The Basque country has three faces: the picturesque coastline with endless countless beaches and fishing harbours, the large industrial towns, and the interior. The Basques have their own culture and own language that is possibly the original European language, and above all their own character. The Spanish part of the Basque country still has close ties with the French part (Pays Basque and Gascony or Gascogne). In this section we restrict ourselves to the north of the País Vasco, and in particular the areas of Bizkaya (Vizcaya) and Getaria (Guetaria). We use the Basque spellings with the Castilian spelling in brackets.
Rioja is made in three different areas as previously indicated: the southern Basque country, Navarra, and La Rioja. The area of La Rioja and Rioja wine derive their name from the small river Oja, hence Rio Oja. The river flows into the Ebro near Haro. This Spanish wine region region is subdivided into three areas: the highlands of Rioja Alta in the north west, the most northerly vineyards of Rioja Alavesa in Alava Province, and the lowlands of Rioja Baja in Navarra and La Rioja. The entire area is protected from the cold north winds by the mountains of the Sierra Cantabrica. The river Ebro rises in the Cantabrian mountains and flows towards the Mediterranean.
Rioja soil and climate
The underlying ground of La Rioja consists largely of a mixture of calciferous and ferruginous clay. There are also alluvial deposits along the banks of the Ebro, while in Rioja Baja there is also sand. The best vineyards are situated at a height of 984- 1,968 feet (300- 600 metres), particularly in the northwestern part of Rioja Alavesa (País Vasco) and Rioja Alta (La Rioja and a small enclave of the province of Burgos). With its heavier soil and lower altitude (a maximum of 2000 feet), which does not provide as much cooling for the grapes, the wine from Rioja Baja is less refined than from the other two Rioja areas. Consequently this Spanish wines from this latter area are ready to drink earlier, therefore more quickly consumed, helped by a relatively cheaper price.
In recent years there has been major investment in Spanish vineyards and wineries, and the country’s best wines are now world class. Its reputation has been carved by red wines, perticularly those from Rioja.
Several growers have identified and recognised the importance of old vines, and today these are partly responsible for the super-concentrated and very expresive premium reds.
Spain has more land under vine than any other country. The most important Spanish variety is Tempranillo, closely followed by Garnacha. For white wines, Viura and the ‘workhorse’ Airén are grown widely, whith the fashionable Albariño taking centre stage in Rias Baixas. Not surprisingly, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot are planted in the majority of Spanish wine regions, except Rioja. The best Spanish wines are quality graded at Denominacionde Origen, the equivalent of the French ACm and DOCa, a higher-quality grade introduced in 1991, initialy for the wines of Rioja. Although DOCa applies onli to Rioja, regions such as Ribera del Duero, Navarra, Penedes and Priorato are also producing some excellent wines.
In Rioja the wines are made in three districts sub-regions: Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta in the highlands and the hot and dry Rijoa Baja. Rioja styles include Joven, Crianza, Reseva and Gran Reserva which is produced in the very best years. Ribera fel Duero, situated at high altitude, is purely a red wine area. It is home to some of Spain’s most sought-after and expresive wines made from the Tempranillo grape, locally known as Tinta Fino.
Navarra, a neighbouring region to Rioja, is home to experimentation with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot often blended with indigenous grapes such as Garnacha and Tempranillo. Spanish and international grapes are planted in the Mediterranean climate of Penedes, Many of the best Cava vineyards are found in this region.
Mostly red wines from Garnacha and Cariñena are grown in the mountainous setting of Priorato. These high-quality, structured wines can be truly exciting.
Portugal is a country concentrating on its amazing range of indigenous grape varieties, especially Toutiga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Trincadeira and Periquta, The regions of the Douro, Ribatejo, Alentjo, and Bairrada set the pace. For the wine consumer willing to try something different, Portugal can hold many a pleasant discovery.