Rioja’s fame exceeds that of all of Spain’s other wine producing regions. Many wine drinkers, me included, love Rioja – especially the red wines, but how Rioja became the famous wine region it is and how the wines came to be made as they are is an interesting story.
Back before a handful of Bordeaux producers started carving out a new market for fine wine in the seventeenth century, most wine – including Bordeaux and Rioja – was pretty ordinary fare. Drunk mainly because it was safer than water, wine was just a part of everyday life in those parts of the world where grapes grew.
Then as now Spain was covered in vines and awash with wine. Technology and understanding had not yet touched wine, so by and large the people who tended the grapes and made the wine merely watched the process take place. Nowadays winemakers control what happens in the vineyard and winery to achieve fully ripe grapes and to make clean wines.
So, what put Rioja on the wine map? Why did the wine revolution happen so much earlier in Rioja than Spain’s other regions?
From a location point of view Rioja has much going for it. The Sierra de Cantabria shelters it from the worst of the Atlantic rain, wind and cold – which prevent most of the rest of the Pais Vasco – or Basque lands – producing good red wines. A small part of Rioja – Rioja Alavesa – is in the Pais Vasco and it seems that Basque merchants, whose lands hugged the cold and wet Bay of Biscay, noticed that this drier area just to the south could produce the richer, stronger wines their overseas markets demanded.
In the past the big problem of course was transport, rough roads and ox carts could only transport so much and it must have been hard going to get the wine out. In those days the Spanish kept their wine in hog skins and served it from them too, so we can only guess what the wine would have tasted like after a few months – very different from even a basic wine of today.
History & a glimpse of the Future
On the cusp of the 19th century, only Bordeaux specialised in making fine wines for the wealthy. Surely many Basques and Riojans must have travelled north to see what it was that Bordeaux winemakers did to their wines that created their high reputation. Manuel Quintano was a Basque from the wine town of Labastida in Rioja Alavesa where his family owned land and made wine, and he certainly went to Bordeaux. Quintano was trained for the priesthood in Bayonne and this might be where he first came into contact with good red Bordeaux wines and perhaps where he saw qualities in them that his own wines lacked? Although ordained he became more and more interested in wine and in 1785 he travelled to Bordeaux to study how wine was made there.
He noted every stage of production and the differences from how wine was made back home in Rioja. Amongst much else he found out about racking and clarification, but above all it is believed he became the first Riojan to notice the effect that ageing in oak barrels could have on a wine.
It was this use of barrels that was the the most important thing Quintano learned. The oak did many things that were beneficial to the wine and these would have been especially noticeable in the days before modern vineyard and winery practices made rich, clean wines. The wood has a porous structure that allows a slight evaporation, which concentrates wine and allows in a trickle of oxygen that softens the tannin. This helps develop a more silky texture and this difference in mouth-feel between thin everyday wines and finer wines would have been much more obvious in the past when alcohol levels struggled to get above 11%.
Of course the wood also effects the flavour of the wine, often giving vanilla, cedar, coffee, cocoa or caramel characters. All of this can often give an impression of sweetness and richness into the wine, which helps accentuate that sensation of concentration.
However the most important thing the oak did for the wine was to make it live longer. The wood contains a polyphenol – or type of tannin – called ellagitannins that helps to protect the wine from oxidation. To most wine makers in the eighteenth century, whose wines only lasted a few months and visibly deteriorated over that time, this would have seemed like finding the key to eternal life.
Quintano returned to Labastida in 1786 and set about applying what he had learned and successfully produced wine using these techniques. In 1795 he even exported wine to Mexico and Cuba, the first barrel-aged wines to be exported from Spain and it seems they arrived in perfect condition. However, not everyone was happy with these expensive developments and complaints were made to the Council of Castile – the government – who upheld that all Rioja wine must be sold at the same price. This of course made the cost of barrels and cellar ageing prohibitive and Quintano’s experiments ground to a halt.
His achievements though were never entirely forgotten and today Quintano’s name is used for a range of wines produced by Bodegas y Viñedos Labastida. Also some of Quintano’s vineyards now form part of Bodegas Remelluri which is owned by the family of that modern revolutionary, Telmo Rodríguez.
