Rioja has a long and interesting history — involving war, geographic isolation, restrictions on irrigation of vineyards and, of all things, inside-out pigs. Now, thanks to modernization, Rioja is reaching new heights.

Welcome to another in a series of articles about countries and growing regions for wine. Previously WineMaker has featured the styles of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Australia, California, and Italy. In this feature we look at a region in a country that’s closely identified with wine production, but gets little press among home winemakers.

Pop quiz: which country has more acreage under vines than any other in the world? Italy? France? Australia? Surprisingly, none of those are even close to the world leader, Spain. Part of the reason for such vast acreage is that, despite an arid climate, irrigation is mostly banned in Spain, so the immense plantings yield less than a ton and a half of grapes per acre, and as a result Spain only ranks third in the world in volume of wine produced.

Located in northern Spain along the Ebro River (and named after its tributary, the Rio Oja), Rioja is Spain’s most prominent growing region, and is synonymous for the most part with Spanish red wine. Until recently it was steeped — more like mired, actually — in very old, traditional varieties and winemaking techniques, but during the last two decades it has made a brilliant leap from the 16th to the 21st Century, with stainless steel, refrigeration and modern microbiology supplanting ancient wood, hot fermentations and a cavalier attitude towards the mysteries of yeast and microbes.

While there isn’t a lot of opportunity for most North Americans to access fresh grapes from Rioja, many of their native varieties and styles are available in kits, and quite a few traditional varietals are grown in the USA. A closer look at grape origins and the winemaking traditions of Rioja might not only improve your chances of enjoying your own efforts, and those of commercial Spanish winemakers, but could also give you an insight into how tradition evolved into modern winemaking practices.

The history of Rioja and Spain is rich and varied, and much of it revolves around the blessings of the grape vine, including wars, trade embargoes, scandals, socialist deconstruction and economic revitalization.

Rioja in History

Fossils show that human ancestors occupied Spain over a million years ago, long before home winemaking. Although wild grape vines grew in Spain even before modern humans began leaving their mark 35,000 years ago, it wasn’t until between 3,000 and 4,000 BCE that there is evidence of cultivated vines in Spain. The Phoenicians grew grapes in the Iberian Peninsula until they were superseded by the Carthaginians, who eventually came in second in the Punic wars with the Romans, and the empire took over viticulture in Spain.

Although there were exports of wine from other parts of Spain to the rest of the Roman Empire, Rioja was isolated by geography and their wines didn’t get around much. From the 8th to roughly the 14th Century, Spain was occupied by the Moors. These rulers had a general antipathy towards wine, but they tacitly allowed production to continue in Rioja and after the Christian re-conquest of Spain in the 15th Century, Rioja was given official sanction as a producing region. During that time most of the winemaking was centered on monasteries, who supplied themselves, the local area, and pilgrims making the trip to Santiago de Compostela — an early wine trail, of sorts.

By the 1700s communication and transportation infrastructure had advanced to the point where Bilbao (just north of the Rioja) had become a major trading center, pulling wine along with it. The region had a giant stroke of luck when Phylloxera devastated the vineyards of France in the middle of the 1800s. It had already attracted some French wine merchants looking to expand their stocks, earlier depleted by powdery mildew outbreaks in their native country, and the boom times changed the face of Rioja forever. French import duties were relaxed, and a flood of new plantings and new bodegas were established, with the help of French consultants and French money. The new investments included the use of the French barrique-style barrels of 60 gallons (227 L) volume (although many of the barrels were made from American oak.) By the end of the 19th Century, Rioja was flooding France with as much as 13 million gallons (a half-million hectolitres) of wine in a good month.

Alas the best rising tide has to end sometime, and the beginning of the 20th Century saw Rioja face its own Phylloxera infestation, right at the moment when France had grafted most of its vines over. Adding to this was Spain’s loss of its former colonies (and their convenient captive markets) and the outbreak of WWI. There was a bit of growth in the period between the first and second world wars, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that Rioja became an export dynamo: between a new road system linking it to Bilbao, expanding foreign markets and capital expansion in the region, Rioja took over the Spanish fine wine market for its own.

