Viticulture in Rioja pre-dates the Romans. Spain has more vines per acre than any other country, especially in Rioja, where life centres around the production of wine.
Bodegas with hundreds of years’ experience still challenge theories, search for new methods and try varying combinations. One reputable bodega in Elciego (The Blind) has even created a subterranean vineyard, where specially developed lighting and ambient sounds create an interesting new concept in viticulture.
One of the characteristics that sets Rioja wine apart is its excellent aptitude for ageing, a quality that is exclusive to great wines. Through appropriate ageing, in which oak wood plays a decisive role, Rioja wine evolves and its virtues become more prominent. Rioja wines are aged in 225-litre oak casks, where the wine experiences a slow evolutionary process of micro-oxygenation and stabilisation and eventually acquires aromas and flavours released by the tannins in the wood. This is the traditional ageing method of great wines – a natural, more costly process than modern "industrial" oenology. The ageing process is completed in the bottle, where the wine continues to evolve in a reducing atmosphere until it reaches its peak. Great wines from historic vintages sleep in bottles for decades in the "sacristies" of the bodegas, until they are transformed into true oenological gems.
Rioja has become famous for its full-bodied, rich and earthy wines. In particular, their capacity to age well allows their true characters to develop and define the essence of their virtue. Ageing can be carried out in both seasoned and un-seasoned wood, which allow new aromas and flavours to develop.
Rioja wines fall into one of four main categories:
Cosechera (Sin Crianza)
A fruity young wine, usually of the current year, with little, if any, wood ageing. This wine retains its grapeyness and is often enjoyed as a table wine.
This wine is at least three years old, of which at least one is spent in the barrel. For white Rioja wines, the minimum period in the barrel is six months.
Only the best vintage years are selected. The wines must be at least three years old and have spent a minimum of one year in the barrel. White reservas require at least two years of ageing, with at least six months in the barrel.
Again, only the best vintage years are selected. The wine must be at least five years old and have spent a minimum of two years in the barrel. For white wines, the requirement is at least four years of age, with at least one of these spent in the barrel.
Denominación de Origen Calificada (D.O.C)
This is the board responsible for upholding the standards of Rioja wines. The current system was established in 1970 as “The Regulations of the Designation of Origin and its Control Board”, and it has a clearly defined structure and responsibility: "The Control Board shall uphold the Designation of Origin and implement monitor and foster the quality of its wines."