Rioja is a wine, with Denominacion de Origen Calificada (Protected designation of origin), from a region named after the Rio Oja in Spain, a tributary of the Ebro. Rioja is made from grapes grown in the areas of La Rioja, Navarre and the Basque province of Alava. La Rioja is further subdivided into three zones Rioja Alavesa, Alta and Baja.
Located south of the Cantabrian Mountains, Rioja benefits from a continental climate. The mountains help to protect the vines from the fierce winds that are typical of northern Spain. Rioja wines are normally a blend of various grape varieties, and can be either red (tinto) of which 85% is red, white (blanco) or rosé (rosado). Among the Tintos, the best-known and most widely-used variety is Tempranillo.
Others include Garnacha Tinta, Graciano, and Mazuelo. A typical blend will consist of 60% Tempranillo, up to 20% Garnacha, with smaller proportions of Mazuelo and Graciano. Each grape adds a unique component; with Tempranillo contributing the main flavours and aging potential; Garnacha adding body and alcohol; Mazuelo adding seasoning flavours and Graciano adding aromas.
A characteristic of Rioja wine is the effect of oak aging, introduced in the early 18th century by Bordeaux influenced winemakers. In the past, it was not uncommon for some bodegas to age their red wines for 15-20 years or even more. Today most bodegas have shifted their winemaking focus to wines that are approachable sooner with the top wines typically aging for 4-8 years, though some still age longer.
Rioja reds are classified into four categories:
The first, simply labeled 'Rioja', is the youngest, spending less than a year in an oak. 'Crianza' is wine aged for at least two years, at least one year in oak.
'Rioja Reserva' is aged for at least three years, of which at least one year in oak.
Finally - 'Rioja Gran Reserva' wines have been aged at least two years in oak and three years in bottle. Reserva and Gran Reserva wines are not necessarily produced each year.