Rioja: The Confluence of Tradition & Modernity

Posted on Jan 21, 2021

The #WorldWineTravel group is kicking off 2021 by virtually exploring the world of wine, one country or region at a time. This month features one of our favourite regions of all, Rioja. We’ve been lucky enough to visit twice and we can’t wait to return once we can travel overseas again. Our submission is a primer aimed at providing a background on the region’s history, geography, climate, sub-regions, and styles of winemaking. To read the other articles related to this month’s topic, please refer to the links at the end of this article.

Valpiedra Winery

View of the Ebro River at Valpiedra Winery.

Rioja is Spain’s best known wine region. It occupies 63,593 Ha along both sides of the Ebro River in Northeastern Spain, spanning 100 km between the towns of Haro and Alfaro. The Rio Oja, a tributary of the Ebro, is where the region takes its name. Rioja is Spain’s oldest Denominacion de Origen (D.O.), the Spanish equivalent of a viticultural region, having earned the designation in 1926. In 1991 it earned the highest designation of Calificada (D.O.Ca.), and remains only one of two region in Spain to hold this designation alongside Priorat. It produces both red and white wines though over 90% of the production is red. Over 600 bodegas (wineries) call Rioja home. As a region it is capable of producing excellent wines, not just in the premium category, but it also can produce some incredible bargains.


Like many European wine regions, Rioja’s history dates back to Medieval times.


The family Chapel at Remelluri Winery

Monasteries and Abbeys were the chief proponents of wine’s development throughout Europe and Rioja was no exception. The monks there built a reputation for producing quality wine and it was shipped all over the country. In 1650, the first document to protect the quality of Rioja wines was drawn up. In 1790, at the inaugural meeting of the Real Sociedad Económica de Cosecheros de La Rioja (Royal Economic Society of Rioja Winegrowers), plans were laid to create adequate transportation to and from the region to develop its commercialization. The Society was established to promote the cultivation and commercialisation of Rioja wines and 52 Rioja localities participated.

The move to producing more premium wines began in the mid 1800s when Luciano Murrietta began making wines in the area utilizing techniques that he learned in Bordeaux.

Marques de Riscal

The Frank Gehry designed hotel at Marques de Riscal.

Marques de Riscal set up an eponymous bodega around this time as well. This was a pivotal point in the development of quality wine in Rioja. As the focus on quality increased, so did the institutions surrounding the region. In 1892 the Viniculture and Enology Station of Haro was established to maintain quality control. The region was delimited by Royal Decree in 1902.

The establishment of the D.O. in 1926 gave rise to the quality hierarchy that remains within the region. Wines are separated into four categories:

Joven: Spanish for “young” and often just labeled as Rioja, it spends less than one year in barrel.

Crianza: these wines are aged for a minimum of two years, of which at least one must be in oak.

Reserva: aged for at least three years, at least one must be in oak.

Gran Reserva: must be aged for at least two years in oak and three years in bottle.

The use of oak barrels and long ageing are clearly hallmarks of Spanish winemaking. However, we think that establishing a hierarchy of quality based solely upon ageing and time in oak to be quite limiting. We would like to see the inclusion of aspects of the quality of terroir join the criteria, as is done in France through their Cru system where the best vineyards are awarded  Grand Cru or First Growth status, and so on down the line.

Geography, Soil and Climate

Rioja enjoys a continental climate which means hot summers and cold winters.

Navaridas spain la rioja alavesa

The stunning region of La Rioja Alavesa.

Just to its north are the Cantabrian Mountains which shield the region from the tempering influence of the bay of Biscayne. Rioja enjoys a moderately high elevation of around 500 metres above sea level. It receives only about 40 to 50 centimetres of rainfall per year. Summer temperatures can approach 40 degrees C so drought can be a concern.  Soils are clay based with concentrations of limestone and sandstone accompanied by iron and chalk. The valley floor tends to have greater concentrations of limestone and sandstone while the hillsides offer more iron and chalk. This gives vintners the opportunity to blend from different sub-regions to create their own special interpretation of the region. These are poor soils that cause the vines to struggle to produce their fruit, yielding small berries of great flavour concentration.

The D.O.Ca. is divided into three sub-regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja.

Sub regions

Rioja Alta lies to the west and can produce from very smooth fruit driven wines.

Rioja Alavesa which sits just across the river has even poorer soils that produce fuller bodied wines with more structure.

Rioja Baja is the driest and warmest sub-region. The quality of its wines are generally seen as just below that of the other two regions.

Grapes and Winemaking

Rioja produces red, white and rose wines, but it is the red wines that dominate, compromising 85% of production.


