lunes, 13 de agosto de 2012

La Rioja the Most Famous Wine Region in Spain


La Rioja is probably the most dedicated wine producing region in Spain. The D.O.C. Rioja encompasses three Autonomous Communities, La Rioja being the largest. Along this section of the River Ebro (just over 100 kilometres between Haro and Alfaro, (the main towns either end of the region) we find 70% of the 60,000 hectares under vine which lie in the D.O.C. Rioja. Moreover, La Rioja is home to the majority of the wineries which, about 150 years ago, introduced a particular style of wine making and ageing which was new at the time in Spain and which, to a large extent, is now characteristic of Spanish wine on the international market.

Wine has been part of the life of the people of La Rioja for thousands of years and currently more than 20,000 families earn their living directly from viticulture and wine production; in addition, a large industry and service sector have evolved which are directly connected to making and marketing La Rioja wine in over 150 countries.

Wine has influenced all aspects of La Riojan culture, including early Spanish literature, where Gonzalo de Bercero wrote about "un vaso de bon vino" in San Millan de la Cogolla.


Various authors consider that Riojan wine dates back to before the Romans, around the 4th and 3rd Century B.C., when Greeks and Phoenicians sailed up and down the River Ebro, at the time navigable as far as Calahorra, the gateway to La Rioja, to trade with the ancient settlers in the region (Celtic, Hispanic, etc. and other villages).

However, the first documented evidence of wine making in La Rioja dates back to more recent times, the 5th century A.D. In fact, the san Millán miracle is attributed to precisely the end of that century, when a monk increased the quantity of wine to quench the thirst of the faithful.

Although there is no evidence to this effect, wine making obviously continued during the following centuries and it developed in the areas along the Santiago Route, which runs through La Rioja from the capital, Logroño, with landmarks such as Santo Domingo de la Calzada, one of the main towns along the Route. In fact, religious orders started to inhabit areas along the Santiago Route, primarily the monastic orders from Burgundy, who introduced their wine making techniques and boosted production in the area. Some commentators also tie in the arrival of the Tempranillo grape variety to this time, which is supposedly similar to Burgundy's Pinot Noir.

By the end of the Middle Ages the main La Riojan production centres were located along the Santiago Route, with Logroño being the most important and Nájera and Santo Domingo de la Calzada being the most notable vineyards. Haro was already becoming one of the important areas for La Rioja wine, as also happened in the east in Alfaro and Calahorra.

Local consumption was covered by family-run vineyards and wineries that essentially catered for their own needs, although there are some references to "wine for sale" in the 14th and 15th centuries. La Rioja's international calling began around the 16th century when harvesters in Logroño began to send consignments of wine to the Netherlands.


In the 17th century wine was one of the main economic activities in the region, and it even withstood the far reaching affects of the recession that hit the Spanish economy in that century and the pressure from crop farming. In fact, the need for crop farming set back viticulture in some areas such as La Rioja Baja and the areas of Nájera and Santo Domingo de la Calzada, but it actually boosted the activity, turning it into single crop farming, in places like Haro and its surrounds or, on the other side of the river, in Sonsierra.

This process of specialisation continued into the 18th century with a decade of extensive expansion in La Rioja vineyards, despite the fact that former leading producers, in particular in Santo Domingo de la Calzada and extensive areas of La Rioja Baja, had now opted tor crop farming. An example of this dedication to viticulture is the story told by the Marquis de la Ensenada, a Crown Minister from La Rioja, who said that in the 18th century there were no taverns in the town of Logrono because every doorway offered wine for tasting or for sale.

The 19th century was a crucial and difficult time for both La Rioja wine and the history of Spain itself. The decade began with a serious recession and war against Napoleon's French troops. The war ran from 1808 to 1814 and was followed by a series of successive civil wars, known as the "Carlist wars" disputing the succession to the Spanish throne, and which were mainly fought in the Ebro Valley.
Moreover, there was also the growing concern in the region to improve the quality of the wine which had a reputation for being shortlived and unsuitable for transporting. Towards the middle of the 19th century, the La Riojan wineries took their first steps towards adopting the production and ageing techniques applied in the leading viticulture areas in France. Years before, Manuel Quintano and the Marques de la Ensenada had tried to introduce these methods, but their efforts were thwarted by the economic recession sweeping the country. Change came about as a result of the political unrest in Spain during those years. Luciano de Murrieta, was among those who pioneered the introduction of these techniques. He was an officer in General Espartero's army, and accompanied his liberal-minded military leader during his exile to London. There he learned about Burgundy wines and became interested in their methods of production. Upon returning to Spain, he applied his new knowledge to the wines made in Espartero's home, in the centre of Logroño. He began selling this wine in 1852. In 1870 he moved to the Ygay Estate, 5 km from Logroño, which is home today to Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta. In 1982, the winery ceased to be the property of Luciano de Murrieta's descendants. The revolutionary initiative of the Marques de Murrieta and other enlightened individuals at the time, such as the Marques of Riscal, in Álava, the Count of Hervías or Felix de Azpilicueta, was aided by unexpected circumstances: the European vineyards succumbed to successive American plagues. From 1850 onwards, various plagues took hold (mildew, odium) and culminated in the phylloxera crisis that swept through European vineyards between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

These plagues first appeared in France, where their effects were more serious, since by the time the plague crossed over the Pyrenees into Spain, the French technicians had discovered a cure. In the meantime, France wanted to strengthen her depleted wine production using wines from other regions and La Rioja was one of the few chosen.