In more recent history, Rioja has ceded position as the dominant force in quality Spanish wine, due to the proliferation of artisan winemakers working outside the Spanish classification system, and the influence of powerful bodegas like the Torres group, which have interests in hundreds of classified wines outside of the Rioja area.

Geography, Climate and Soil

Rioja has some unique geographic advantages compared to other areas of the Iberian Peninsula. For the most part Spain is stinking hot: the Mediterranean continental climate inland (think Madrid) is roasty-hot, and subject to terrific variations in weather. The Mediterranean coastal climate (think Barcelona) broils and gets hot winds out of Africa, while the oceanic climate just north of Rioja (where the city of Bilbao is) gets heat and violent and fierce Atlantic winds, laden with rain that soaks the area regularly—there’s a reason this is known as Spain’s green belt.

But the Sierra de Cantabria mountains running westward from the Pyrenees and to the north of Rioja provide a rain shadow from the Atlantic winds, giving it a moderated continental climate, and Rioja’s ace in the hole is its elevation, with most of the region on a plateau — life starts above 1,500 feet (450 m) and some vineyards are planted above 2,500 feet (800 m).

This elevation is crucial to growing good grapes. Anyone who has travelled in the mountains knows that the higher you go, the colder it gets — and the colder it gets at night. High altitude planting ensures that grapes don’t over-ripen, cook or raisin in the sun and diurnal temperature variation (warm days, cold nights) ensure that grapes retain acidity throughout the ripening process. This means better fruit character and lower pH, and grapes that make much better wine.

Soils in the Rioja differ distinctly between its three denominated growing regions. Traditionally, Rioja wines have blended grapes from the three regions, using differences in terroir to ensure that each Rioja vintage reflected the traditional style, blending away harvest differences by selecting fruit from vineyards in the more successful and productive areas.

This seems a little weird to North Americans, used to vineyard specific designations, but lately some Rioja wineries have begun bottling single-vineyard wines, underlining Rioja’s microclimates and varying soil types to differentiate their wines.

The Regions

Rioja Alta is the westernmost of Rioja’s sub-appellations. Relatively dry, with a high elevation, the soil is rich in iron, limestone and clay, along with nutrients deposited in the region by the tributaries of the Ebro River. Rioja Alta is known for producing reds with moderate alcohol levels and less ripeness than lower, hotter areas. It can be thought of as more ‘old-school’ Rioja and the grapes traditionally formed the base of a lot of Rioja reds.

Rioja Alavesa has the highest elevation out of the three, with distinctive chalky clay-limestone soil and steeply sloped landscape. It produces aromatic white wines of good acidity and some sturdy reds. To achieve full character in the low-nutrient soil, vine density is very low — often less than 600 vines per acre.

Rioja Baja is the hottest and driest area, strongly influenced by the Mediterranean climate, suffering from periodic droughts and temperatures during the growing season in excess of 95 °F (35 °C). Lower in elevation than Rioja Alta or Alavesa, its fertile alluvial soil is heavy with silt. Rioja Baja produces big, alcoholic, richly colored reds, but heat levels reduce acidity, and most of these wines have to be blended to increase acid and to reduce alcohol levels, which can reach up to 18%.

Grape Growing and Varieties

Vineyards in Rioja tend to be small, with those in the Baja tending to slightly larger than Alta or Alavesa. Traditionally the vines are gobelet trained, with a freestanding upright vine pruned into a kind of lollypop shape. This works well with widely spaced plantings on less arable soils, and provides the grapes some shade from the sun within a canopy of sheltering leaves.

Recently, more progressive vineyards have been training the grapes on conventional wire trellises, which can increase yields, but since Denominación de Origen (DO) regulations permit harvests of only 3 tons per acre (50 hectolitres per hectare) there’s a definite diminishing return for an investment in posts and trellising wire.

With such abundant sunshine and heat available one would assume that much higher planting densities and yields could be achieved in the Rioja, but that isn’t possible with the relatively low rainfall amounts. It’s surprising to more progressive viticulturalists to find out that irrigation is banned in almost all areas of Rioja. Since the late 90s some parts of the Rioja Baja have been allowed to irrigate, getting a dispensation on a case basis, but yields have not been increased.

There are four red and three white grapes which qualify for Rioja DO status. While Tempranillo is the most famous, it alone can’t make Rioja wine, and plantings depend on how each variety adapts to different areas.


