La Rioja: A Special Land La Rioja is a land of history, light and color, vines and wheat and above all, people for whom friendship is the greatest possible treasure, asserts the Rioja Bureau of Tourism. Indeed, La Rioja is a special land, etched by history and endowed by wine a wine as warm, friendly, and distinctive as the people themselves. For millennia, vineyards have influenced the history and character of the people in the Rioja. Long before France was the self-proclaimed bastion of fine wine, the Romans had pushed inland into Iberia from the Mediterranean all the way to the headwaters of the Ebro River and its tiny tributary, Rio Oja, from which the region derives its name. In La Rioja the Romans found ideal conditions for the cultivation the vine and quite possibly the very same varietals that flourish there today, most notably the Tempranillo, Mazuelo, Graciano and Garnacha (Grenache) grapes that today constitute the red wine cepage of Rioja. Some French historians even claim that Cabernet, the world's most renowned red grape varietal, originated in La Rioja rather than in Bordeaux, some 150 miles to the north. After the Romans and the collapse of Imperial Rome came the usual succession of invaders, reading like a litany of destruction across the pages of Western Civilization. Yet, the Rioja flourished despite its position at the crossroads of Christianity and Islam; and it emerged intact after a countless array of mediaeval squabbles. On the road to Compostella, mediaeval Europe's greatest pilgrimage site, La Rioja remains a treasure trove of gothic castles, grandiose churches and beautiful monasteries. Indeed, one of the greatest contributions to Spanish culture has its origins in La Rioja: Castillian Spanish. First written by the Spanish priest, Gonzalo de Berceo, in the monastery at San Milan, Spanish is now spoken as a first language by over 300 million people around the world. La Rioja: A Special Wine Like most of the great viticultural regions of Europe, the face of modern Rioja was cast during the 19th century. With the hope of escaping the dreaded phylloxera, the deadly vine louse in Bordeaux, many successful Bordeaux growers began moving south across the Pyrenees to La Rioja in the 1870's. With them flowed the capital and the expertise to enrich and improve the already splendid grapes of La Rioja. They instituted extended barrel ageing, which remains the signature of fine Rioja wines. Even today, modern Rioja spends more time in small oak barrels than almost any other modern wine. And, like Bordeaux, the wine of La Rioja is a blend of up to four premium grapes: Tempranillo, Mazuelo, Graciano, and Grenache. This unique blend of grapes, coupled with a long, lavish hiatus in small, American oak barrels called barriques, produces a warm, very dry, but richly fruity wine of great finesse and perfume that can be nearly immortal in great vintages.