Extending over the three autonomous communities of Navarre, Pays Basque and Castilla y Léon, the Rioja appellation offers an extremely varied range of wines.
Rioja stretches along the banks of the Ebro River and around the regional capital Logroño. This Spanish appellation is divided into three sub-regions, all which have different characteristics, and this makes it possible to produce a great diversity of wines that come from varied terroirs. The red wines are much more common than the white wines in this region, and are made from blends of Tempranillo, the region's flagship grape variety, Garnacha or Grenache, as well as Mazuelo and Graciano. The last two varieties are less common, but are used to complete blends.
The smallest of the three sub-regions, Rioja Alavesa, is located north of the Ebro River and west of Logroño. It is famous for producing wines with great finesse because of the altitude of the vineyards (between 500 and 800 meters above sea level) and the maritime influence, which is moderated by the protection offered from the Cantabrian Mountains. This is home to Tempranillo, the king of all the Rioja varieties, which dominates this area. This sub-region is the coolest and wettest of the three, and it has mainly clay-limestone soils.
Rioja Alta is also west of Logroño, but mostly south of the Ebro River and enjoys a warmer, drier, maritime climate. The soils have more clay and are rich in iron with pebbles mixed into them. The wines produced here are also mostly from Tempranillo, but they have a much more imposing structure and thus bring this structure to the blends.
Finally, Rioja Baja is located east of Logroño and rather south of the Ebro River. There is a continental climate with hot, dry summers, and a clay soil. This is where Garnacha or Grenache dominates because the climate is warmer, a climate which Tempranillo enjoys less. Grenache develops perfectly in this region to give rich and generous juices.
In addition to these great differences in terroir and climate, Rioja offers quite different approaches to wine depending on the area. For Spanish red wines that are to be drunk young, carbonic maceration is used to vinify the wine. The advantage of this is that it preserves the fruity aromas and softens the tannins. Rioja also offers Spanish wines for cellaring. Generally, these are wines produced from destemmed grapes that are then crushed and fermented using traditional methods. The amount of extraction depends on the desired style of wine.
Ageing, especially in oak, is a defining characteristic of Spanish wines, and even more so for Rioja wines, which generally benefit from ageing even longer than those from other parts of the country. Thus, the wines often mention the nature and length of ageing, but there is no obligation to mention this.
Joven wines (joven is usually not mentioned) are to be drunk young, since they are fruity and fresh wines.
Crianza wines are aged for 24 months with a minimum of 12 months of ageing in barrels (6 for the rest of Spain, excluding Ribeira del Duero).
For Reserva wines, ageing is required for 36 months minimum with 12 months in barrels.
Finally, Gran Reserva wines are aged for 60 months including 24 months in barrels (18 for the rest of Spain, excluding Ribeira del Duero).