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 June, of course!
That said, July is shaping up to be even better, with some amazing Rioja-themed events planned (plus one super secret party that we’re very excited about). We’ve been picking the brains of Humble Grape’s wine expert, Desiree, to learn a little about the region and its wines in preparation.
But shh! – this is between us! Details will go out to you via email first, so sign up to our newsletter here if you haven’t already!
The Geography Bit
Rioja is a wine region in northern Spain (picture the border between France and Spain, then scooch on down a bit). Rioja wine is made with grapes from the communities of La Rioja, Navarre, and the Basque province of Álava. Most Rioja wines are blends made of grapes from all three communities.
Just to make things a little more complicated, the Rioja region is split into three zones: Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa. Rioja Altais on the western edge and is a little more mountainous. The higher elevations turn out a wine that’s more ‘Old World’ (thanks to a cooler climate) and a little lighter on the palate. Rioja Alavesa has a similar climate, just 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 yields much more brazen wines. They’re a little unrefined, so they’re often used as a component in blends.
The History Bit
Wine production in the region was well underway by the end of the first millennium. There’s actually written evidence going back to at least the 870s. (Yes, you read that right – we did say 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 got going in the late 1700s, when a priest named Don Manuel Quintano y Quintano travelled to Bordeaux, returning with a head full of the latest winemaking techniques and a cart full of the latest tech: oak barrels!
These improved both the taste – giving Rioja one of its most distinctive flavours – and the longevity of the wine.
The Great French Wine Blight then sadly devastated French winemaking for a long time and took the best part of a century to recover from. Cue the rise of the Rioja!
Thousands of barrels were imported to France, and dozens of vintners fled the Blight to set up shop in Spain. (A smart move, we reckon!). 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 diverse and distinctive land, making Rioja a terroir lover’s paradise. Cool mountains, warm Mediterranean sun, fresh Atlantic breeze – you can see where we’re going with this. Rioja has it all for grape growing. And by far the most commonly grown grape variety is Tempranillo, but Grenache, Graciano and Mazuelo are all there in abundance. Consider that most Rioja wines are actually blends, and you’ve got a huge variety of flavour possibilities. Which leads us nicely 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 present in Rioja’s today (although modern winemakers often experiment without oak ageing). That said, the use of oak barrels to age white wine has diminished significantly.
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.
Wait, you say. There are also white Rioja’s? Yep, and to be honest… they used to be a bit rubbish! Now, although white Rioja’s still make up about 5% of production, their market share has been slowing rising every year, and over time, their flavours have improved tenfold. Definitely worth a try!