Tempranillo Grapes

Tempranillo is the dominant grape of the region. Fans of Tempranillo (and you can include us in that group) love its combination of serious structure combined with gorgeous red fruit (think cherry and raspberry). It is sometimes compared to a hypothetical cross between Cabernet Sauvignon (for structural characteristics) and Grenache or Pinot Noir (for red fruit characteristics). The Tempranillo always dominates the blend and will occupy 60% – 90% of the blend. The balance will be small amounts of Mazuela, Graciano, Garnacha (the Spanish term for Grenache) and Maturana Tinta. White wine is also produced in Rioja, but in quite limited quantities. Grapes used for the whites are Viura, Malvasia, Garnacha Blanca, Tempranillo Blanca, Maturana Blanca, Turrentes, Verdejo, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

The state-of-the-art facilities at Roda.

Rioja can be divided into two different styles: traditional and modern. Traditional Rioja is relatively light. It is picked early at a relatively low brix and will often possess a bracing acidity. Macerations are relatively short. It has medium or less body, is light red in colour, and translucent and can be compared in those regards to Pinot Noir. Also similar to Pinot, the dominant fruit characteristic of traditional Rioja is cherry. However, in a blind tasting the two can easily be told apart. Rioja will impart a tobacco and sometimes a leather note that you will not detect in Pinot Noir. Pinot can be overtly cherry flavoured but Rioja will usually take on raspberry notes as well. While Rioja can have a marvelous texture, it seldom achieves that surreal silkiness that is the hallmark of great Pinot. In short, there are differences and similarities too.

Rioja Spain

Exploring the cellar at Lopez de Heredia.

Traditional Rioja has always embraced long ageing, and much of that time will be spent in oak barrels. In its earliest days, French oak, largely due to its proximity was material of choice. But as French oak began to increase in price, American oak became an economical alternative. Many winemakers grew to prefer the American oak after time as its wider grain could have more influence on the wine than the French oak. Astute tasters would also notice a hint of coconut to go along with the traditional vanilla notes of French oak which gave an added dimension of complexity. For a time American oak became the barrel of choice but in recent times there seems to be a trend towards using both French and American with no real dominance. Used barrels are definitely the choice of the traditionalists. Subtlety, complexity and elegance are the holy grails that traditional Rioja winemakers shoot for. Traditional Rioja wineries would include Lopez de Heredia, La Rioja Alta, C.V.N.E., and Marques de Murrietta.

There does exist a modern style of Rioja as well. But it needs to be understood that separating the traditional style from the modern style is a useful tool in explaining the variety of wines from within the region, it is not some wide chasm with producers staunchly on one side or the other. Every modernist is respectful of tradition and every traditionalist wants to also benefit from modern advancements. It harkens back to the saying, “all tradition was once innovation”.

Rioja Spain

The tasting room view at Luis Canas.

Stylistically the modernists have sought to create darker and more extracted wines that that possess fuller body and have a bold, fruit-forward style. New French oak barrels are often employed, the newness allowing for less time in the barrel. The result was to present the consumer with a bolder, richer style of wine that could reward earlier consumption. Modernists also tend to favour expressions of a single vineyard over blending. As we toured through the region for a week this September, we met and tasted with winemakers that fall in both the traditional and the modern camps. We did not hear anyone express a slavish adherence to one style nor be disparaging of another style. As a country, Spain has shown great respect for tradition while at the same time embracing the modern. A look at the country’s architecture will quickly confirm that. While two distinct styles of wines are produced in Rioja, they seem to similarly co-exist. Some of the more modern bodegas in Rioja include Ramirez de Ganuza and Roda. A good example of a winery embracing the old and the new is Luis Canas.

Best recent vintages have been 2010, 2009, 2005, 2004 and 2001. While we were there, the winemakers were expressing considerable enthusiasm about both 2015 and 2016.

Rioja Spain

Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia

One final word on the wines from Rioja: they can offer some of the world’s greatest wine bargains. It is extremely rare to encounter a wine there for over €100. Yet the top wines from Rioja have frequently received very high scores from the mainstream wine press. But when we were there we tasted many very good to excellent wines in the value bracket, often sold at retail for less than €10. There is reasonably broad distribution of these wines in North America, and not at unreasonable mark ups.

Rioja is an exciting wine region, offering great value for the quality received. The co-existence of the traditional with the modern means consumers have a choice of wine styles. These are exciting times for a region that is clearly at the top of its game.

