Rioja is a wine producing region with a rich history and probably Spain's best known throughout the World. It is named after a tributary of the River Ebro, the Rio (river) Oja.
Spain is the fourth largest country in Europe but has the most area under vines in the world with 2,289,600 acres covered (as a guide a football pitch is 1.5 acres) alternatively, it's 3577.5 square miles. For further scale comparison Rioja has 152,400 acres, New Zealand has 94,000 acres and the UK has around 2000 acres of Vineyards.
Wines have been made in the valley of the River Ebro since Roman times. When the Moors controlled Spain between the 8th and 15th Centuries wine making was tolerated but certainly not encouraged. It was then properly re-established under Christian rule from the 15th Century onwards around this time the first wine laws were drawn up. The passing trade of pilgrims visiting the Monasteries on the Camino de Santiago saw Rioja grew in reputation.
As a region Rioja was a relatively isolated area in transport terms and it was not until the 1700s that the wines began to be seen outside the region. It was then not until the 1850s that Marqués de Murrieta established the first commercial Bodega (winery). Rioja became very important from around this time with many French merchants crossing the border in search of the wine. For almost half a century this saw a boom in the region which allowed for the establishing of many Bodegas still famous today as well as a new Rail link.
The reason for this boom was in large part due to troubles in Bordeaux in the form of vine disease and pests, mainly Phylloxera, a louse which nearly wiped out Vine Growing in Europe. Sadly Phylloxera was finally discovered in Rioja in 1901 and this led to a rapid decline as vineyards had to be re-established on new rootstocks at great cost. While this was happening there was a Spanish Civil War and two World Wars which completely knocked the stuffing out of the region. Recovery eventually came in the 1960s and 1970s with government investment on infrastructure as well as further investment from multinationals who later sold wineries back to Spanish firms.
There are three classified sub-regions within Rioja. Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Oriental (also known as Rioja Baja). All are protected by the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range to the north and west which stop the region suffering from the rain bearing Atlantic Winds.
The following terms are throughout Spain to denote oak aging and the length of time prior to reaching the marketplace, they change for Red, Rosé and White and depend on the region.
For Reds: Joven – This means the wine is young and may not appear on the label, the wine would simply be labelled Rioja, it suggests no oak contact and is for wines released early to market. Some producers are now using this label to make great wines the way they want to make them instead of following the limited restrictions of the following three categories. Crianza – This must spend a minimum of 12 months in oak barriques (225 ltr) and not be released to market until 2 years have passed. Reserva – A Rioja Reserva must have been in oak barriques for a minimum of 12 months and is not released until it’s 4th birthday. Gran Reserva – For a Gran Reserva it is 24 months in oak and then a further wait of 3 years before being released in year 6.
For Whites: Crianza – This must spend a minimum of 6 months in oak barriques (225 ltr) and not be released to market for a further year. Reserva – A Rioja Reserva must have been in oak barriques for a minimum of 6 months before facing another two years of confinement prior to release for good behaviour. Gran Reserva – For a Gran Reserva it is 6 months in oak before then waiting a further 4 years before being released.
Food Matches for Red Rioja
As any wine from a specified region it is best consumed with the local foods so unsurprisingly works well with Northern Spanish cuisine.
It can work with fish which is generally not the norm for red wine. Turbot is a good match for Rioja Reserva. The addition of chorizo can help enormously, Chorizo and hake or squid will work. Indeed Chorizo with it’s lovely paprika influence will help many meat dishes combine nicely with Rioja.
Gentle spice is a good option across the board. Cooked garlic, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and cumin are all a friend for these wines. Gentle veggie curries work just fine, think aubergine or chickpea, and limit the chilli heat. Chilli is not the friend of taste buds!
Lamb is always a favourite, the cut does not matter a great deal but the cooking is important, slow cooking to render the fat is great for rioja. The same goes for pork. Pork also works well with a bit of sweetness so an American Oak aged Rioja can be fantastic to accompany such a dish.
Don’t overthink it or over-prepare, thin sliced ham and some Manchego is a simple joy. Nachos and enchiladas keep it pretty simple and work well so long as you dial down any chilli.
Food Matches for White Rioja
Most white Rioja is so fresh and green and citrusy that it is a great match for fish. It also works well with pork and apple sauce.
Paella made with chicken or pork or even vegetarian versions of this Spanish dish pair nicely, in fact seafood Paella would work with White Rioja too so pretty much all Paella can match.
It works with calamari and battered fish and chips whether cod or haddock. Other fish dishes work too, dishes with anchovies due to the saltiness are best washed down with something fresh like El Coto Rioja Blanco.
A charcuterie board can be very nice with white Rioja whether oaked or unoaked.
Discover our Collection of Wines from Rioja
Discover our range of delicious wines from across the wine-growing region of Rioja, whether your favourite style is Joven, Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva, we've got you covered.