Like many of the ‘classic’ wine regions in Europe, Rioja has a long wine history dating back to even before the Romans. The Celtic tribes like the Vascones (hence Vasco, Basque) and Celtiberi (the Celts who lived in the valley of the Iberus, the Ebro) were already making wine in this corner of the world, while the Romans only had to add a touch of technology. With the simple introduction of the stone troughs, or lagares, a style of wine making was born that would continue for centuries.
The style of Riojan wine that we know today has generally evolved since the 19th century, in what Luis Gutiérrez - writing for Jancis Robinson.com - calls the French Period. I will come to that later.
In the following short entries, allow me to introduce you to ten fascinating characters from this long and exciting history that are handy to know about, especially if you’re a tried and true Rioja fan!
You must have heard of Saint James, or Santiago; the patron saint of Spain. In 844, this disciple of Jesus presumably helped defeat the Moors at the Battle of Clavijo, hence his Spanish nickname Matamoros (killer of Moors). His grave was indicated by a star and a cathedral later arose on this spot called the Cathedral of Santiago; later instigating one of the most famous pilgrimages in all of history, The Camino of Santiago.
Moreover, Santiago also counts as the first PR-manager of Rioja wine (at least, as I see it). The many pilgrims flocking to his shrine all passed (and still pass) through Logroño and from there on travelled the valley of the Ebro westwards. The wines that were produced in this valley were much appreciated by the thirsty throats of medieval travellers, and its fame spread, despite the fact that not much wine was left to export until around 1500. But the world knew about Riojan wine by the stories of those who returned home, and that was a start!
2. Garcia Sanchez I, king of Pamplona (c. 919-970)
One of the first written documents to mention anything related to wine in the area is a charter drawn up by the king of Pamplona in Navarre, Garcia Sanchez I. Together with his wife Teresa, Garcia bequeathed the towns of Lucronia (Logroño) and Asa to the monastery of San Millán de la Cogolla, some 40 km southwest of Logroño. Included in the donation were all the ‘lands, vineyards (veneis), gardens, orchards, and mountains’. This same era saw the first mention of the term ‘Rioja’, as ‘Rioxa’, in a document of 1092.
3. Gonzalo de Berceo (1180-1246)
The first praise for Riojan wine comes, not by chance, from a monk at that same San Millán de Cogolla, who lived around 1200. This Gonzalo de Berceo wrote the first poem in the Castilian vernacular, and that poem included a line which ends with: un vaso de bon vino, or, ‘a glass of good wine’. Since the area had little contact with the outside world (with the exception of the already mentioned pilgrims of course), any wine that Gonzalo referred to must have been local wine. By ‘not by chance’ I mean to say that grape growing and wine making was a speciality of the monasteries in medieval times. They had the knowledge, and the financial means, to invest in vines and equipment.
Leaping from the 13th to the end of the 18th century, we dive into the barrel aging. Of course, a lot happened in those years in between, such as the export of Rioja wines to the America’s and a start with regulation of different parts of the wine making process and the wine trade, but we’ll leave that for another day.
Fermenting, or aging wines in wood, was something that never happened prior to the 18th century, as clay vessels – stored deep underground – were traditionally used. At the end of the year, the vessels were retrieved to sell off the wine. The only times barrels were used were for transport, lined with resin (or pitch) to prevent leakage. You can imagine both the aroma and flavor of those wines were far from ideal.
After traveling to Bordeaux, a local priest, Manuel Quintano, began studying the way barrels were both made and used to store wine. Back home, he started experimenting with barrels that were coopered in such a way that they didn’t need pitch or resin. Having sent ten of his oak barrels filled with Riojan wine overseas, Manuel’s client confirmed that he had never received Riojan wine in such good condition before! However, local opposition to Manuel’s ideas were strong, and the outbreak of war with France spoiled a further development of this new use of wood. The world had to wait another fifty years for Rioja to see the light…
5. Luciano de Murrieta Garcia Lemoine, later Marqués de Murrieta (1822-1911)
Rioja wine history is full of marquesses, but you have to remember only three: Murrieta, Riscal and Caceres. It was Luciano de Murrieta – he was made a marquess later in life – who around 1850 continued the work of Manuel Quintano. Murrieta and, a bit later, Riscal were the first to actually see the potential of Rioja as an area of quality wine ánd acted to attain that goal.
Luciano de Murrieta studied winemaking in Bordeaux and worked for the Duque de la Victoria, who owned vineyards in Rioja. In 1852, he ordered hundreds of small 72 litre oak barrels from Bilbao – Logrõno and surroundings did not have any coopers yet – and used them to age and ship wines to Cuba and Mexico. Part of this shipment arrived in good order and was sold successfully. After that, Murrieta experimented with longer aging (four years, for example), started his own bodega around 1860 and in 1872 bought his own property, Ygay. One of the most well-known Rioja wineries was here to stay!
