A trip to the Rioja Qualified Designation of Origin

A trip to the Rioja Qualified Designation of Origin

Today we are going to find out a little more about one of the five most important winegrowing regions in the world: The Rioja Qualified Designation of Origin.

Welcome to Rioja.

A paradise for vines

If you want to visit Rioja, I recommend approaching it through the Herrera pass (what a coincidence that this is also my first surname) and stopping at the viewpoint to gaze at the countryside spreading out below you.

From there we come into an amazing area. A paradise for vines.

That is why the Rioja Designation of Origin is the oldest in Spain.

This Designation of Origin is divided into 3 zones - Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental - which, in turn, are located in three Autonomous Regions: La Rioja, Euskadi and Navarra.

Rioja is the leader in Spain with more than 600 wineries, 14,800 winegrowers and the largest number of barrels in the world. It exports to 130 countries.

Its secret? A magnificent area just 115 kilometres long and between 40 and 60 kilometres wide, irrigated by the Ebro river.

Protected from the north winds by the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range and from the south winds by the Sierra de la Demanda, the weather is ideal for growing grapes.

The varied soil also helps make this ancient area a very fertile land.

The three main soil types are: calcareous clay, ferruginous clay and alluvium. In Rioja Alavesa, with its rugged relief, we normally find small vineyards, located on terraces and gentle slopes, with calcareous clay soils. Rioja Oriental is flatter, has larger vineyards and here alluvium soil is more common. Rioja Alta combines the characteristics of the other two areas, with all three soil types and varied microclimates.


A little history: dolmens, Romans, monks and the French

I refer to this land as ancient because there are many vestiges dating back to Neolithic times that are worth visiting, especially several very well-preserved dolmens and the town of La Hoya.

I don't want to bore you with too much history, but I do want to mention a few things that will help you understand this magical region.

The Romans were the first to discover the winegrowing potential of this land.

In the Middle Ages it continued to develop, protected by the monasteries. In San Millán de la Cogolla, Gonzalo de Berceo was the first poet to extol the wine in the Spanish language.

In 1787, two years before the French Revolution, the Royal Board of Winegrowers in Rioja was founded.

However, talking of France, the real growth in Rioja and its wine came with the arrival of the train and when phylloxera affected the vineyards in Bordeaux.

The French were forced to look for the best wines outside their lands, and many of them set their sights on Haro.

French winemakers and merchants established their facilities in the so-called Barrio de la Estación neighbourhood. From there they moved their wine by train to Bilbao; and from there, by sea to Bordeaux

In 1863 Haro became the wine capital and in 1890 it was the first Spanish city to have electricity, along with Jerez.

A couple of other important dates?

In 1925, Rioja became the first designation of origin in Spain and in 1991 it also became the first to obtain the status of “Qualified”, a distinction established by Spanish Law to recognise those designations of origin that meet certain control and quality requirements. Rioja was unique in having this distinction until the year 2000, when it was also granted to the Priorat Designation of Origin.

Long-established wineries looking to the future

As can logically be deduced from the history, the first great wineries were established in Haro: López de Heredia, Muga, Bodegas Bilbaínas, Rioja Alta...  centuries-old wineries with a great tradition.

However, the wineries of Rioja have adapted to modern times and continue to innovate.

The area stands out not only for its wines, but also architecturally, with the Marques de Riscal winery designed by Frank Gehry and the Ysios winery designed by Santiago Calatrava.

As we have seen before, in Rioja there are more than 600 wineries. So if you would like a guide to help plan a visit to them and discover what they have to offer, I can recommend a website that I really like:

Here, you will also find routes that take in vineyards, towns, museums and monuments ... and everything you could need to make your trip an unforgettable experience.

Rioja grapes

At another time we will talk specifically about vineyards and grapes, but for now I would like to talk about those used in Rioja.

The most common Rioja grapes are Tempranillo for red (87%) and Viura for white (70%).

The Regulations of the Designation of Origin determine the grape varieties that can be used in the production of Rioja wines, as well as the minimum and maximum percentages of each of these.

