Many a good story has been found in the bottom of a decent Rioja.

(Ken Scott)

The official Spanish denomination of Rioja wine (Denominacion de Origen Rioja) is a name, recognized worldwide for its history, experience and tradition. Wines from northern Spain are among the best alcohol beverages and Rioja is one of the leading brands on the market with more than 15.000 vineyards and the largest stock of barrels in the world. Spain has a unique lifestyle with a breezy, natural manner of knowing how to enjoy life. Intrinsically, Rioja wines offer and evoke each of these attributes in every sip. Historically, wine-making in Spain aims to represent the most characteristic quality of the country and the general sociability of the nation.

Travelling the Camino

Spain’s premier wine-producing region has an extremely old record. As it is typical in Europe, Rioja’s wine history was profoundly influenced by Roman settlers in the Middle Ages. Unlike many other European terroirs Rioja’s history is directly predisposed by winemakers in France, specifically by Bordeaux artisans. In the Middle Ages, pilgrims from southern France traversed Rioja on their way to the Shrine of James in Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrims were offered wine while they stayed in the monasteries located along the Camino. Thus, visitors would be the first marketers to promote the name Rioja wines when they were back to their homes. In the late 1700s, wine-makers in Rioja began to use small French oak barrels to age their product. This Bordeaux-type ageing was hugely profitable and persuaded many other artisans to exploit this method.

Beginning in the latter half of 1800s, Rioja faced an amazing growth in its wine industry, though this was, sadly, at the expense of their French counterparts. In the 1850s and 1860s, French vineyards were almost ruined first by oidium (a parasitic fungus), and then by phylloxera epidemic (insect pest of grapevines). In response to the French passion and market demand for spirits, export from Rioja sky-rocketed in several months. Many French wine merchants who travelled to Rioja ended up staying in the region, introducing their own wineries. This further elevated the French influence on Rioja wine-making style.

Regrettably, Rioja was ravaged by phylloxera in the early 1900s. By this time, French grape growers had already replanted their vineyards using special extra-resistant to the pest. The Rioja wine industry was devastated and many Bordeaux growers returned to their native valleys. Yet, the early 20th century neither was a good time for Spanish winemakers. Phylloxera incursion, WWI, the Spanish Civil War, the Great Depression and finally WWII had had a pernicious effect on all steps of wine-making in the region. Thankfully, Rioja stepped into a second Renaissance period in the 1970s, and until now the region’s wine making is steeped massively in the French approach. Nevertheless, nova days, Rioja produces some of the world’s best red wine by combining their own authentic style with a hefty pinch of French influence.

Classification system of red Rioja

Located in north-central Spain, this site is treated as one of the most famous red still wine regions of the world. Undoubtedly, when you call for "any red from Spain", anyone will suggest Rioja.

This terroir can be classified by its three official subzones: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Oriental (aka Eastern Rioja – originally called Rioja Baja.) Most of the wine guides may advice that Alta and Alavesa produce the best ones, but that is not always an axiom.

Normally, Rioja is made from a blend of grape varieties, with Tempranillo keeping the dominant note. Wine from Rioja is known for its structure and tannins, that is why pretty strong Tempranillo is the most significant grape type, like a heart of best wines. Garnacha is typically included in the blend to keep up some fruitiness, Mazuelo grape (also known as Cariñena) and Graciano may also be added for pronounced acidity. DOCa Rioja wines can also be blended with grapes grown in two or more zones, although single-zone wines are becoming more and more trendy.

As the spirits of other Iberian regions, Rioja wines have long been classified basing on their ageing times, which has made sense given the amazingly long and vibrant shelf-lives of many of this region’s famous Reserva and Gran Reserva wines. In 1926 Rioja founded the first Regulating Board (Consejo Regulador) and was the first Spanish wine to obtain DOC status. The regulations govern quality control in all wine-making processes, from viniculture to bottling, but the most essential for normal wine lovers (like me and you), are the rules specifying oak-ageing.

However, for the past couple of years, the new scheme moves away from ageing as the primary indication of quality. Instead, wineries are encouraged to promote regional micro-climates and singular unique vineyards. Now Rioja makers are allowed to add the name of the village or municipality to the front label. That is to say, do not try to memorize all the municipality names – there are 145 of them in Rioja province.

Ageing classification still operates the same levels of Generic, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva Rioja wines, but there was also added Gran Añada mark, which can be used for 36-months old sparkling wine.

