La Rioja Alta: Highlighting Vintages through Vertical Tastings

La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Vineyard © La Rioja Alta

Rioja is one of Spain’s most well-known wine regions. One winery, La Rioja Alta, located in Haro, stands out as one of the area’s oldest and most prestigious wineries. It all began in 1890 when five families joined together to form the winery. In 1904 the winery merged with the Ardanza Winery. Today three families remain of the original five. Some wine labels pay homage to those three families, Ardanza, Alberdi, and Arana. Four wineries encompass the La Rioja Alta brand, and each represents a distinct wine region as La Rioja Alta has expanded beyond Rioja. The wineries include La Rioja Alta, S.A. in Rioja Alta, Torre de Oña in Rioja Alavesa, Lagar de Cervera in Rias Baixas, and Aster in the Ribera del Duero.

All four wineries integrate the La Rioja Alta philosophy of combining traditional methods with new technology. The process constantly evolves in both the wines’ structure and through the expansion of winery production.

La Rioja Alta has accomplished many firsts that solidify its reputation for being ahead of its time. In 1890 they named a woman, Doña Saturnina García Cid y Gárate, as president. Their first winemaker, a Frenchman, Monsieur Vigier, created the first vintage release, Reserva 1890, which is now called Gran Reserva 890.

La Rioja Alta Winemaker

Winemaker Julio Sáenz Fernández steered the La Rioja Alta brand for 17 years starting in 2005. Under his tutelage, the wines are considered new classics. His impact reflects the fact that the winery entirely hand-picks grapes, produces its own barrels in both American and French oak onsite at their facility in Haro, and distribution is 100% direct.

Julio’s influence also manifests in the characteristics of the wine, which are steeped in traditional methods, and bring out the elegance, delicacy sophistication, complexity, balance, and long life of each bottle. The new world aspects of the wine include the color, freshness, fruit, and rounded tannins.

La Rioja Alta Winemaker Julio Sáenz Fernández © La Rioja Alta
La Rioja Alta Winemaker Julio Sáenz Fernández © La Rioja Alta


The region of Rioja consists of three different zones, Rioja Alta, Rioja Oriental and Rioja Alavesa. Its old-world style of creating wine defines the Rioja Alta. This region’s location at a higher elevation causes a shorter growing season. Characteristics of the wine include fruity flavors and a lighter palate. Rioja Alavesa produces fuller-bodied wine with higher acidity. The soil is in poorer condition causing the vines to dig deeper into the soil for nutrients. The Rioja Oriental has more Mediterranean influences and is recognized as the warmest and driest of the three zones. The wine from this zone is darker and higher in alcohol and often is blended with wines from the other two zones.

The red grapes grown in Rioja consist of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano. Viura, Garnacha Blanca and Malvasia represent the white varieties.

The region became Spain’s first denominación de origen calificada, D.O.Ca., “Qualified Designation of Origin” in 1991.

La Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza © La Rioja Alta
La Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza. Photo Courtesy of La Rioja Alta

Rias Baixas

Known for Albarino, Spain’s most famous white variety, Rais Baixas is located in a cooler region in Galencia, Spain, and carries the designation of Denominación de Origen, DO since 1988.

Ribera del Duero

Ribero del Duero is located in Spain’s northern Plateau. The region became a denominación de origen, DO in 1982. Flat and rocky terrain define this region. The soils consist of silty or clayey sand layers, alternating with layers of limestone, marl, and chalky concretions.

The area produces primarily red wine, with Tinta Fina (Tempranillo) being the most widespread grape. Other grapes used in the area include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Garnacha.

Understanding the Spanish Wine Designations and classifications

Both Rioja and Ribera del Duero utilize similar aging requirements. Red wines labeled “Crianza” must age two years with at least 12 months in oak. Reserva wines age at least three years with a minimum of 12 months in oak. The Gran Reserva labeled wines age five years before release; two of those years must see oak.

Rioja’s requirements for white and Rosé wines want a minimum of six months of aging in barrel, but in the case of Gran Reserva wine, it is 48 months of age-limited to six months in wood.

A classification called Joven does not require any aging in wood.

This is an excerpt from an article I wrote for Wander With Wonder.

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