So the production of everyday wines carried on interrupted from time to time by the devastating effects of The Peninsular War and the various Carlist or Civil Wars of the early nineteenth century. The local people – and pilgrims en route to Santiago – still slaked their thirst with wines stored in skins while little trickles were exported to Bordeaux and elsewhere. This trickle turned into a torrent from 1850 onwards when oidium devastated the vineyards of Bordeaux. For ease of export these wines destined for overseas were transported in barrels. The best wines would often be selected for export and so the idea of barrels being associated with quality wine became widespread in Spain.
The Rioja Revolution
Events then came together which ensured Rioja’s future as a fine wine region and this future was all about the use of oak. War played its part too, Luciano de Murrieta – later the Marqués de Murrieta – was on the losing Carlist side in the civil war of the 1840s and went into exile in London. It was here that he apparently came to admire the fine wines of Bordeaux. On his way back from exile in 1850 Luciano spent time in Bordeaux to study winemaking and brought the modern techniques he found to Rioja where the Duque de la Victoria, the former prime minister of Spain and his boss during the wars – owned vineyards.
He set about making the fermentations more efficient and hygienic and then went looking for barrels. These were in very short supply and usually the wrong size, but it seems that even using make do casks Luciano proved his point. The wines had an intensity and a fragrance the everyday wines lacked and most importantly could enjoy a long life. The experiment was a great success with exports soon going to Cuba and Mexico. Luciano marketed his own brand from 1852 and moved to a new bodega at Ygay near Logroño in the late 1860s.
Perhaps if this revolution had been left just to Luciano de Murrieta it would have happened very slowly, but luckily at least one other pioneer had also seen the future.
The Marqués de Riscal had similarly fallen under the spell of Bordeaux wines and studied how they were made – also in 1850 as it happens – and he set out to build a state of the art winery, based on the most modern practices then used in Bordeaux. He planted Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Rioja’s own Tempranillo and even employed a winery manager from Bordeaux. It was a long project, the winery and first vintage were not complete until 1862, but the wine was an instant success and even won Gold Medals at expos in Bayonne in 1864 and Bordeaux itself in 1865.
Riscal’s wines were in great demand and were the first Riojas to be sold in bottle. To ensure that the wine in the bottle was what he had made – and that it had not been drunk and then refilled by an unscrupulous merchant – he sealed his bottles with a wire mesh. This quickly became iconic and like his techniques became imitated by other Rioja producers.
It helped that the railway arrived in Rioja in 1864 and linked it to Bilbao and Madrid as well as the French frontier and so Bordeaux. Finally Rioja could export its wines more easily and efficiently.
So, by the 1860s because of a series of disasters, accidents, wars and study by inquisitive people Rioja had ceased to be a backwater for wine. Instead it had become a region producing wines, made by the most modern techniques, that were worthy of mounting a challenge to Bordeaux itself.
So, Rioja was born and strangely enough oak, rather than grapes, was the dominating characteristic. What’s more French oak was expensive and rather bizarrely it seems that it was more normal even for the French to use Russian oak in the days before the Russian Revolution in 1917. So instead Riojans looked to the recently independent Spanish colonies in the Americas as their source of oak. These countries were their natural trading partners and a large market for their wines. The oak was plentiful, cheap and gave even more flavour than European wood – in fact it gave that rich sweet vanilla character, that has been the hallmark of Rioja ever since.
Spanish drinkers as well as foreigners quickly came to love this rich and clear flavour that set Rioja wines apart from the other wines of Europe. Ageing in American oak had many benefits that made the wines very attractive to Spanish drinkers who had never before been able to enjoy high quality wines from their own country. The rich oaky vanilla flavour became a fundamental part of the wine style, as did the silky texture and smooth tannins. This came from the long oak ageing which also ensured, together with careful racking, that the wines had little or no sediment in the bottle, something the Spanish consumer favours to this day.
So popular did the style become with the Spanish – and even now Rioja is more widely available in Spain than wine from any other region – that for well over 100 years only about 20% or so of production was exported. Rioja was the quintessential Spanish wine and this resulted in other regions copying Rioja’s techniques, style, even labelling and wire bottle seals.
