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Chapter 4: Rioja

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I suppose I should begin this post by stating the obvious, my original plan to write one article a week on whatever wine book I am currently tackling in the series was a long shot at best. Although my intentions have been sincere, I won’t lead you back into my snake pit of false hope, preferring to offer a little injection of truth: I’ll do my best.

So here we are, once again, cracking open the magical book of “The Wines of Spain” to continue on our journey into Spanish wine. And as I recall, we were on Chapter 4, Rioja. Sadly my enthusiasm to begin this chapter is as bad as my desire to go outside in the sweltering heat for two reasons.The first reason is that I have committed to reading John Radford’s book, “Wines of the Rioja” for this assignment, hence reading this chapter seems a bit repetitive. Secondarily, and more importantly, Rioja has been so extensively talked about, especially here in Spain, that I find myself going into a deep catatonic state praying that the conversation will eventually go to any other DO but Rioja. And although Rioja genuinely does produce some fabulous wines, it’s equivalent to talking about a Paramount film as opposed to a small budget Independent film.

Don’t Jim Jarmusch’s films “Coffee and Cigarettes” or “Night on Earth” sound so much more fascinating to chat about than “Batman Returns“? With 65 DOs in Spain, Rioja has had more than its fair share of the Spanish wine spotlight, while the little guys lack either the funding or the marketing strategy to be either seen or heard.

Yet, there is always a silver lining to every story, and although I don’t intend to break this chapter apart like I’ve done with the others for reasons I’ve mentioned above, I do feel that Julian really took his time with this chapter on Rioja, offering a great in depth history full of cultural side notes that are for me, the most interesting part of any story. Therefore, after much internal debate, I’ve chosen my top three historical landmarks which have, in Julian’s eyes, molded and formed what Rioja is today.

  1. FUNGUS! I love this word, especially when this scary little creature is what has made Rioja the French winemaker’s bestfriend. In 1852, the deadly fungus Oidium, also known as Uncinula necator, traveled from the USA through France to Portugal (I assume by boat), and eventually to Rioja where yields where some vineyards were completely wiped out. The fungus was later destroyed by placing sulfur on the vines. But then came Phylloxera, which also originated in the USA along with Crispy Creams and bad Reality TV shows, and proceeded to annihilate many French vineyards. However, the French lived a funky little reality believing that the Pyrenees was like Kryptonite to Phylloxera sending them in droves to other side into Spain where they set up shop and began to mature their wines. This was a landmark event for Spain, because peasant growers previously dumped the previous vintage before harvesting the new one. As a result of having neither the investments nor the capital to purchase casks for maturation, peasants were ignorant of such technology. By the time Phylloxera did hit Rioja in 1899, our dear French neighbors to the North had already established word-class vineyards.
  2. ROADS! Back in the 1800′s, Rioja didn’t have a convenient mode of transportation to connect it with its commercial neighbor, Bilbao. Between the Napoleanic invasion, the Carlist Wars, Cholera and poverty, roads fell to the bottom of the priority list. This changed in 1880 when a railway was built between Haro and Bilbao, bringing dozens of bodegas with it!
  3. WWI! During the first World War, all French wine ceased to be exported to the USA, leaving the market wide open for the Spanish. This event resulted in the creation of 35,000 hectares of vines by 1935, only to be destroyed once again by both the Spanish Civil War and WWII. The only importer during this time was to Switzerland.

This is only a small portion of several significant events that placed Rioja on the International wine market as outlined by Julian. For those interested, I would highly suggest reading this not only because he does a good job – significantly better than the other chapters – in providing a good historical backdrop to the creation of Rioja, but also because he goes through at least a dozen different Bodegas providing an equally detailed history for each one. All of this coupled with both his lengthy description of winemaking and aging specifically to Rioja makes this a great reference book.

If anyone has read this Chapter, I’d be interested to get your take on what you both enjoyed and what you found to your dislike. I’d also be curious to know if anyone else is in the same camp regarding Rioja and its monopoly on forming the image of what is “spanish wine”?

