When I moved to Rioja in the early 1980s, Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa were the darlings of the region, where ‘modern’ Rioja flourished starting in the last half of the 19th century and most of the wineries were located. In contrast, Rioja Baja was fruit tree and vegetable country, roundly criticized for allowing the planting of grapevines in highly fertile alluvial soil near the Ebro that produced twice as much per vine as in the Alta and Alavesa. Even the name Rioja BAJA (Lower Rioja) was an adjective reminiscent of inferiority, like Baja California or Outer Mongolia (my apologies to Mexico and Mongolia).
Nothing is farther from the truth, however.
In fact, without Rioja Baja, Rioja would not be what it is today.
First of all, Rioja was traditionally made by blending grapes from all over the region. Because Rioja Baja is warmer and drier than the Alta or Alavesa, the harvest always begins here and the grapes almost always reach total ripeness, something that happens with less regularity in the other two subzones. This is perhaps not as evident as it was in the past, before global warming, when, toward the end of October, plummeting temperatures and rainstorms often ruined the harvest or at best, produced thin wines with no more than 9 or 10% alcohol in the Alta and Alavesa. Clearly these wines needed some muscle and it always came from Rioja Baja. In fact, most of the wineries in Haro such as La Rioja Alta, CVNE and López de Heredia either owned or had long-term arrangements with growers in the Baja. Most of these traditional wineries still own property there.
Secondly, Rioja Baja was garnacha land, adding character in blends to the predominant tempranillo of the Alta and Alavesa. Sadly, most of the garnacha has been replaced with tempranillo since the late 1980s, but garnacha is still in demand, with wineries like El Coto de Rioja investing heavily in replanting it.
We also have to take into account the low-yielding, south-facing vineyards located at high altitude on or near Mount Yerga, south of Alfaro, where well-known winemakers like Álvaro Palacios and his family have long recognized their potential for producing wines of great character, as well as vineyards planted in the gravelly soil around Mendavia on the north bank of the Ebro, home of Barón de Ley.
Then there’s Marqués de Murrieta, located at the western edge of Rioja Baja, near Logroño, that shares with Marqués de Riscal the honor of ‘inventing’ modern Rioja in the mid-19th century, as well as Marqués de Vargas, located next door.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to the potential of Rioja Baja, however, is the San Isidro Cooperative in Aldeanueva de Ebro, the largest in Rioja and the coop that has most successfully made the transition from supplying young wine to other wineries to making, aging, bottling and selling well-made, attractive wines throughout Spain and all over the world.
My only complaint with Rioja Baja is not keeping the old vine garnacha that predominated until the 1980s. Given the success of old vine garnacha in the neighboring regions of Campo de Borja and Calatayud, Rioja could have benefited from these vines. As a big fan of garnacha, I hope growers will start to plant it more widely again.