Bodegas Sierra Cantabria
By the far the best known of Spain's wine regions is Rioja, which takes its name from the rio(river) Oja, a tributary of the river Ebro. Lying in the north of the country, along the Ebro valley, the area is sheltered from rain-bearing Atlantic winds by the dramatic Sierra de Cantabria to the north and west. The hilly vineyards are interspersed with orchards, poplars and eucalyptus trees. Rioja is further divided into three sub-regions - Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. The first two are best regarded, with vines planted on cool slopes with clay and limestone soils. The permitted grape varieties for Rioja are tempranillo, which is grown extensively in Rioja Alta and Alavesa and will form the backbone of all the best wines, garnacha, widespread in Rioja Baja and used to add body to the blend, and mazuelo (carignan) and graciano, both grown in miniscule proportions. The key to understanding Rioja is the technique used to mature the wine. Unlike most other areas of Europe, American oak barrels are used which give the wines their characteristic soft vanilla, almost coconuty flavour. Historically the wines were aged for periods far longer than legally required, until all the fruit character had died down and the end result was a light, tawny-coloured wine dominated by oak flavours. Although there are still supporters of this classic style, far more producers are making wines in a more modern way, allowing the dark berry fruit flavours to burst through balanced by a more judicious use of oak ageing and often opting for French oak now.