6. Camilo Hurtado de Amézaga, Marqués de Riscal de Alegre (1828-1888)
On account of the political upheavals that plagued Spain in the mid-19th century, de Marqués de Riscal had been in exile in France. There, he studied in Bordeaux and came back to Rioja with a head full of new ideas, French vines ánd 225-liter barriques. He built a state-of-the-art bodega in Elciego, according to the French ways of working in the cellar. A great lover of Bordeaux-wines, the marques wanted to create wines in that style; such as combing Cabernet Sauvignon with Tempranillo, for example. By 1860, 25% of the 200 hectares of vineyard he owned were planted with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and also Pinot Noir.
The French influence was noticeable also in the marketing and sales of the wines. The wines were bottled at the bodega, received the well-known golden nets as marks of authenticity and were send in to wine shows. And they received awards! Since the wines of Marqués de Riscal have entered the market, the classical style of Rioja – with lots of wood – was born!
7. Jean Pineau (1823-1889)
Thanks to the efforts of Murrieta en Riscal, the Riojan local authorities were finally getting convinced that the future lay in quality wines. The clay tinajas (vessels like amphorae, used to ferment and store the wines) had to be replaced with wooden vats, and barrel aging was the way to go. In order to teach more wine growers and producers the Bordeaux- methods, the Frenchman Jean Pineau was hired to consult Spanish winemakers. Pineau had worked as a cellar master at Château Lanessan in the Haut-Médoc and arrived in Rioja in 1862. Unfortunately, he was met with a considerable amount of opposition, as most of the wine growers and producers preferred their old ways. Moreover, the cost of oak barrels was rather high, something not many people wanted to invest in. By 1868, Pineau’s contract was not renewed, but was hired by the Marqués de Riscal and continued to work in Rioja.
8. Phylloxera vastatrix (c. 1865-present day)
France served as a model for Rioja; but as it turned out, France also needed Rioja! After several vine diseases had hit the French vineyards, from 1863-65 it was the turn of a very destructive louse, called phylloxera vastatrix. This tiny bug, hitchhiking from America on imported American vines, literally gnawed at the roots of the European plants, leaving first France and later the rest of Europe devoid of grape vines. Rioja was not affected until 1899; and since in the 1860s wine was produced there that had more or less the quality of French wines, soon French merchants started to cross the Pyrenees and began to buy Riojan wines. The wine business boomed along the Ebro, also furthering the introduction of French methods and techniques in cellar and vineyard. Several present day bodegas saw life in this heyday; one wonders what would have happened if phylloxera had not made its way from America to Europe…
9. Enrique Forner (1925-2011)
I promised to write about three marquesses. Well, despite the fact that the Marqués de Cáceres was an actual person, it is the brand name created by Enrique Forner that we are interested in. Forner was born in Spain but lived part of his life in France, because his father had to flee the country during the Civil War. The family traded in wine and later owned two château in Bordeaux. In the ‘60s, Enrique decided to return to Spain, where he wanted to start a wine business, believing in the potential of Rioja. With the help of his Bordeaux-professor, Emile Peynaud, he founded a bodega and made wines in a new style, where oak played a much lesser role then in the standard Rioja’s of the day. Grapes were bought from several growers , who under Forner’s leadership formed the Union Vitivinicola in Cenicero. Forner chose the name of a close friend living in Extremadura, the Marqués de Cáceres (who also was an investor in the new enterprise) as the name for his bodega.
The Union Vitivinicola was the first in Rioja to install stainless steel fermentation tanks with temperature control, following Miquel Torres’ innovations. Forner also reduced the aging time in oak for the reds and – for the moment – completely abandoned aging in oak for the whites. Together with the creation of this new, much fresher and fruitier style, Forner worked to get the Consejo Regulador to apply stricter rules and exert more control. He further promoted the inclusion of the vintage date on the label, the use of newer wood, and in general darker colours for the reds and lighter for the whites. And Forner was also a pioneer in using consultants, starting with Emile Peynaud, and later also working with Michel Rolland.
The first vintage on the market, the 1970, was received very well and still counts as the very first ‘modern’ Rioja. Exports of Marqués de Cáceres wines grew and grew, and with this success in mind, other bodega-owners followed to change their style of winemaking.
Reading a book on Rioja and its wines, you will certainly come across this tiny stream that runs into the Tíron, which in turn feeds the Ebro at Haro. Most authors derive the name of the area and the wines from this river: Rio Oja became Rioja over time. But there are several other explanations, much more exciting…
My fellow country man and wine writer Hubrecht Duijker wrote an excellent book in 1985 called De goede wijnen van Rioja (translated in 1987 as The Wines of Rioja), in which he gives several possible origins of the name ‘Rioja’.
- derived from the name of a local tribe, the Ruccones, later Riugones and eventually Riojanos, mentioned in a medieval manuscript.
- derived from the Spanish word for red, roja, because there are a lot of red/pink soils here.
- coming from the Basque word Ería-ogia (Errioja), meaning ‘land of bread’, referring to the many fields with grain that once existed here.
- or, simply, from Rio Oja.
Then there is another theory, found in John Radford’s The Wines of Rioja (2004):
- coming from a word Ogga, used by the Romans for the land between the rivers Oja and Tirón (south of present day Haro); Ogga in Latin became Rivo Ogga, Rioga and Rioxa in the local Roman languages (see also above, under Garcia Sanchez).
I would say: listen and learn from the locals while you’re in the area during DWCC. May be there is one explanation that will convince you!