Generic, or Joven wines do not obtain rigorous ageing requirements. Expect these lively bright wines to use minimal oak-ageing and have a pretty succulent style. In the past, this was the lowest quality indication for Rioja. It is great as a sipping summery wine (you drink it while cooking dinner) and as a barbecue partner; good for red sangria and marinades, cause strawberry and cherry aromas match perfectly. Pair with different light tapas, beef or turkey chili, Chinese food, vegetable curry.

Crianza is perhaps the most attainable level of Rioja, the everyday wine available everywhere in Spain. Increased ageing allows Tempranillo-based wines to develop more complexity and enrichment. Expect bright fruity flavours with exquisite spicy tones. Crianza is applied to wines which mature for at least two years at the winery (partly in oak barrels, partly in bottles) before being released to the market. A typical Crianza is a blend of mostly Tempranillo (60%) with some Garnacha (40%) for a higher tannin level. An excellent partner for aged salty sheep’s milk cheeses like Manchego semicurago, or curado, acting like a spread of berry jam on top of buttery, slightly savory slices. Both Crianza and Reserva, which can show significant secondary or tertiary wine notes, pair very well with a hearty vegetable stew or red grilled or braised meat.

Becoming Reserva, it starts to grow into more backbone, full-bodied Rioja wine with a complex of rich flavours of dark berries, plums, tobacco, and herbs. Reserva typically has marvellous balance between fruit and structure (tannin and acidity), with subtle aged flavours of baking spice and dried fruit. This is one of those bottles you must try ageing in a cellar once, if possible, to see how it matures over time. Reserva spends one year in oak barrel and two in bottle usually. Works ideally with shellfish paella, roasted leg of lamb, mushroom risotto, lamb tagine, grilled spicy chorizos, barbecued beef, ratatouille niçoise, Moo Shu pork (or chicken).

Gran Reserva wines are usually made in the best vintages where the grape quality is rich enough to support two years in oak barrel and three in bottle. Wines of superlative elegance and finesse, punchy Gran Reserva should be a wine, which persists and stays in your mouth for a long time. Very sophisticated, so-called tertiary flavours that are the original symbols of the Old World style: cigar box, leather, wet earth, truffles, and faded flowers.

It is a special occasion wine indeed. Excellent with winter hot chestnut soups, bœuf Bourgignon and intense stews, duck confit and sautées mushrooms. Particularly good with wildfowl, like roasted pheasant lamb and smelly matured blue cheeses.

Batalla de vino

In case you do not have vacation ideas for the last week of June you may consider being in Haro around those days. Haro, a remarkable wine-producing town, is many times referred to as Rioja’s wine centre.

Every summer a very eccentric battle takes place in Haro: Batalla de Vino. Before paying attention to the history behind this battle we can sum up its objectives, which is no other but to find wine and throw it into somebody else. Thousands of people, with whatever wine "weapon" they may find, join this wine fighting for a few hours. The day chosen for such activity is June 29th. This Fiesta is also considered a National Tourist Interest Day. In case you were interested to visit Haro around those days, you would better book accommodation well in advance.

The wine war was initiated as part of a Romería to an Abbey located where the war takes place. A Romeria, or pilgrimage consists of a group of pilgrims, or religious travellers that spend a day in a church or Abbey. They walk to the destination and then spend the day there. Today, in Haro one can find strong evidences of wine war that took place yet at the end of the XIX century.

The first written indications of the Batalla del vino are referred to 1949. Once the mess was finished, the battle started. In 1976 the number of people that participated grew dramatically, thus the decision was taken to move the location of the action. Just because It’s messy, wet, hot and sticky but undoubtedly exuberant, weird, juvenile and magnificent.

Traditionally, everyone is supposed to be wearing white shirts with a red scarf. Once everybody has arrived, the city banner is unfurled on the highest rock, which shows the beginning of the action. All "weapons" are allowed during this outrageous battle: buckets, wineskin, sprayers and anything else that can be used to hurl, spray or launch thousands of litres of wine all over the crowd. Since 2004 more activities have been added to the wine war, for instance: after battling for some hours, around midday everyone heads back to Plaza de la Paz, where the celebration continues with lots of local food, drinks and fun. Later in the evening, activities take place at the town’s corrida arena. Bulls at this part of "war" were never been killed.