Finally, allow me to end this post re-emphasizing my intention to dig deep into the history, culture and viniculture of Rioja when I tackle John Radford’s book, but for now, let’s move on to Chapter 5: Navarra and one of my favorite wines, Txacoli!

Cheers,

Gabriella

  • RichardA

    I did enjoy this chapter, especially the lengthy history of winemaking in Rioja. For me, Rioja wines were the first Spanish wines I had. They are definitely the first type of Spanish wine that most people associate with Spain. Though I think that in recent years that has started to change a bit. It was the wines of Marques de Riscal that really turned me onto Spanish wines in general and the Remeriz de Ganuza that showed me how great Spanish wine could be. (And I do hope to visit Remeriz winery on my trip to Spain. It was also cool seeing the Rioja map, and checking out the places I will visit soon, like Laguardia and Briones.) FYI: I did mention this in another comment on another post but was not sure if you saw it. In the July issue of Decanter, John Radford wrote an article on Ribera Del Deuro which is worth reading.

  • Gabriella

    Richard, Thanks so much for your comment. I agree with you that Rioja are the first wines that any associates with, hence my reasoning for waiting until I can report on John's book. I want people to get the full picture of Rioja, rather than a short snippet taken from a chapter. My hope is that people will actually be inspired to read the book when I get there. In terms of the wines that had truly sparked my interest in Spanish wine, beyond our website and living here, were honestly Cava, Txacoli and Albarino. These styles of wines opened my eyes as to how diverse and complex Spanish wines truly are. Later followed strange passion for Fondillon, Vermouth and now, sherry. These styles were so different from what I was accustomed to back in the States that they have given me a counterpoint for other wines, such as Rioja. Rioja is a wonderful region, with incredible wine, and I hope I can do it justice in the near future! As for Decanter, we haven't come across it yet in the shops, but I will keep my eye out for it.

  • http://passionatefoodie.blogspot.com/ RichardA

    I did enjoy this chapter, especially the lengthy history of winemaking in Rioja. For me, Rioja wines were the first Spanish wines I had. They are definitely the first type of Spanish wine that most people associate with Spain. Though I think that in recent years that has started to change a bit. It was the wines of Marques de Riscal that really turned me onto Spanish wines in general and the Remeriz de Ganuza that showed me how great Spanish wine could be. (And I do hope to visit Remeriz winery on my trip to Spain. It was also cool seeing the Rioja map, and checking out the places I will visit soon, like Laguardia and Briones.)

    FYI: I did mention this in another comment on another post but was not sure if you saw it. In the July issue of Decanter, John Radford wrote an article on Ribera Del Deuro which is worth reading.

  • RichardA

    Are their wine magazines produced in Spain that are in English? I know some other countries do that.

  • http://www.catavino.net Gabriella

    Richard,

    Thanks so much for your comment. I agree with you that Rioja are the first wines that any associates with, hence my reasoning for waiting until I can report on John’s book. I want people to get the full picture of Rioja, rather than a short snippet taken from a chapter. My hope is that people will actually be inspired to read the book when I get there.

    In terms of the wines that had truly sparked my interest in Spanish wine, beyond our website and living here, were honestly Cava, Txacoli and Albarino. These styles of wines opened my eyes as to how diverse and complex Spanish wines truly are. Later followed strange passion for Fondillon, Vermouth and now, sherry. These styles were so different from what I was accustomed to back in the States that they have given me a counterpoint for other wines, such as Rioja. Rioja is a wonderful region, with incredible wine, and I hope I can do it justice in the near future!

    As for Decanter, we haven’t come across it yet in the shops, but I will keep my eye out for it.

  • http://passionatefoodie.blogspot.com/ RichardA

    Are their wine magazines produced in Spain that are in English? I know some other countries do that.

  • Gabriella Opaz

    Yes, English magazines are produced here, the problem is, is that because we live in a smaller town, it is a little difficult to come across them, whereas that is not the case in Barcelona.

  • http://www.catavino.net Gabriella Opaz

    Yes, English magazines are produced here, the problem is, is that because we live in a smaller town, it is a little difficult to come across them, whereas that is not the case in Barcelona.