Rioja, located in northern Spain, is the most famous winemaking region in the country. It is particularly known for its oak barrel aging process, which ensures that every wine produced has notes of berries, coconut, vanilla or sweet spices. The two most popular grape varietals by far in Rioja are Tempranillo and Garnacha.
Overall, red wines account for nearly 85% of all wines produced in Rioja. In addition to Tempranillo and Garnacha, other red grapes used for wines include Graciano and Mazuelo. In terms of white wines (which account for the other 15% of wines), the most popular grape varietals include Viura (also known as Macabeo), Chardonnay, Garnacha Blanca and Tempranillo Blanco.
Rioja wine undergoes an oak barrel aging process using either American or French oak. The very best Rioja wines are known as “Gran Reserva,” meaning that they have been aged a minimum of 5 years, including 2 in the barrel. However, some wines are aged 15, 20 or even 40 years. In 1983, for example, one Rioja bodega unveiled a 1942 Gran Reserve wine that had been aged more than 41 years.
Most of the Rioja wine region is contained within Spain’s La Rioja administrative district, but some are located in Basque Country and in neighboring Navarra. The major defining geographical features of the region include the Ebro River, which flows through it, and the mountainous foothills of the Sierra de la Demanda and the Sierra de Cantabria. These mountains help to moderate the temperature of the region, while also providing protection to vineyards from harsh winds.
Winemaking in Rioja, as in other areas of Spain, dates back to the Roman era. It flourished during the Moorish occupation, during the Middle Ages and really became a center of winemaking excellence starting in the 16th century. In the early 18th century, oak-aging techniques were introduced by Bordeaux winemakers.