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
look across the
for an alternative trekking through
source of Rioja for
product. The French had centuries —it is located
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.
problem really focused Bordelaise brought to
Sauvignon, their equipment vineyard and winery, and dominated by a preference commercial winery based on
and methodologies in the their oak-oriented palates
ripe grapes. The Bordeaux “chateau
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
of Northern Spain.
The Cantabrians are