Recently, I had the pleasure of going on a Rioja DOCa Trade Tour, sponsored by the Consejo Regulador— the control board governing the wine region of Rioja, first established in 1925. Along with seven others, I was taken to some of the most well known Bodegas of the region, as well as some more off the beaten path. I learned a lot about Rioja, both the wines and the region.
Not to be confused with the political region of La Rioja, the wine region of Rioja crosses political boundaries, with some of its bodegas and vineyards falling in the Basque country and Navarre. Made up of three subregions, Rioja consists of Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja, and Rioja Alavesa. The climates are remarkably different, from Atlantic/continental to Mediterranean.
The heart of Rioja is the Ebro river, which runs from the northwest of Spain beginning in the Cantabrian Mountains and eventually empties into the Mediterranean Sea. Fed by 7 major tributaries each in their own sub-valley, it flows through Logrono (the capital of La Rioja) and Haro, where many of the most famous bodegas of the region are located (Lopez de Heredia, C.V.N.E.,La Rioja Alta, etc).
Rioja is broken into three subregions, Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja. While Rioja Alta has a continental climate and Rioja Baja has a more Mediterranean climate, Rioja Alavesa is right at the foot of the mountains and though similar to Rioja Alta, is often susceptible to very cold winds.
There are many bodegas producing high-quality, traditional style Rioja, but it seems there are just as many producing more experimental wines. One interesting thing about the DOCa of Rioja is that while only certain grapes may be used, and how long crianzas, reservas, and gran reservas must be aged in oak and bottle, other than that there isn’t much to distinguish what type of wine you might get. For example, you may have a bottle of 100% Tempranillo and it’s labeled “Rioja,” or you might have a bottle of 100% Garnacha, which will also be labeled “Rioja.”
Something exciting I discovered is that there is a lot (ok maybe not a lot, but more than I thought) of very high quality Rioja Blanco being produced. Sadly, not much of this is being exported to the U.S., with the perception being that the market doesn’t want it. Barrel aged 100% Viura is one of my new favorite wines, and with good reason: so much of it was exceptional that each time I had the opportunity to drink one I did. As a group, we mentioned to the that we’d love to have access to more Rioja Blanco, and hope that soon enough there will be more available for us to pass on to you.
Of course we do have a few, with the most notable being the Lopez de Heredia “Tondonia” Rioja Blanco Reserva 2003 ($46.99) as well as “Gravonia” Rioja Blanco Crianza 2006 ($28.99). We also have, by an almost as well known producer, Marques de Murrieta, Rioja Blanco Reserva “Capellania” 2010 ($23.99).
My favorite bodega visit was our final one, when we visited Senorio de P. Pecina, and it was the perfect ending to an excellent trip. I had requested that we visit this bodega because we carry a lot of it in the shop, and I was not disappointed. Truly traditional Rioja, there wasn’t a single bottle that I didn’t love, from the current vintage rose back through to a 1997 Rioja Reserva. I have been selling these like mad since my return, because I truly stand behind them.
Currently we have:
I believe that Rioja is some of the best value in the wine world, as a lot of the region’s wine-making techniques were learned from vignerons from Bordeaux who were trying to find new land after phylloxera hit. Gran Reservas from top bodegas and top vintages are still available for well under $100.00, and until the word gets out, this trend should continue.