Rioja wine region

Sprawling for 120km along both sides of the bank of the Ebro river in northern Spain, Rioja’s name is derived from a combination of the words Rio (river) and Oja, the name of a tributary of the Ebro.  The Ebro has its source in the Cantabrian Mountains less than 40km from the Bay of Biscay, but it turns its back on the Atlantic and instead flows 930km east-south-east across northern Spain to the Mediterranean.
Rioja is the name of the wine; La Rioja is the name of the region, which is divided into three distinct sub-regions as one follows the Ebro downstream: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja.  The climate varies considerably; the highest vineyards in the west are almost 800m up and receive 500mm of rainfall a year, while the lowest in the east are at 300m and much dryer, with just 300mm.
Although Rioja Alta extends further east, Rioja Alavesa runs parallel with it, occupying the north bank of the Ebro while the south bank is part of Rioja Alta.  The two have similar clay on limestone soils and a broadly similar climate; their differences are largely administrative and cultural, with Alavesa being part of the Basque Country.
Rioja Baja is warmer and dryer, with fertile alluvial soils composed largely of silt.  Its wines are often much higher in alcohol, and are used to add colour and strength to blends with the pale, fragrant wines produced further upstream.
Tempranillo is the main black grape variety (over 75% of vineyard area) but is almost always blended, usually with Garnacha and often with Graciano and Mazuelo (Carignan) as well.  The rather less well-known white Rioja is mostly based on Viura (Macabeo), with Malvasía and Garnacha Blanca playing supporting roles.
Rioja is classified according to how long the wine has been aged: Crianza wines must be aged for a minimum of 2 years, one of which must be in oak; Reservas must be aged for at least 3 years, one of which must be in oak; and Gran Reservas, which are usually only produced in the best vintages, can only be released after ageing for 5 years, 3 of which must be in oak.
The oak barrels must be small 225hl Bordeaux barriques, though in Rioja they are not usually made from French oak but from (much cheaper) American oak, which imparts more obvious vanilla flavours to the wine.

Decanting Club wines from: Rioja

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