Growers and Bodegas
One unexpected result of Rioja’s oak ageing techniques was the virtual demise of estate wine. Historically growers had made their own wine, albeit in a rudimentary way, and sold that to their neighbours or merchants to blend with other wines. The new methods and the cost of the equipment put modern winemaking beyond their reach so most of these farmers focussed on growing grapes which they sold to the bodegas who could afford the oak barrels and the new equipment. Even now estate bottled Rioja is relatively unusual with bodegas traditionally buying much of their fruit from a spread of growers.
It seems to me that in those low tech times this separation of skills could actually have been beneficial to quality. Nowadays we assume that estate wines are better, almost by definition, but this separation allowed the farmers to concentrate on growing better fruit while the winemakers could put their energies into turning them into good wine. It wasn’t universal by any means, but separating growing and wine making certainly became the norm and Rioja’s fame and reputation as a quality wine region stems from this moment.
This also allowed for the creation of some really strong and long lasting wine brands which might not have happened if every grower had been marketing their own wines – after all France which had a more grower centric and fragmented wine industry has been hampered in its fight back against the new world by a real lack of strong wine brands.
Continued French Involvement
Rioja had certainly advanced by the late 1800s, but was not yet entirely sure of itself. True the wines had a market in Spain and some quality Rioja was exported in bottle, but it is highly unlikely that Rioja would have developed as far and as fast as it did without further French influence.
Just as Rioja was getting started, Bordeaux was in deep trouble. Oidium and Phylloxera took a heavy toll on France’s vineyards from the 1850s to the the 1890s and so Bordeaux struggled to produce enough wine. Even when they had solved the Phylloxera problem by grafting their grapes onto American rootstocks there was a long, wine-less wait for the new vines to mature. Luckily Rioja had wine to spare, the quality was good, it had been made using modern French techniques and so perfectly suited the wine starved French market.
Indeed to a large degree the style of Rioja that we know today was a French invention. The long barrel ageing was a deliberate attempt to make the Rioja destined for the French market to taste more like Bordeaux did at the time. So successful was it that the techniques quickly became used for the entire production, not just the wines that were reservé for the French market.
It is tempting to assume that Rioja as we know it emerged into the world fully formed in the mid 1860s. Certainly Riscal and Murrieta were quickly followed by a wave of other bodegas that are still with us today – these include López de Heredia, CVNE, Muga, Bilbaínas and many other famous names.
However, although the basics of the techniques – or recipe – had become established, the fine details took some decades to develop. The consumer was given wines that had already been aged and so were ready to drink and had little or no sediment. The vessel the wine was aged in gave a rich, sweet vanilla character that enhanced the wine’s natural fruitiness – this is an important consideration as in the days before modern technology and cold fermentation it was much more difficult to make fresh, fruity wine. So strange as it may seem, unoaked Rioja – now officially categorised as Joven – is an entirely modern development and has only been around for the last 40 years or so once winemaking made it possible. For nigh on 100 years, Rioja relied on oak to round out the wines and give them a richness they otherwise lacked.
The process of ageing the wines was called raising or criar – it is the same word for children and plants – and so the oak aged wines themselves came to be called Crianzas. As well as being the collective word for any oak aged Rioja, Crianza is also the official classification term for those Riojas aged in wood for the shortest time.
Between the 1860s and 1960s all red Rioja was barrel aged and ageing was the most important consideration. So much so that until well into the 1960s many Riojas – and other Spanish wines – were labelled with no mention of vintage. Instead the vital piece of information on the label was how long it had been aged for and so they were labelled as 3er Año – meaning it was bottled in the third year after harvest. More expensive wines were labelled as 5˚ Año, meaning it was bottled in the fifth year after harvest. This tradition clung on into the 1980s for bottles in Spain anyway and I remember being very confused by it during my early days in wine.
The terms Reserva and Gran Reserva are so strongly associated with Rioja that it might surprise some to learn that they did not exist before the very late nineteenth century. Apparently the expression stems from French wine companies reserving certain barrels of Rioja that they would ship home to beef up their own wines. It was not until the 1920s that Reserva and Gran Reserva started appearing on labels.
Denomination de Origen & Classification
Throughout history decrees had been issued regulating where Rioja wines could be made and as we saw during Manuel Quintano’s time, rulings had been made about how it could be made. It was not until the 1920s, with phylloxera beaten and a ready market for their quality wines, that serious attempts were made to legally define Rioja.
