearby mountain ranges, and the
Ebro River runs right through it to provide much needed water for the vines. The winters are cold
and the summers warm but never real hot.

Although Rioja covers a relatively small area, it holds several different types of soil and climatic
conditions. The land slopes downwards moving from west to east, and the climate becomes
increasingly dry and hot due to the Mediterranean influence. Additionally, there are three types of
soil found within the Rioja wine region. Half the area is Alluvial, which is found in areas
throughout the region near the Ebro river. These plots are large, flat, and have ideal depth and
river stones. One quarter of the region is ferrous clay, which is sloping land that’s hard with deep,
hard rock and is also found in large plots across the area. Another quarter of the region is chalky
clay, found in specific areas in small, tarraced plots. These soil and weather conditions affect the
development of the vines and result in the distinctive characteristics for which the wines from the
Rioja region are known.

Grape varieties
Rioja wines are assigned to three categories: crianza—the youngest, most common, and least
expensive; reserva; and the finest wines, gran reserva. Rioja reds are based on Tempranillo,

Spain's greatest red grape, blended with varying amounts of Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano.
Rioja whites are based on Viura with some Malvasia grapes and are clean and crisp with a fresh
citrus taste. The types of grapes grown in the region are those permitted by the regulations of the
Denominación de Origen Calificada Rioja. These grape varieties have been studied closely and
specifically selected for the area.

Of the reds, the Tempranillo variety is the most steadily grown grape type of the Rioja region,
representing about 61% of the total taken in. The Garnacha variety have slowly decreased in
favor of the Temranillo type but is known for its range of wine-making possibilities according to
the environmental conditions and production process. Mazuelos are prone to mildew but bears
more fruit than most varieties. This type originated in France and requires warmer temperatures
to ripen properly. Gracianos are internationally known for their Spanish origin. It is the most
aromatic of all the varieties grown in the Rioja region, and is predicted to grow in quantity in
upcoming years.

Of the whites, Viura grapes are the dominant variety grown in the Rioja region. This type is more
productive than most reds grown in the area and is mainly found in Spain. Malvasia grapes are
distinctly known for their ripened reddish-yellow color. There are many varieties of the same
name throughout the world, but are not regarded the same as those gorwn in the Rioja region.
White Garnacha grapes occupy the smallest area of all the Riojan vines. This grape variety is
similar to its red counterpart but is not known well in the Rioja area.

Wine Culture & History

Rioja claims a longer wine history than Bordeaux but the modern Spanish wine owes much of its
character to Bordeaux's influence. French vinification techniques and the practice of aging wines
in small oak barrels was introduced early, although American oak is preferred over French oak.
In the Middle Ages, winemaking in the Mediterranean area was linked with Monks. At that time
the Rioja region took extreme precautions every step of the way. In the early 1600’s, for example,
the mayor of the time banned carriages from passing along the roads next to cellars ―for fear that
the vibration from these vehicles might affect the juice and the aging of our precious wines‖.

The quality of Rioja wines have been guaranteed since the year 1650. In 1787 the Royal
Economic Society of Rioja Winegrowers was established, aiming to increase the development

and production of wines in the region. In the 20th
century, the Royal Decree was made, defining the
―origin‖ applicable to Rioja wines. In 1926 the
creation of the Control Board was put in place, which
defined the boundaries of the designated region Rioja
wines, and issued the Seal of Approval. The Control
Board even took charge of deciding the legal
measures that would be taken against fraud using the Rioja name. The Control Board was finally
made official in 1953, which marked the foundations for a modern and efficient wine-producing
process. Since this time, the quality control systems have improved and the marketing function
has been strengthened for the Rioja region.

Laws that apply to the region

The one thing that makes Rioja wines stand different from those in other regions is the aging
process. After maturing in Oak cakes the wine is then aged in the bottle before being passed to
the consumer. Spanish wine laws govern much of the grape growing and winemaking practices.
These laws are based on the Denominacion de Origen (DO) classification system, devised in the
1930’s. A four-tiered system, the most basic level is Vina de Mesa (table wine) followed by Vino
de la Tierra (country wine), DO and at the top DOC. Currently, only Rioja and Priorat have DOC

Many DO regions also classify their red wines by how long they age the wines. On a red wine
label, the terms Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva can be found, denoting the wine’s barrel and
bottle time. Crianza is usually two years of barrel and bottle, Reserva up to 4 years, and Gran
Reserva 5 – 6 years. Each Denominacion de Origen region has its own local regulatory body to
supervise regulations.
Wines are judged individually for high quality and regional characteristics.

Furthermore, a newer Spanish law governing wine in some of Spain's top wine producing regions
insists that only cork can be used to top still and sparkling wines in order for it to gain DO status.
It outlaws the use of alternative wine closures such as screw caps and synthetic.

Once the grapes have been picked, different processes are used to make the wine depending on
the type of wine—white, rosé or red wine. For white wines, whole grapes are passed to a
draining tank. The stems are removed and they’re pressed to obtain the must, which is transferred
to the fermentation tanks.

For rose wines, the grapes are destemmed and lightly crushed before sent to the draining tanks.
Here, they’re left to soften for a short period before they’re pressed and left for a day for the
suspended particles to settle. The wine is then decanted and the slightly crystalline must is
transferred to the fermentation tanks.

There are two ways of making red wine in Rioja. The most popular today involves the removal of
the stalks before fermentation, which is used for wines that will be aged in wood. In the
traditional system, the whole grape bunches are fermented in large pools. The resulting wines are
smoother, with good body, intense color, and made for drinking young. Both systems aim to
achieve uniform fermentation and ensure the aromas aren’t lost.

After fermentation, the wine is decanted and transferred to storage tanks for quality controls. At
this point the Control Board carries out sensorial and laboratory tests to determine whether the
wine deserves to be considered a Rioja.

Understanding labels
Most Rioja wines are the result of combinations in varying proportions of the different varieties
grown in the region and the different sub-areas within them. The red wines of the region are
classic wines of bright color and fresh, penetrating aromas. They are light in the mouth with
medium alcohol content. Rosé wines are bright pink with a strong fragrance. They are light and
fresh in the mouth, with medium alcohol content. The white wines are greenish-yellow and
exhibit fine aromas. They’re light in the mouth with fairly low alcohol content.

Rioja wines are divided into different categories, which are based on minimum aging periods.
Guarantee of Origin is labeled on wines have not undergone the "crianza" process. Vino de
Crianza labels wine in its third year, matured for at least one year in oak. Reserva is found on
carefully selected wines, aged for at least three years in at least one oak cask. Gran Reserva

belongs to wines of great vintages that have been aged at least two years in oak and three years in

The Rioja is known for its wines and has had a long time to build its reputation.

All information for this paper on the Rioja wine region was found on