For decades there were only seven varieties authorized by the Regulatory Council: four red (tempranillo, garnacha, mazuelo and graciano) and three white (viura, malvasía and garnacha blanca). At the beginning of 2007, for the first time since it was established the Council approved the addition of new varieties.

Currently there are five red and nine white: tempranillo, garnacha, mazuelo, graciano and maturana tinta, on the one hand, and viura, malvasía, garnacha blanca, tempranillo blanco, maturana blanco, turruntés, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and verdejo, on the other.

The Regulatory Council and the classification of wines

The Regulatory Council of the Designation of Origin Rioja is responsible for guaranteeing the excellent quality of Rioja wines.

It classifies the wines into four categories, according to the ageing.

Generics: these are usually young wines in their first or second year, or other authorised wines that are difficult to classify, such as signature wines

Crianza: these are wines in their third year that have spent at least one year in oak barrels

Reserva: very select wines with a minimum ageing of three years in oak barrel and bottle

Gran Reserva: these are wines from great vintages that have been aged for a total of sixty months with a minimum of two years in oak barrels and 2 years in the bottle

Recently, the Regulatory Council has added a new classification of wines: viñedo singular, vinos de municipio and vinos de zona. In the next article I will explain the differences.

To guarantee the quality of Rioja wines, the regulations for the designation establish, among other things, the minimum and maximum number of vines that can be planted per hectare; the use or not of irrigation systems; how to prune the plants, including the number of buds per vine; the alcoholic strength of the harvested grapes; the maximum grape production per hectare; the processing techniques, which exclude the use of certain types of press and other machines; the forms and conditions of ageing the wine, which prohibit the use of pieces of wood to provide aromas at low cost; and the requirements for the ageing cellars, which must have a minimum number of Bordeaux oak barrels to be considered as such.

If you want to know more about the Regulatory Council and its regulations, you can visit its website:


Rioja and Wine Tourism

Shall we follow the path? Rioja, in addition to wine, also offers culture, countryside, history and gastronomy, with dishes such as Rioja-style potatoes, stews, kidney bean and chorizo stew and, of course, lamb chops grilled over a fire of vines and served with roasted red peppers.

The French Way of Saint James passes through this land of contrasts and, also along this path, we can discover the diversity and charm of Rioja: from huts and ancient castles to small and modern wineries that have made Rioja home to a different form of tourism. Wine tourism.

Therefore, I would like to finish this post today by recommending three wineries that offer accommodation and great food.


Finca de los Arandinos in Entrena

Selected as the Best Winery Hotel in Spain by the International Wine Challenge Merchant Awards in 2018

This is a modern winery with renowned wines where you can stay in a cosy hotel designed by the young architect Javier Arizcuren, who wove a symbolic staircase through it linking the various cubes that make up the rooms, the dining room, the cellar, the tasting room and the bedrooms over the winery cellar. To complete its charm, the rooms were created by the designer David Delfín.

In addition to a spectacular setting, you can also enjoy its spa with direct views over the vineyard and the excellent food on offer in its Tierra restaurant.


Marquis of Riscal in Elciego

They call it the City of Wine. It is probably the most striking wine tourism architecture in the region, if not the best known in the world. The titanium blades that form the red roof of the building can be seen from a long way away. This spectacular architecture by Frank Gehry is being used by this legendary winery to boost its wine exports to Asia, America and the new emerging countries. In addition, of course, it also allows it to provide accommodation and haute cuisine, following advice provided by Francis Paniego, to international tourists who want to share this experience.


Eguren Ugarte in Laguardia

Near Laguardia, in the hills of Páganos, we find Victorino Eguren's estate which has stood there since 1870. Recently its facilities have been extended to accommodate 21 open and bright rooms that look out over a 130-hectare vineyard which produces the extravagant red wines that all of the travellers can enjoy with their dinner. Accommodation, gastronomy, oenology and the countryside, a delicious combination.

And, now, to enjoy the art of good living!

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