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Rioja (Spanish for red) is perhaps the best known name in Spanish wine. Rioja is a wine region steeped in history, dating from the eleventh century BC. Its push to fame however, began in the 1800s when phylloxera decimated the Bordeaux region of France and many of the great wine makers headed over the Pyrenees to set up shop in Rioja.  Rioja became the first DOC in Spain in 1970, and the first prestigious DOCa in the early 1990's.

The Wines of Rioja

Red wine rules Rioja, and Tempranillo is the principal variety.  Most Rioja reds are a blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo (Carignan outside of Spain), and Graciano.  Each of these wines adds a key component, flavor, body, alcohol or aroma and helps balance the wide variations in grape quality from the regions within Rioja.
Rioja wine is categorized into four levels, Rioja - basic wine, Crianza – requires a minimum of two years of aging, Reserva – three years of aging at least one of which must be in oak, and Gran Reserva – requiring five years of aging at least two years in oak.  Because Tempranillo tends to focus on flavors other than fruit (mineral, leather, earthy), it is frequently aged for extended periods.  More recently however, pure Tempranillo wines are being produced with greater emphasis on the fruit.

Less than 10% of the wine from Rioja is white.  The principal grape is Viura, also known as Macabeo (mah kah bay oh).  Also produced in lesser quantities are Malvasia (mal va SEE ah), and Garnacha Blanca.  In order for a white wine to bear the Rioja DOC, it must be at least 51% Viura.

Growing Grapes in Rioja

The Rioja DOC is located in north central Spain within the province of La Rioja.  Rioja is most likely named from the Oja River, Rio Oja, although there is some dispute over the name's origins.  The region has a continental climate due to the blocking influence of the Pyrenees, distance from the Mediterranean, and relatively high altitude (over
The region is subdivided into three smaller zones, Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja, and Rioja Alavesa.  Rio Alta comprises the western part of Rioja, higher in elevation, and with little maritime influence some of the best grapes are produced in this zone.  Rioja Alaves is a small area north of the Ebro River which bisects the region and Rioja Baja is the eastern part of the region where high summer temperatures and frequent drought, tend to yield grapes with higher alcohol content and less flavor.   The soils are largely loose clay and limestone producing excellent grape growing conditions.  The soils are also known to have a high concentration of iron, giving it a slight red coloration – Rioja – Spanish for red – perhaps a competing theory for the origins of the region?

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