The Spanish wine region has a long history of wine production. Moreover, Spain is an important player on the world wine stage. Viticulture goes back millennia in Spain. Phoenician and Greek settlers transported grapevines to their colonies along the coast of the Iberian Peninsula. The grape came relatively late to the inland areas. By the mid 19th century a number of local wine producers had already begun visiting France and learning from French winemakers in an effort to improve the quality of local wines.
Rioja is likely to be Spain’s most famous wine region. Most of the wine region of Rioja is located in a portion of the Spanish province of La Rioja in north-central Spain. This well-known wine region is essentially a portion of the valley of the Ebro River. Thanks to its inland location the climate of Rioja is best described as continental with a Mediterranean influence. It helps take the edge off the extremes of temperature.
With so many available grapes to work with it should come as no surprise that Rioja tends to pretty overwhelmingly to be blends. It’s not just different varietals that get blended but there’s a strong tradition of combining grapes from the three different sub-areas of the region:
- Rioja Baja (lower Rioja, a hot and dry low-lying flat area)
- Rioja Alta (upper Rioja, a hillier, cooler climate area)
- and Rioja Alavesa.
We should talk about one interesting aspect of quality designation in Spain and that’s aging. In both Italy and Spain, aging has linked the quality of wine and are strictly regulated. In Spain, the system is nationwide as opposed to Italy where the individual areas set the aging requirement. The system is fairly elaborate. There are two parallel systems in place.
PGI and PDO
One that can be used by both PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) and PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) level wines and one that is exclusively for PDO level wines. A wine is designated as either ‘vino noble’ (noble wine), ‘vino anejo’ (aged wine), or ‘vino viejo’ (old wine). It depends on how much time has allowed to age either in barrel or bottle. In the case of wines designated as ‘vino viejo’ there’s an additional component to the aging that must take place in an oxidative environment. In this environment, the wine exposed to air, heat, or light or some combination of the three. This last category is most closely associated with wine production in the Condado de Huelva. It’s a region of southern Spain where there’s a tradition of producing wines made in an oxidative style.
For the PDO-Only System, the rules also specify a three-tiered system: ‘crianza’, ‘reserva’ and ‘gran reserva’. But get more elaborate in that they specify a minimum time that aging must take place in oak and then a total overall aging minimum that can be completed in the bottle.
Red wines made in Rioja and Ribera del Duero have a slightly different aging protocol which just bumps up the minimum in oak for ‘crianza’ and ‘gran reserva’ by six months.