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 status.

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.


Process 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 bottle.

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

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


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