Rioja the Casbah: celebrating Rioja with Imbibe Magazine

All right, let’s talk Rioja. Why? Well, for one thing we’re teaming up with Imbibe Magazine for the return of their #RethinkRioja Project throughout the back half of June and July and we’ve got some amazing Rioja-themed events planned (plus one super secret party that we’re very excited about – details will go out via email first, so sign up for our email newsletter at the bottom of the page to get in the know).

…Oh, and because we bang on about wine at the drop of a hat (sue us). We’ve been picking the brains of Humble Wine Expert Desiree to learn a little about the region and its wines.

The Geography Bit


Rioja is a wine region in northern Spain (picture the western edge of the border between France and Spain, then scooch on down a bit). Rioja wine is made from grapes from the communities of La Rioja and Navarre, and the Basque province of Álava. Most Rioja wines are blends made of grapes from all three communities, although there a definitely single region wines out there.

Just to make things a little more complicated (this is wine we’re talking about, after all), the Rioja region is split into three zones: Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa. Rioja Alta is on the western edge and is a little more mountainous. The higher elevations turn out wine that’s more “Old World” – because it’s chillier up there, basically – and a little lighter on the palate. Rioja Alavesa has a similar climate: a bit less elevated, but closer to the cooling breezes of the Atlantic. Rioja Baja, on the other hand, is close to the sunny Med. Its climate is hot and dry, which leads to bombastic and sometimes very alcoholic wines. They’re a little unrefined, so they’re most often used as a component in blends.

The History Bit

Wine production in the region was well under way by the end of the first millennium: there’s written evidence going back to at least the 870s. Rioja as a winemaking region was first legally recognised by the King of Navarra and Aragon (Spain wouldn’t be under a unified ruler for a few centuries yet) in 1102.

Things really get going in the late 1700s, when a local priest named Don Manuel Quintano y Quintano travels to Bordeaux, returning with a head full of the latest winemaking techniques and a cart full of the absolute cutting edge device in wine technology: the oak barrel. These barrels improved both the taste – giving Rioja one of its most distinctive flavours – and the longevity of the wine. Before long the Rioja region was a major exporter of wine…

… an exporter that would get a massive shot in the arm about a century later, when the majority of France was suffering from invasion by a pernicious aphid called Phylloxera (although winemakers of the time were left scratching their heads as to the cause).

The Great French Wine Blight devastated French winemaking, and took the best part of a century to recover from. But all those French people weren’t going to stop drinking plonk just because their own grapes were withering on the vine. Rioja to the rescue: thousands of barrels were imported to slake French thirst (those that couldn’t afford such extravagance switched to Absinthe), and dozens of vintners fled the Blight to set up shop in Spain. They learnt their lessons – the roses you see in the photo are planted around the vines to function as a “canary in a coalmine” – the roses will be affected by bugs and blights before the vines will, so vineyard managers have early warning.

The Rioja region was formalised throughout the 20th century, and in 1991, the prestigious “Calificada” (Qualified) nomination was awarded to La Rioja, making it Spain’s first Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa).

The Science Bit

The Rioja region hosts over 600 wineries farming more than 140,000 acres of land, and that land is diverse and distinctive, making Rioja a terroir lover’s paradise. Low sandy valleys? Got ’em. Pebbly gallets? Got them too. Dry, chalky slopes? You betcha. Towering, chilly mountains? Warm Mediterranean sun? Fresh Atlantic breezes? You can see where we’re going with this: Rioja has it all. By far the most grown – and most well known – grape variety is Tempranillo, but Grenache, Graciano and Mazuelo are all there in abundance. Factor in that most Rioja wines are blends and you’ve got a huge and wonderous variety of flavours. Which leads us on to…

The Tasty Bit

When you think Rioja you normally think two things: Tempranillo and oak. The vanilla flavours imparted by oak are still a key part of Riojan reds today (although modern winemakers often experiment without oak aging), but the use of oak barrels to age white wine has diminished significantly.

Wait, you say. There are white Riojas? Yep, and to be honest… they used to be a bit rubbish. Dull, over-oaked (it was a different time). Now, although white Riojas still only account for about 5% of production, their market share has been shooting up every year. Definitely worth a try.

The other iconic aspect of Riojan winemaking, Tempranillo is gently spiced and powerfully fruity, and normally makes up the majority of the blend – if you’ve got a single variety Rioja, Tempranillo is almost certainly what you’re drinking. It’s a perfect fit for the region: big and warming, a little bit rustic but not without sophistication.  Our favourite Rioja producer, “the young man” keen experimenter and ex-handyman Juan Bautista Garcia of Bodegas Paco Garcia, would probably agree.