In preparation for our Rioja wine tasting this Saturday, we had a chat with our Spanish wine expert, Raúl, and he gave us “the dirt” on the region and shared with us some fascinating facts.
Firstly, interestingly enough, La Rioja the wine region is not actually the same as La Rioja the Spanish autonomous region. The wine region, in fact, overlaps four, different autonomous regions: Navarra, the Basque country, La Rioja, and, ever so slightly, Burgos. There is a single town called Hacienda Ternero in Burgos that is part of La Rioja wine region with just one winery and no actual inhabitants!
La Rioja is located in the Oja valley and gets its name from the river Oja. (rio means river in Spanish: ´Rio – Oja´). There is a great diversity of grapes that are able to be planted and grown in La Rioja due to its unique weather and climate. The 5 main grapes used in Rioja wines are tempranillo, garnacha, mazuelo, graciano, and maturana. Raúl told us that, although tempranillo is considered the principal grape in Rioja wine production, garnacha is the trendiest at the moment.
Despite Rioja red wine’s overwhelming popularity, the region does in fact produce the whole gamut in wines, from white and rose to sparkling and sweet wines. And, unlike many other wine regions, there is an enthusiasm for trying new techniques and innovation is encouraged. La Rioja was declared in 1991 the first Calificada DO in Spain, which means its wines have assured quality and authenticity, with all of the wines being exclusively bottled at the source. They are one of only two regions in Spain to have this title, sharing it with Priorat in Catalonia.
La Rioja is not just known for its quality wines, but also its gastronomy. When we are finally able to travel again, Raúl told us we MUST try its regional specialty, Chuletillas al Sarmiento. To create this dish, lamb chops are roasted over an open flame that is covered in pruned vines, transforming essentially the waste of the beloved grape vines into a flavorful meal.
Wine is often associated with class and elegance, but for one day of the year in La Rioja, that is certainly not the case! On June 29th, after a night of revelry, locals and visitors alike, wearing all white, spend the morning hurling or shooting upwards of 500 litres of red wine at each other in the famed Batalla del Vino (´Wine Battle´) in the town of Haro.
And lastly, keeping in mind that La Rioja exists in 4 of Spain’s provinces, Raúl told us about the N-232, a single, winding road in the wine region that crosses back and forth into two different autonomous regions. One minute you are in the Basque Country, reading all of the signs along the road in the Basque language, and the next you are in La Rioja with signage in Castilian. What a confusing journey that must be, particularly after a glass or two of Rioja!