La Rioja (ree-oh-haa) is located in North Central Spain, just an hour’s drive south of Bilbao.

It is Spain’s second smallest region (5,000 km2) and its most prestigious wine area. The total population is 316,000 residents.

La Rioja is in the Ebro River Valley. The river actually works as a natural border with the provinces of Basque Country and Navarra to the north. It served as a frontier between kingdoms over the centuries.

La Rioja region within Spain map


First things first.

We’d like to point out that “La Rioja” and “Rioja” are two different things: one is the province and the other is the wine appellation.

La Rioja province map

La Rioja region geographical map

La Rioja province

La Rioja (with article La) refers to the province and it’s the administrative region.

The La Rioja province is one of the 17 autonomous communities Spain is divided into.

The Ebro River flows from northwest to southeast. One of it’s 7 tributaries -Oja river- gives name to the region (the Spanish for river is río: Río Oja = Rioja)

The neighbouring provinces are the Basque Country and Navarra to the north, Navarra and Zaragoza to the east, Castilla y León to the south and west.

DOCa Rioja map

DOCa Rioja regional map

DOCa Rioja

Rioja (with no article) refers to the wine appellation.

Rioja is Spain’s premier wine region and the oldest Designation of Origin in Spain (1925).

It was also the first Designation of Origin in Spain to earn Calificada status (1991), which is the highest within the Spanish wine classification system.

Therefore Rioja wines belong to the Denominación de Origen Calificada, aka DOC Rioja or DOCa Rioja. So when wine specialists talk about Rioja they refer to the DOCa Rioja.

This top DOCa label means the highest quality standards from vine to bottle. Actually they are the strictest regulations of any wine region in the world.

If you compare the DOCa Rioja map (red) with the map of the province above, you’ll see that the wine producing area corresponds to the half-north part of the province.

Only the northern part of the La Rioja region is suitable for growing grapes though, as the southern part is very mountanous and too cold, and thus the grapes wouldn’t ripe evenly -the further you drive to the south, the higher in altitude you climb.

The DOCa Rioja

Now that we know the difference, let’s go deeper into detail about the wine appellation itself, the DOCa Rioja (Denominación de Origen Calificada Rioja in Spanish).

At the top of Spanish wine classification system

As we said, DOCa is at the top of the Spanish wine classification system. It’s the cream of the crop. It’s equivalent to Italy’s DOCG classification if that helps.

It’s very strictly regulated. Most of the wine lovers that take a Rioja wine tour with us are surprised when they learn about the regulations here in Rioja.

The specifications establish absolutely everything: the production area boundaries, the maximum allowable yields (one of the world’s lowest), the authorised grape varieties, the approved vinification practices, the ageing techniques and barrel size, the bottling requirements -you need to bottle on source- and many other aspects.


It covers +65,000 ha.

The grape production area covered by the DOCa Rioja is a natural region on both sides of the Ebro river bounded by geographical features.

To give you an idea of the size of the valley, it is 100km (62mi) lengthwise from northwest to southeast and 40km (25mi) in width from north to south.

3 sub-areas division

The Designation is divided into three sub-areas from west to east according to location, climate and soil composition:

The 3 sub-areas

3 subareas DOCa RIOJA

Rioja Alta (yellow). 27,347 ha

Northwest, Atlantic climate, mostly right bank of the river.

It features clay-limestone, clay-ferrous and alluvial soils.

Rioja Alavesa (orange). 13,389 ha

Northwest, Atlantic climate, left bank of the river.

Small-sized vineyards located on terraces and gentle slopes, with clay-calcareous soils. It is the smallest of the three areas.

Rioja Oriental (pink). 24,590 ha

Southeast, mediterranean climate, warmer and drier, mostly right bank of the river.

Clay-ferrous soils and a higher ratio of alluvial soils than in the other two areas. It was formerly called Rioja Baja.