Rioja, in northern Spain, is best known for its berry-flavoured, barrel-aged red wines made from Tempranillo and Garnacha. It is arguably Spain's leading wine region, and certainly the most famous. The vineyards follow the course of the Ebro for a hundred kilometres between the towns of Haro and Alfaro.
The Rioja wine region is mainly located in the administrative region of La Rioja, through which the river Rio Oja flows. However, its northernmost vineyards are located in the neighbouring regions of Navarre and Pais Vasco (Basque Country). The region is delimited less by political and administrative boundaries than by geographical features. The main features are the Ebro and the foothills of the Sierra de la Demanda and Sierra de Cantabria mountain ranges.
The Cantabrian Mountains, which flank Rioja to the north and west, provide shelter from the cold and wet influences of the Atlantic Ocean. This is an important factor in the local climate, which is significantly warmer and drier than that of the north. The soils of the region vary from place to place, with the best ones containing high levels of limestone.
Rioja's traditional classification system for ageing (with an implication of quality) has influenced other Spanish regions. The amount of time a Rioja wine spends in barrel determines the official Rioja aging category on the label: Joven, Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva.
Joven Rioja wines are intended to be consumed within two years of the vintage. They spend little or no time in oak barrels - jóven means "young" in Spanish. This category may also include wines that have been aged, but for some other reason are not certified for the higher categories. Many modern, juicy, mainstream red wines fall into this category. Some of these are made using a variant of carbonic maceration.