More Articles on Rioja from #WorldWineTravel

  • Andrea at The Quirky Cork shares “Marqués de Cáceres Crianza with Chorizo Sweet Potato Pockets”
  • Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm shares “Mexican Ham Soup and a Spanish Rioja Wine”
  • Camilla at Culinary Adventures with Camilla shares “Catalan Coques + La Rioja Alta Viña Arana Rioja Gran Reserva 2014”
  • Steve at Children of the Grape shares “Tasting Rioja With Aging Eyes”
  • Robin at Crushed Grape Chronicles shares “Viura – There is more to Rioja than Tempranillo”
  • David at Cooking Chat shares “White Bean Stew with Sausage and a Rioja”
  • Lynn at Savor the Harvest shares “Revisiting Rioja: Vinedos Singulares with Bodegas Ontañon”
  • Nicole at Somms Table shares “One Day in Haro”
  • Lauren at The Swirling Dervish shares “White Rioja: There’s a Style for Every Palate”
  • Linda at My Full Wine Glass shares “Classic Rioja Alta to kick off virtual trip to Spain”
  • Terri at Our Good Life shares “Our First Rioja with Assorted Easy Tapas”
  • Marcia at Joy of Wine shares “White Rioja: Taste and See What You’re Missing”
  • Susannah at Avvinare shares “Exploring Legendary Winery Marqués de Riscal”
  • Gwendolyn at Wine Predator shares “Regional Rioja: Tempranillo, Viura, Rosado paired with hearty soup, salad, lamb, papas frites”
  • Jeff at Food Wine Click! shares “Rioja Oriental – A Cinderella Story”



    Whoa! A great introduction to Rioja. And your love for the Region shines through. I tend to prefer the traditional styles because the aging is done for you!

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    • Great point lol! We love the wines and the region so much, we’d be hard pressed to choose between them. We think more ‘research’ preferably in person is required!

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    Great overview of the region, enhanced by your own visits & videos!

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    • Thank you David, it was fun to revisit through memory but we can’t wait to return.

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    A great overview of Rioja, and it’s great that you spotlighted the tradionalist vs modernist split. And it looks like you’re getting your wish ” tosee the inclusion of aspects of the quality of terroir join the criteria,” that I’m sure many of share, with the new regulations.

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    Thanks for this excellent primer on La Rioja. I have a better understanding now for the tension between tradition and modernity. Will be interesting to watch Rioja as more wineries embrace modernist trends.

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    • Thank you for taking the time to read. Visiting in person and seeing the techniques side by side really demonstrates this convergence well.

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    Learning the history of a region adds so much enjoyment to the drinking of its wines. Thanks for providing some local color to enhance my next glass of Rioja!

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    • Agreed! And even better when you can also sip and re-live memories…we hope you have a chance to get there some day, a truly magical place.

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    Interesting to point out the traditionalists versus modernists and their respect for each other. Betting it was the modernists who pushed for regulation changes to acknowledge “…expressions of a single vineyard over blending.” Nice article you two!

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    • Thank you Lynn! We suspect you’re right after reading your article…will be keeping an eye on this new regulation and hope it benefits the region further.

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    What great insights on all the details and history of this wine region. So thorough! We do we go?

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    • As soon as possible…likely the perfect meeting place for our first bottle together!

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    Thanks for all of the information about the regions and the aging designations. SO informative. Looking forward to reading more of your posts in the coming events. Cheers.

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    • Thank you and likewise…love the pairings and recipes you’ve been sharing. Cheers Camilla!

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    What a great overview of the history, soils, geography, wine styles…you hit on everything here!

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    • Thank you Andrea…it’s a region we’re very passionate about having been lucky enough to visit. If you haven’t been there, we hope you get the opportunity some day. Cheers!

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    Wow…tons of great information. Thanks so much for all your research and sharing it with us.

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    • It was our pleasure Wendy. We absolutely love the region and can’t wait to get back!

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    This is a great overview of Rioja Allison! And it brings back fond memories of our trip to Rioja in 2013!

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    • We hear you! We can’t wait to get back…thanks for reading!

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    You stated in your introduction that Rioja remains the only region in Spain to hold the DOCa designation, but in fact Priorat was elevated to DOCa designation as well, in 2003.

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    • Hi Jacques, thank you very much for catching this and bringing it to our attention. We have made the correction. Appreciate you reaching out, cheers!

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    • Thank you Lori! Coming from you that means a lot!

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  1. Revisiting Rioja: Viñedos Singulares with Bodegas Ontañon #WorldWineTravel - Savor the Harvest - […] Allison and Chris at Advinetures share Rioja: The Confluence of Tradition & Modernity. […]
  2. Viura - There is more to Rioja than Tempranillo #WorldWineTravel | Crushed Grape Chronicles - […] Allison and Chris at Advinetures share “Rioja: The Confluence of Tradition & Modernity” […]

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