Rioja was created as Spain’s first Denomination de Origen in 1925, but no real control was in evidence until 1953 when the Consejo Regulador drew up the regulations for Rioja wine. This controlled yields and permitted grape varieties, it banned chaptilisation and stipulated minimum alcohol levels, but above all it codified the ageing and oaking regime for Rioja wines – the current regulations are:
Crianza: Wines which are at least in their third year, having spent a minimum of one year in casks and a few months in the bottle. For white wines, the minimum cask ageing period is 6 months.
Reserva: Selected wines of the best vintages with an excellent potential that have been aged for a minimum of 3 years, with at least one year in casks. For white wines, the minimum ageing period is 2 years, with at least 6 months in casks.
Gran Reserva: Selected wines from exceptional vintages which have spent at least 2 years in oak casks and 3 years in the bottle. For white wines, the minimum ageing period is 4 years, with at least one year in casks.
As you can see the rules require aged Rioja wines to be aged in oak barrels, or casks – chips and staves are not permitted – and these must be of the Bordeaux type that contain 225 litres. There are no restrictions as to the type of oak, but American oak has always been the most widely used.
Although we overwhelmingly associate Rioja with American oak, some producers champion French oak and its use is increasing. Some use just French, but I have noticed a trend for Riojas to be aged mainly in American oak with a small amount of French, typically 15% or 20%. Normally the wine would be aged and then blended, but to avoid this Bodegas Beronia for instance use barrels which have staves of both American and French oak.
French oak is split, not sawn and so the grain and pores never open as they do with sawn American oak. In addition the kiln drying of American oak concentrates their lactones, which accentuates those creamy vanilla notes. The result is that French oak gives a more restrained and subtle character of spice and cedar. Using a combination of the two can often make the wine seem tighter, firmer and, some might say, more elegant than using American oak on its own.
Of course many bodegas are experimenting with other oaks and using them too. Hungarian, Slavonian and Russian oaks can all be found in Rioja today. Stylistically they lean in a similar direction to French oak but give less spice character.
The Present and the Future
In my view there can be no doubt that oak has been good for Rioja. Most Riojan winemakers seem to think that American oak has been good for Rioja too. It certainly seems to me that without the clear identity that American oak brings, the easily definable and tasty vanilla character, then Rioja would not have enjoyed the success that it has.
The use of oak, especially American oak, made the wines seem richer and more full-bodied than they actually were in the 19th and 20th centuries. People liked the aromas, flavours and silky, smooth texture and found it easy to define what it was they liked in these wines. The style is approachable and so it is no accident that Rioja is often one of the first red wine styles that drinkers enjoy.
Vinos de Autor
Of course if oak can be seen as generally good for the region, it is also true that some producers feel a little constrained, albeit benignly, by the Reserva and Gran Reserva classification system. They want some of their wines to be an expression of the vineyard and the winemaking without reference to such a classification, one practical reason is that if a bodega produces a top wine as a Gran Reserva in one vintage and as a Reserva or even a Crianza the next, then some consumers might well imagine the wine to be inferior – which is not necessarily the case. The classification is about ageing and not quality. That is why increasingly many bodega’s top wines are now defined as Vino de Autor or signature wine and marketed without reference to the Reserva / Gran Reserva classification. CVNE’s Real de Asúa and Pagos de Viña Real are both examples of this, as are Roda’s Cirsion, Beronia’s III a.c, Contino’s Viña del Olivo and Muga’s Torre Muga amongst many others.
Nothing ever stands still and it is instructive that as grape growing and winemaking has become more technically advanced and accomplished then Rioja has branched out. As soon as cold fermentation made attractive, fruity and unoaked jovens possible, they made them. These can be enjoyable wines and offer great value for money, but they lack that classic oaky Rioja character and it is hard to envisage anyone ever producing a truly fine and complex unoaked Rioja.
All the producers I spoke too agreed that oak has helped to define their wines and to give Rioja a clear identity. Some saw the future as having increasing use of European oaks to produce more restrained wines, while most were of the opinion that American oak would continue to dominate Rioja – albeit with French and other oaks used as seasoning.
No one seemed in any doubt though that the future of fine Rioja wine will be glorious and is as closely linked to oak as its past.