Tempranillo’s name comes from temprana, the word for “early,” probably so named because it ripens weeks ahead of other varieties. It’s been described as Spain’s answer to Cabernet Sauvignon, partly due to its ubiquity, and partly due to its deep color and distinct tannins. Actually, ampelographers think Tempranillo is a variant of either Pinot Noir or Cabernet Franc, brought over centuries ago from France. The case for Pinot Noir has some legs, since mature Tempranillo gives the impression of restrained, rich smoothness, not unlike French burgundy.

With its thick skin, Tempranillo yields good color and aromas, but it is fairly low in alcohol and on the low side for acidity as well. The low acid makes it a troubling grape to work with alone, notwithstanding the high proportion of malic acid, which can be perceived as a harsh, green-apple character. The pH can also be on the high side, which makes extended aging difficult: high pH wines lose fruit character, oxidize and brown easily.

Despite this, Tempranillo grapes yield medium to full-bodied wines with delicate strawberry, red cherry, currants, spice, leather and tobacco notes.

Garnacha Tinta

More familiar under the French name, Grenache, this is the most widely grown red grape variety in Spain, and probably the world. Garnacha got its start in Rioja at the beginning of the 20th Century, after the Phylloxera epidemic struck. Not only is it more resistant to Phylloxera mites, it requires less spraying for mildews than other varieties, its sturdy trunk adapted well to gobelet pruning, and thrives in the hot, dry vineyards and long growing seasons of Rioja. With advantages like these it quickly supplanted some of the traditional varieties.

Garnacha Tinta, despite being a dark-berried grape usually produces paler-colored wines than might be expected, but the low-yield vineyards of Rioja make darker, full-bodied wines with hints of sweet raspberry. It is low in tannins and provides softness to wine, but is prone to oxidation and can be rustic or coarse on its own.


This is the Rioja term for Cariñena, the Carignan grape of France. Unfortunately, although wine made from this grape is high in color, acidity and tannins, it’s low on charm and finesse. The most charitable description of it would be “coarse.” It’s not even easy to grow! Grapes are subject to mildew, insects and rot, and the bunches cling tightly to the vines, making mechanical harvesting difficult. The EU is constantly bribing growers to rip it out and plant more worthy varieties. However, the dark color is a powerful siren to growers who know that consumers equate deep color with intensity and quality.


This grape is a bit of a sad character. It makes wines that are long lasting, richly colored, beautifully perfumed and delicate — the most aromatic of all Rioja varieties. In the past it gave Rioja Gran Reservas their texture, structure and ageability. Indigenous to Spain, Graciano is difficult to grow, low yielding, late blooming and prone to vine diseases. While there is a tiny revival movement within Spain and in some new world locations (California, Argentina and Australia) it has been largely supplanted by inferior but more tractable vines.


The Rioja name for the Macabeo grape, the vigorous, late-budding Viura is Spain’s most widely planted white grape, thriving in hot, dry conditions. It makes wines that are more or less neutral in character but pleasant, with a light floral nose. Although low in acid, it does resist oxidation better than the other varieties of Rioja, and is an important blender.


This grape is worthy of a lot of study in other contexts. It’s important in Italy (wine shops there used to be called malvasie), France and Germany, and makes powerful, characterful wines ranging from high-alcohol reds, intense deep golden dessert wines. In Rioja it brings a light crispness to wines with floral aromas and a brisk note of red grapefruit. Previously used to give structure to white Riojas, plantings are in decline.

Garnacha Blanca

A white-berried variant of Garnacha Tinta added to white Rioja for its pleasant taste and aromas of honeysuckle and apricot. Garnacha Blanca is often compared favorably to the southern French varietal Marsanne.


Rioja has come a long way. Until transportation routes were established in the 19th Century, Rioja wines were rarely enjoyed outside of the region, and common tastes inside it were . . . common.

The worst offense had to do with the practice of storing wine in animal skins. Most wine drinkers are familiar with the bota, a small bag ostensibly made from leather, used as a vessel for carrying liquid. There was even a fashion for them in the 1970s, when they could be seen on ski hills, tucked under down jackets for a quick nip at the end of the run.

