The history, grapes and wines of Rioja.

Among the most famous wine regions in the world, you can certainly place Rioja from Spain. Often I hear that it was the "gateway" wine for many people. Exported and enjoyed around the world, an inexpensive bottle of Rioja can be a great value.

I certainly enjoy recommending the wines and know that for under $20, a wine lover is getting a huge bang for their buck.

Rioja is Spain's leading wine region, predominately for red wines. The region gets its name from the river Oja, a tributary of the Ebro. Viticulture dates back to Roman times and continued even during Moorish occupation. The Phoenicians and Celtiberans ruled the area in the ninth century and lead the recognition of the wines by the poet Gonzalo de Berceo. Wines made during this time were thought to be mostly light, with very little character, most likely a blend of Basque origin grapes. After the Christian reconquest, the production increased to provide enough for pilgrims that traveled through the region on their way to Santiago de Compostela. 

One of the first mentions of the tempranillo grape was under the synonym "Aragonés" in 1513 for wines made in that region; however, the kingdom of Aragón traditionally makes wines from a blend of garnacha and tempranillo.

The most reliable mention of tempranillo is from 1807 as it was praised in Logroño in La Rioja and in Peralta in Navarra. The grape gets its name from the Spanish word "temprano" as it ripens earlier than garnacha and mazuelo. Another hypothesis is that it came from Burgundy by Cistercian monks; however, DNA analysis repudiates this theory. 

We must also remember the unrest in Europe in the late 1700's: France was revolting against their king, American colonies were revolting against England, and the Spanish colonies in the Americas soon followed suit. While trade continued, barrels were used to transport sugar, flour, rum and other goods, and Spain soon acquired the taste (and price) of American oak barrels. France is still the number one customer of their own oak forests and hoarded their prized coopers for the famous Châteaux.

France was then hit really hard by the arrival of powdery mildew in the 1840's, and devastated again by phylloxera in the late 1860's. English merchants needed to fill their wine orders and looked across the Pyrenees  to the south.

El Marqués de Murrieta

El Marqués de Murrieta

The modern history of Rioja wines is credited to Luciano de Murrieta (subsequently the Marqués de Murrieta) who traveled to Bordeaux and returned to establish the first commercial bodega in 1852. The new King of Spain, Amadeo de Saboya, granted him the Marqués title and praised him for making wines like the Médoc. The 1855 classification of Bordeaux had inspired many other red winemaking regions around the world to produce similar style wines. 

A newly improved style of winemaking was lead by producers like the Marqués de Riscal, López de Heredia, CVNE (Compañía Vinícola de Norte de España), and La Rioja Alta, all of which were heavily influenced by the French. During this period the practice of using more barricas bordelesas in Rioja was becoming more popular amongst these producers. Not everyone was quick to apply the costly practice of aging wines in small oak casks, which seemed a nuisance and non-traditional.

Founders of CVNE, brothers Raimundo and Eusebio Real de Asúa

Founders of CVNE, brothers Raimundo and Eusebio Real de Asúa

The Duque de Vitoria began exporting the wines to Spanish colonies and England, and other merchants continued, perhaps with lesser quality wines that demanded the need for better control. The Consejo Reguladores were established around Spain to govern their respective regional wines, styles, grapes and winemaking. 

Harvest in Rioja in the 1920's

Harvest in Rioja in the 1920's

When phylloxera finally arrived in Rioja in 1901, France's production had already begun to bounce back after grafting American vines. The Great War, Civil War and Second World War lead to the further decline of Rioja. Recovery came in the 1960's with the support of multinational companies and foreign export. New French oak was introduced in the 1970's by the Marqués de Cácares, together with improved viticultural practices: Temperature control, stainless steel tanks, and less oxidative aging were being adapted by the modern winemakers.

The traditional aging of Rioja wines is characterized by the long time spent in barrels and bottle before sale. Gran Reservas, usually specially selected wines from the best vintages, must spend a minimum of five years aging before they go on sale. Few producers who embraced a modern style will even forgo the aging designations of "Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva" to appeal to younger wine drinkers.

Rioja lies at a latitude of 42° and an average altitude in the Rioja Alta of 1500 feet.

Overview of Rioja wine region and river Ebro.

The proximity to the Bay of Biscay in the north provides a strong Atlantic Ocean influence, while The Sierra de Cantabria mountains can provide some shelter and altitude for a continental climate. The region of Rioja Baja in the south receives warmer air currents from the Mediterranean sea.

All of this provides suitable conditions to grow a variety of red and white grapes. Sunny and dry summers, sufficient rain and a moderate temperature are challenged only by some frost in the spring. Vintages can vary, however in recent years, producers are blessed with more consistent results in a decade.

Rioja subregions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja



The most important grape is the fruity Tempranillo with its fine tannins and outstanding aging capacity. It is considered one of Spains most noble grapes. It accounts for 81% of plantings and is indigenous to the  region, it's DNA relation to Albillo Mayor from Ribera del Duero. Aromas of strawberry, cherry and tanned leather when aged.

