(Pronounced ‘Ree-ock-ha’ stressing ‘ock’) This region is in the north-west of Spain and takes its name from the Rio Oja, a tributary of the Ebro. Its wines have been recorded as providing quality since the 12th century and it is possible that they crossed the Atlantic with Columbus in 1492, because one of his colleagues was a Rioja man. Controls on the making and keeping of the wines have a long tradition: in 1635 wheeled traffic was prohibited in Haro (one of the main centres), for fear of disturbing the wine lying in the cellars below the streets. Logrono is the other. In the 19th century, many Rioja red wines were sent into France, to add colour and body to such wines as might be lacking in these attributes, and also to fulfil the demand for wines non-existent since the devastation of the Phylloxera plague.
There are three main regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. A variety of grapes are cultivated, the main black grapes being Garnacho, Tempranillo, Graciano and Mazuelo; the white grapes are mainly Malvasia, white Garnacho, Calagrano and Viura. Each grape contributes a different attribute to the wine and each of the three main regions will make a style of wine individual to its area. The wines vary enormously, according to the regions in which they are made, the proportion of grapes used (there are a huge range of possible combinations) and the style of winemaking. This last has been subjected to many changes and alterations in recent times, because it is the aim of the Rioja firms – many of whom belong to other huge Spanish wine establishments – to popularise their wines on export markets.
In former times, Rioja wines (the whites as well as the reds) were kept in wooden casks for several years, sometimes for as long as 6 years, before being bottled. A few wineries still make some of their wines like this, but others, influenced by the taste of export markets and the effect of modern technicians brought in to achieve wines of wide appeal, may only allow the wines to remain in wood a couple of years. As will be appreciated, the time a wine has spent in wood radically affects its flavour. The ‘woodiness’, resulting from long maturation in casks, is something – as far as the red wines are concerned – that some people find attractive and others do not: it is certainly quite different from the flavour of other red wines. The white wines may also be in wood for longer than many made today, when crispness is high in the list of qualities for white wines. The pink or rose wines are, generally, rather full and ‘warm’ in style.
It is fair to say that, as made nowadays with the utilisation of many of the most modern methods, some Riojas appear to have lost much of their individuality and provide merely adequate drinking; others retain their definite style, whether this is liked or not. It is therefore very difficult to generalise, as the numerous bodegas all follow procedures thought advisable, either to retain characteristics liked in markets already established or to adapt the wines made to the tastes which skilful marketing may have created. There are certainly some Rioja wines that do possess individuality and quality to a marked extent, although others have often seemed to me to be insipid and hardly worth drinking.
The produce of the different bodegas must be sampled in order for the drinker to decide, but it should be stressed that the very cheap versions of Rioja wines are unlikely to be more than adequate. Quality, as with other wines, inevitably costs more in terms of selection, skill in handling and time in maturation. In view of the attempts made by many bodegas to modify traditional styles so as to appeal to a wide public, it should be emphasised that good Rioja simply cannot be likened to any other classic wine and certainly not claret or red Burgundy. The best Riojas. Both white and red, are wholly individual and definite in character and merit appraisal in their own right.