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History of Modern Wine Making in Rioja

Had you been around then, you could have drunk wine made in Rioja 3000 years ago. However, the origins of modern wine making in Rioja began only around 1850 with trouble in Bordeaux. Odium, also known as powdery

mildew, had been unknowingly imported America via garden exchange programs, Bordeaux’s vineyards with a vengeance. watched their yields decline dramatically

to Europe from and it attacked The Bordelaise from this then-

undiagnosed vine disease, and their profit-driven negociants to

it did not take

long for

look across the

Pyrenees

for an alternative trekking through

source of Rioja for

product. The French had centuries —it is located

been right

on

the

pilgrimage

route

to

the

famous

Spanish

shrine

in

Santiago de Compostela—and they knew of Rioja’s wines. Even before odium, there pioneering exposure to French winemaking

the high quality had been some in Rioja.

Their odium

wines.

The

problem really focused Bordelaise brought to

the French

on Rioja’s

Rioja their

Cabernet

Sauvignon, their equipment vineyard and winery, and dominated by a preference commercial winery based on

and methodologies in the their oak-oriented palates

for the

ripe grapes. The Bordeaux “chateau

first and

brand” model was established in Rioja in 1850, and the first French consulting winemaker arrived in 1862. Both the Marquis de Riscal and the Marquis de Murrieta built French- style bodegas (wineries) around 1870; both remain major producers in Rioja today. From the Bordelaise, who in Rioja strived to make wine in their native style, came the practices

of

buying

in

grapes

from

the

growers

instead

of

wine

and

the use success

of small for their

oak barrels for aging wines. Commercial oak-aged wines led to wider use of oak.

Rioja became the site of a successful cooperage and American oak was introduced as a cheaper to expensive French oak.

operation, alternative

Luckily for Rioja, the discovery of the sulfur cure for odium brought only a brief period of relief for Bordeaux The arrival in Bordeaux of the vine-killing phylloxera aphid in the 1870’s made the earlier mildew invasion seem like the equivalent of the common cold to the Bordelaise. Unlike mildew, which infects the vines to varying degrees on an annual basis, phylloxera killed the vines and pretty much shut down the Bordeaux wine business. It was not until the early 1900’s that the vines in Bordeaux were grafted onto American rootstock to defeat phylloxera there. In the meantime, the continuing wine deficit in Bordeaux caused a 30-year long explosion of wine sales for Rioja.

But bad news for Rioja arrived with the 20th century. Around 1900, just as Bordeaux was substantially recovering from phylloxera, the evil aphid was discovered in Rioja. While Rioja viticulture benefited from phylloxera’s delayed arrival there— they knew the remedy and quickly grafted—phylloxera still caused vineyard devastation and required replanting. At the same time, Rioja’s markets disappeared with Bordeaux’s recovery, and 20th century politics exacerbated this already

4

difficult commercial situation. The diversion of resources necessitated by the Spanish civil war and both World Wars resulted in the neglect and/or abandonment of many Rioja vineyards, some of which were replanted with cereal crops to feed the commercially isolated Spanish population. The wine industry in Rioja stagnated. Nevertheless, there were limited positive events during this era, including the founding of several new bodegas, and increased trade with the USA in the absence of French exports in the World War I period. Also during this time, the Spanish wine law system was enacted with the intention of improving wine quality, and in 1926 Rioja was the first Spanish wine region to appoint a Consejo Regulador, which oversaw all aspects of quality wine production and trade.

The Modern Era

Rioja’s modern era began in the 1950’s, and matured in the 60’s and 70’s. An important factor was a new railroad line to the port of Bilbao. The fantastic 1970 vintage in Rioja solidified the region’s reputation for quality above all others in Spain. Also contributing were the “discovery” of Rioja by international wine connoisseurs starting in the 60’s, and new post-Franco Spanish politics beginning in 1975. And unintentionally, the Bordeaux chateaux helped Rioja once again, this time by raising their prices high enough to force the Bordeaux wine trade to look elsewhere for a source of supply. The mystique of Rioja’s wine—made in the same style as those of pre-phylloxera Bordeaux—spurred international demand, attracted new investment, and lured some of the best consulting wine makers to Rioja. More help came from Bordeaux in the form of a University of Bordeaux-bred and trained winemaker, the eminent enologist, Emil Peynaud, who built a new winery at his family’s Rioja property, the Marquis de Caceres, and led the way towards a more international style that emphasized fruit over oak.

Rioja became Spain’s first Denominación de Origen (DOC) in 1926. and its first Denomiancion de Origen Calificada (DOCa) a new, higher level of regional classification, in 1991. The 90’s saw the incorporation of the accoutrements of modern winemaking and production of new, international

styles

of

wine.

Fortunately

for

Rioja,

as

demand

for

wine

in the local Spanish market for Rioja wines has continued into the

market declined, the international continued to grow. This momentum 21st century, and Rioja is today well

positioned for and expansion

further evolution of wine exports.

in

quality

wine

production

The Region

Rioja is the only DOCa in Spain comprised of more than one region, or comunidad autonoma. Rioja, in fact, covers all of the region La Rioja plus parts of Navarra and the Basque

Country. Rioja begins in the north Mountains, which protect Rioja from

with the Cantabrian the harsh winds and

Atlantic

storms

also the

source

of Northern Spain.

The Cantabrians are

of

the

Rio

Ebro,

which

flows

through

Rioja

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