Rioja DOC
The DOC designation in Spain - Denominación de Origen Calificada - is the top rung of classifications for Spanish wine regions; it is one step above a DO (Denominación de Origen). This category came into being in 1988, following Spain's entry into the European Union. A national committee decides which DOs are deserving of being upgraded to DOC, and Rioja was the first selected in that year. It was the only DOC for the first fifteen years of its existence, before Priorat was named to DOC in 2003. One requirement for DOC inclusion is that its wines cost at least double that of the national average for DO wines.

Rioja is not only one of the most famous wine regions of Spain - it's also one of the absolute best. Proof of that is in the fact that Rioja has been recognized as a DOC, one of the few in Spain. DOC or Denominacion de Origen Calificada is a level (quality and prestige) above DOC, of which there are 69 in the country. Rioja was the first DOC in Spain; this honor came in 1988, and today there is only one other wine zone in Spain that is also DOC (Priorat).

This recent acclaim for Rioja is fitting, but in reality, praise has been showered upon Rioja for more than two centuries. It is the wine zone that most people think of when you mention Spain, and it is the Spanish wine most people grew up with in their introductory studies of the world's wine. It is a red wine (there is also a white Rioja as well as a rosé) that has many faces, but it remains a wine of great quality and breeding.

The Rioja wine region is located in the Ebro River Valley in northeastern Spain; the word Rioja is a contraction of Rio Oja, one of the tributaries of the Ebro. There are more than 150,000 acres of vineyards in Rioja, divided among three sub regions: Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja. Soils vary in these districts, with Alavesa being primarily chalk, while Alta and Baja, are more abundant in limestone and clay with more alluvial soils from riverbeds. Baja is the hottest and driest of these three; as it is difficult to grow grapes in very hot years, it is not considered of the same quality as the other two districts.

The principal grape in Rioja is Tempranillo; other red grapes include Garnacha (Grenache), Mazuelo and Graciano. Red grapes account for 90% of Rioja's vineyards; of the 10% white, Viura is the primary variety. Rioja Tinto (red) is made in two ways: one with carbonic maceration, which produces a fresh, fruity wine with very light tannins, and the traditional red winemaking approach of removing the stalks before fermentation. The wines are aged in barriques of 225 liters, with the category of Rioja identified by the aging period. The youngest wines, which have no aging requirement, are known as Cosecha, are are released one or two years after the harvest. Next is a Crianza, wines that are in their third year; these must be aged for at least six months in cask. Then Riserva follows; these wines must be aged for at least one year in cask, with total aging time at least three years. Finally, Gran Riserva refers to wines from the finest vintages that have aged for at least two years in wood and at least three years in the bottle.

A typical Rioja has flavors of dried cherry and other red and black fruits, along with subtle tobacco and red spice notes; tannins are rich, yet rarely bitter. The oldest wines, the Gran Riservas, are the wines with the greatest complexity; some of the examples from the 1950s and '60s are still drinking well today. Expect to pay between $10 - $15 for a Crianza, $18-$25 for a Riserva and $35 and up for a Gran Riserva. Depending on the richness of the wine, a Rioja can be paired with a simple stew or an entree as robust as leg of lamb. (Wine/Appellations)