Rioja Part 1; Alta

Slightly confused as to where the Rioja Alta is? Well, I started this piece on Rioja, and quickly saw how big of a job it would be to cover the whole region of La Rioja in one go, so I decided to split the next few Friday Focus pieces into the 3 distinct sub-regions of the Rioja DOCa; this week is the ‘high country’ or Alta, next week is the mountainous Rioja Alavesa, and finally I will cover the ‘lowlands’; the Rioja Baja.

First up though, a few words on the significance of the Rioja region as a whole. The most famous wine region in all of Spain (although some of you may argue Jerez- the home of Sherry – is more historically famous, this is taken from a modern perspective), Rioja was the first Spanish region to be awarded DO (Denominación de Origen, a classification of quality) status, back in 1933, and in 1991 became the first to be upgraded to the top-level DOCa (which stands for Denominación de Origen Calificada). Today, only Rioja and Priorat hold this highest-quality classification. Safe to say then, this region has the potential to make great wines! The region’s winemaking history stretches back to Roman times and has continued almost unbroken ever since. Production flourished between 200 B.C. and the sixth century A.D., as evidenced by amphorae and other wine-related artifacts uncovered by archaeological excavations. It slowed during the Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula (but never fully stopped!), chugging along for several centuries until the Christian Reconquista of the late Middle Ages. After this, Rioja steadily grew in popularity and quality. The industry gained a huge boost in the middle of the 19th century when neighbour France’s wine industry was decimated by first mildew, then Phylloxera. Hundreds of French winemakers fled France to Spain to eke out a living. The geographical location of Rioja was perfect to take advantages of the misfortunes of those around it; it was far-enough north to avoid the invading Moors, and was also one of the closest wine regions to France, meaning almost overnight it gained an army of desperate winemakers. This French migration brought with it to Rioja an important item that the region’s wines are almost singularly recognised for today; the 225L oak barrel. CLICK MAP FOR LARGER VERSION

The Rioja region is located in the North-east of the Iberian Peninsula, tracing the course of the Ebro River for roughly 60 miles (100km) as it runs north-east between the towns of Alfaro and Haro after which it empties into the Bay of Biscay. The Rioja Alta sub-region occupies the western portion of the region, on the west bank of the Ebro. It is the most important sub-region in terms of making good quality wines in abundant volumes. It sits at a higher elevation than the Rioja Baja, but slightly lower than the Rioja Alavesa. This elevation is important, as the region is fairly hot and dry, and the high hillside vineyards are less exposed to the baking heat of the valley floor. The altitude assists in retention of acid in the berries, as well as moderating alcohols in the final wine by restricting the accumulation of fermentable sugars in the berries. Wines from this sub-region will also usually have a lighter colour, which is a direct effect of the lower alcohol, which is a solvent that strips colour from the skins during fermentation; the lower the alcohol, the paler the colour (a perfect example of this is Riesling vs. Viognier)!

The soils of Rioja Alta are another reason for its sub-division. For the most part, they consist of a top layer of clay layered over a base of limestone. This is soil custom-made for quality wine production in hot, dry climates; the clay topsoil is nutrient poor, but holds onto water when it falls. When there is too much water, the excess water drains into the limestone and during times of drought, and the vine roots dig deep to suck up this water. This nutrient-poor soil cuts down the naturally high vigour of the varieties used here, forcing them to focus on producing the best-tasting berries so the next generation will be eaten by a bird and taken away, rather than settling in and getting comfortable, therefore producing fat, tasteless berries. Tempranillo especially seems to produce the best results in these conditions of soil and temperature, hence why it is the most grown grape variety in the Rioja Alta sub-region, and forms the backbone of the best examples of red Rioja. With few exceptions, reds from here are a blend of varieties- mostly Tempranillo, but with small amounts of others. Garnacha, a.k.a. Grenache, brought over by French winemakers during Phylloxera’s onset, adds body to the blend. Mazuelo is another variety used that originated in France, where it is known as Carignan, that adds perfume, whereas Graciano is a local variety that adds colour and tannin. Whilst not the focus of the region, Rioja Alta also produces a small amount of white wine. For the most part, it is fairly simple, clean and crisp, and drunk in the summer after the harvest while the reds are ageing in barrel still. Although 9 varieties are legally allowed, the main white variety used is Viura (known as Macabeo in other parts of Spain such as Cava where it is a major part of the famous sparkling wine), which is the favourite due to its ability to retain acid even in warm vintages. Other varieties used to add complexity and balance are Malvasia, Garnacha Blanca (the white mutation of Grenache), Sauvignon Blanc, Verdejo and Chardonnay.

So, we have covered climate, soils and grape varieties, but there is one more important factor that gives red Rioja its distinctive style, and that is what it is aged in- although that will be covered next week when I speak of the second sub-region Rioja Alavesa, where oak plays a vital role in winemaking. The final piece of the puzzle is the unique style of each of the major houses that produce wine. Among the most notable producers are Artadi El Pison, Bodegas Muga, Bodegas Marques de Murrieta, La Rioja Alta and Bodegas Marques de Caceres.

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager