The region’s most important river isn’t Rioja’s namesake, Rio Oja, but the Ebro River. Snaking between the Sierra Cantábrica and the Sierra Demanda, the Ebro and its tributaries have helped carve out vineyards that have been celebrated for at least two centuries.
Rioja itself has three sub-regions — Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta, and Rioja Baja — and while each has distinct differences, there is no hierarchy of quality between them. Among the varietals grown here, Tempranillo is king, certainly, but Garnacha, Mazuelo (Carineña), Graciano and increasing numbers of other indigenous grapes are generating new ideas and styles in the region.
Reds, whites and rosés all have a home in the Ebro Valley, but the reds account for the greater part of its fame. Aging classifications are the primary means for differentiating red wines from one another: Joven (“young”) wines are for early drinking. Crianza wines are aged for two years (one of those in barrel) while Reserva wines (three years aging with one of those in barrel) can be age-worthy or offer serious immediate consumption. Gran Reserva wines are regarded as the region’s pinnacle. They are at least five years old and generally ready to drink, but they can age for years too.