Synonyms: Tinta Roriz, Aragónes, Tinto Fino, Tinto del Pais, Ull de Llebr

Garnacha tinta, supplements the wines with some color and body but has moderate acidity,  and is not widely planted with a total of 8,3 % plantinged. Known in France as Grenache and wildly popular in other areas of Spain for it's plum, peppery spice and old vines.  Good in warmer, sandier soils. Preferred for rosés and blends.

The  grape varieties permitted by the DO include Graciano which adds acidity; Mazuelo, also known as Cariñena, and Maturana tinta, Maturana Parda and Monastrel. These are rarely used in the higher end wines and are continuing to see a decline in plantings.

Before Phylloxera arrived, the Malvasia grape dominated White Rioja.  The grape produced rich, alcoholic wines that could sustain oak aging. The 1960’s saw the increase of Viura plantings all over Spain, in favor of crisper, lighter wines.

Today the blend is usually dominated by Viura, also known as Macabeo, Malvasia for oak aged styles, and Garnacha blanca in small doses. Other grapes permitted include Tempranillo blanco, Maturana Blanco, Verdelho and Turruntés de Rioja. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc may be used and will consequently produce a more international style. I prefer the wines made by the indigenous varieties.

Learn more about these grapes here: 


tenzing Rioja Producers:


CVNE (Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España) is one of the most renowned and historic bodegas in all of Spain. Founded in 1879 by the Real de Asúa brothers, Eusebio and Raimundo, the company has been an integral part of the Rioja region’s ascendance in the world of fine wine. With their combination of traditional roots and innovative vision, CVNE has been one of Rioja’s most reliable sources for high quality wine. The company is still run by descendants of the Real de Asúa brothers, now represented by the fifth generation with current CEO Victor Urrutia Ybarra.


Viña Real

Viña Real, CVNE's Rioja Alavesa-based winery, released its first vintage in 1920. The Viña Real style is one that showcases the forward fruit of Alavesa while simultaneously possessing the structure to age for half a century and more. The original fruit source was in the Elciego area, in the heart of Rioja Alavesa. Those vineyards were located adjacent to the old Camino Real, from which the wine takes its name.  Nowadays, the grapes are principally sourced from sunny south-facing slopes which run from the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range down to the Ebro River. As is also the case with the Cune line, the Viña Real wines are produced from over 50% estate fruit, an unusually high percentage for Rioja. 

The new Viña Real facility was completed in 2004 from a design by the Bordelaise architect Philippe Mazieres. The winery is situated on top of the hill known as Cerro de la Mesa and commands sweeping views of both the Alavesa vineyards and the town of Logroño, Rioja’s commercial center. The heart of the facility is a huge circular chamber which, when viewed from the outside, resembles the upper portion of a giant wine barrel.  Inside, the facility is a marvel of modern technology.  The above- ground portion houses the winemaking facility, which was designed with the goal of complete reliance on gravity-flow, made possible in large part by a rotating central crane.  Below this is the main ageing room where the barrels rest in concentric circles around the central axis. The facility also features twin tunnels dug into the center of the hill where the bottle ageing takes place. 

If the Cune bodega represents CVNE’s commitment to tradition, the Viña Real bodega demonstrates their forward-thinking philosophy and their embrace of modern technology.


Viña Herminia

Located in Aldea Nueva de Ebro, the vines of Bode­gas Viña Herminia are spread over the Monte Yerga hillside, an area that has been a very important oenological discovery due to the peculiarity of its climate and its root stocks, from which we obtain wines of high quality, intense color and modern character.




Rothschild and Vega Sicilia’s general manager Pablo Alvarez own 75 hectares of 30-40-year-old vineyards in the Rioja Alta village of San Vicente de la Sonsierra.

Named after the colloquial word for the inhabitants of the village, Macan will launch across Europe next month and will go on sale in the US in May.

The style of the wines is a midpoint between traditional Rioja and the riper, more concentrated “alta expresion” Riojas that have emerged more recently.


Bodegas Obalo sits on a vantage point near Ábalos, and from this point the building shows off the sleek elegance of its structure and form. The winery is located in a small part of Rioja called The Sonsierra. With its hilly terrain (550 mts / above see level), there are numerous small vineyards that are often owned by single families that have carved out terraces from the foothills of the Sierra Cantabria right down to the left bank of the river Ebro. 
In the settings surrounding Bodegas Obalo there are small plots of vineyards, sometimes hidden. 
The clay-limestone composition of the soils helps to alleviate the effect of the summer rains on the grapes, specifically allowing the grapes to maintain their size. These soils grant the grapes a delicate aroma and smoothness, despite posing challenges in terms of vineyard management.  At the same time, they are poor in organic matter and nutrients suitable for growing vines. Here, grapes are selected with patience.


Bodegas Ontañon

Bodega Ontañón is a multi-generational, family-owned winery located in Rioja baja. 
Our 250 hectares (ca.620 acres) of vineyard land sit high in the Sierra Yerga Mountains outside of the township of Quel, which has been one of Rioja’s outstanding winemaking centers for three centuries. We take great pride in maintaining these vineyards in the most sustainable manner possible, as it is our land that supports our family tradition in wine. “Passion for the vine, passion for wine and passion for art” is our motto, as we believe that each of these elements contributes to the human experience and illustrates the vital connection of the land to people and culture.