The number of permitted grape varieties was increased in 2009 to 14 (five red, nine white), and their distribution varies in different parts of the region. The most widely planted variety is the dark-skinned tempranillo, which ripens well on the clay and limestone slopes of Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa, where it forms the basis for the region’s best wines and in 2012 was planted on 48,000 ha/115,000 ha, more than thee-quarters of the total vineyard surface.
Most Riojas are blends of more than one variety, however, and wines made from the garnacha vine, which after phylloxera superseded native varieties in the Rioja Baja, are often used to add body to Tempranillo, which can taste thin on its own in cooler vintages. Two further red varieties, Mazuelo (Cariñena or carignan) and graciano, are of relatively minor importance. Owing to its susceptibility to disease and its low productivity, Graciano fell from favour with Rioja’s vine-growers before a strong revival in the 1990s, when the area devoted to this variety grew back to 200 ha/500 acres and varietal versions are no longer oddities.