A bota is the retail version of the wine storage vessel of choice of pre-modernization Spain, the borracha. Used as a substitute for barrels, it was the entire peeled skin of a hog, scraped a bit to tidy it up, turned inside-out (so the hairy part was inside), coated with pitch, sewn up and then filled with wine. Today “borracha” is slang for “drunkard,” rather apt if you think of it as a swine with all four legs in the air, filled to bursting with wine!

The flavor imparted by this vessel is best described as “unique,” combining decay, swine-flesh, oxidation, resin notes and lots of coarse, floating hairs. Rich people ordered their wine in small barrels, to avoid the “evil savour,” but regular folks lived with it, drinking as much as they could until it became too much for them to bear, and the borrachas full of wine were discarded. Under these conditions, using slow ox-carts for transport, there could be no chance of anyone outside of Rioja tasting their wine — or of liking it if they did!

When efficient transportation arrived, the requirements of export followed, and Bordeaux was the world’s go-to center for winemaking consultants and technology. Where previously grapes were treaded by foot in shallow vessels, the Bordelaise introduced the modern way: mechanical crushing into deep vessels with cap management and predictable extraction and fermentation. Nowadays most grapes are processed in large centralized wineries, either cooperatives or bodega-controlled. The remaining smaller wineries may still use some wooden vats, but they’re becoming rare as 20th Century technology added the benefits of stainless steel and temperature control, making for fresher, cleaner wines with better fruit. But while good winemaking practices have become standard, most of the new fruit expression in reds was covered by heavy use of oak, and oak maturation rather than winery technique governs the predominant flavors of Rioja.

Rioja went down the path of heavy use of oak and long barrel aging because of the previous use of the borracha. Not only were wines shipped in the much more hygienic barrels, to arrive safely  at their destination, Rioja vintners were rapturous at the quality made possible by storing wine outside of a pig and began to oak-age wines for extended periods — five years or even more. As a result, classic Rioja presents more flavors and aromas from wood than it does from the fruit character of any of the grapes.

There’s even an age classification used to identify Rioja wines, outside of the DO system: Crianza is aged in oak at least 12 months with at least another year in the bottle. Reserva requires a total of 36 months of age between barrel and bottle, with a minimum of 12 months in barrel. Gran Reserva is usually made only in exceptional vintages, and requires 24 months aging in barrel and a further 36 months in bottle before release, though many winemakers age it longer. As a consequence of all this oaking and aging, Rioja is more or less ready to drink the day it is released by the winery. Crianzas are meant to have a fresher, more youthful character, and Gran Reservas are deep, rich and complex right from day one, with Reservas falling in between.

Oak-aged Rioja white became rarer after the 1990s as international demand for crisp, fruit-forward white wines made old-school toast and butter whites less profitable.

DO Classification

Spain’s Denominación de Origen (DO) system was created in 1932 and shares some features with France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) and Italy’s Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC). The DO system controls regulations and standards for viticulture and winemaking practices in each region, governing the types of grapes permitted, maximum yields, minimum aging times and required label information. Wineries must submit their wines to laboratory and tasting panels for evaluation to be granted DO/DOC status.

In addition to the current 67 DO’s in Spain there is also a designation of DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada) status for regions that consistently produce the highest quality wine. There are currently three: Priorat, Ribera del Duero, and the first to be so named, Rioja.

Spain officially joined the European Union in 1986, which meant a new layer of wine laws had to be instigated to ensure consistency with other European systems. While a study of EU wine laws might be utterly fascinating (for the kind of people who enjoy reading tax law or alphabetizing their sock drawer) there is one of the new designations that applies to Rioja: Vino de Mesa (VdM). This is the equivalent of Italy’s Vino di Tavola, which is technically as low as you can go and still call it wine.

Like Supertuscan producers with Vino di Tavola, VdM is used by some Spanish winemakers who intentionally declassify their wines so that they can use grapes from unclassified vineyards, or those not traditionally allowed. Some of the cheekier wineries have even marketed them under the name “Vinos Sin Ley,” or “Outlaw Wines” and they represent some very interesting new approaches.

Rioja’s long history and entrenched time-honored aging practices can be intimidating to outsiders, but the wine shouldn’t be. Like its people, it expresses a land that is at once challenging and austere, but which also gives pleasure and rewards those who seek it out.