Consequently, the last part of the 19th century witnessed a boom in La Rioja wine production. French firms arrived and set up business to the south of the Pyrenees to make wines to suit their markets. Also, wineries were founded by Spanish businessmen from the region itself, or by industrialists from other regions, particularly the Basque country. In this era, a definitive step was taken to adopt the Bordeaux wine making and ageing system, the so called "método Médoc", which led to the development of the style of La Rioja wine which brought fame and fortune to the region.

The new wineries were mainly attracted to the city of Haro, particularly after the opening of the Haro-Bilbao rail link that gave rise to the famous Barrio de la Estación. A series of wineries located around the railway station and which even had their own loading platforms for cargo trains. In this era, the so called La Rioja "centenary wineries" were founded, many of which are still active today and are run by the founder´s descendants.

Prosperous times were not only apparent in La Rioja, but also in other wine producing regions in northern and central Spain, including the Balearic Islands. However, no other region embraced the new methods as much as La Rioja. Following the recovery of the French vineyards and the spread of phylloxera throughout Spain (it was declared in La Rioja in 1902 and affected 85% of land under vine. Replanting was not completed until 1922; from 1902 until 1922 the surface area under vine decreased from 52,592 hectares to 23,555), many other areas fell into recession.


In La Rioja, on the other hand, most of the wineries managed to hold out against the recession at the beginning of the 20th century and new entrepreneurs took over the wineries that the French investors sold when they returned home.

Moreover, they availed of the need for replanting to modernise the vineyard, introducing new planting frames which improved mechanisation. The downside, however, was that a large part of the rich diversity of grape varieties was lost, since many growers chose higher-yield or more plague-resistant strains.

Aslo around this time, in 1926, the La Rioja Denomination of Origin was formed, but it did not get off to a very good start. The 1932 Wine Statute gave new perspective to the D.O.

Rioja Regulating Council and regulated the denominations of origin (it is one of the few Republican laws that survived the civil war) until the Statute of Vines, Wine and Alcohol, the 1970 Wine Act was enacted. Nevertheless, the D.O. Rioja was reformed in 1947, 1953, 1956 and 1964.

The year 1970 is a major landmark in the development of La Rioja wine. As a result of the policy of economic development in the previous decade, the consumption of quality wine had increased considerably. In the 1970s, in several areas, particularly towns, bottled wine (in litre bottles) took over from the old bulk wines as the daily favourite. On high days and holidays, when purse strings were loosened, people began to select labelled wines.

At the time, the only labels available came from the veteran Riojan wineries and very few others.

Following the sales boom, new wineries were built and most of them were fairly large. This was the birth of the 70s generation that was led, to certain degree, by Marques  de Caceres. This soon became the most celebrated label in La Rioja, although it began the same way as Bodegas Campo Viejo, founded in 1963 by Savin, a table wine producer in Guipuzcoa, and Age Bodegas Unidas, known today as Bodegas Age. The wineries of Marques de Romeral and Felix Azpilicueta formed part of this group.


The 70s generation wineries led the roaring trade in regional wines and La Rioja became a reference for quality Spanish wine, with the exception of the classics from Jerez that are worthy of being classed in a league of their own. At the same time, a new type of La Rioja wine made its way onto the market. It caught on very well and, for many years, it was the symbol of most red wine producing areas in Spain.

Traditional trends began to change around this time. For example, one particular harvest that had only been classified as "very good" yet inferior to the excellent production in '64 or '82, proved to be very successful and became a legendary vintage. Although the La Rioja wine trade developed rather erraticcally, with periods of rapid growth followed by long periods of stagnation and slump, after the 70s these recessions became less damaging and ended more quickly. In fact, they are looked upon as exceptional periods in a successful career.

Nevertheless, trade still evolves in stops and starts, as is usual even in economic booms at home and abroad. For example, the middle of the 80s stands out as a significant period because the number of wineries escalated and became known as the generation of '85. Also, at the end of the 90s, La Rioja wine sales exceeded all expectations.

Meanwhile, the D.O. Rioja was reformed again, and in 1991 it became the first qualified Denomination of Origin in Spain. Naturally, this meant some important changes like the requirement to bottle all commercial wines at source. The 90s were also the setting for a further development that was perhaps less obvious, but equally influential. A whole new wave of young producers took the stage to manage Rioja's response to the production boom in other parts of Spain.

The new wines have greater body and strength and are intended to reflect the personality of the region's leading grape, Tempranillo. They experiment with minority grapes and update the region's wines yet again with modern techniques.
Contemporary producers are beginning to take a closer look at the vineyard, and pay particular attention to a philosophy that lays emphasis on the winery itself. The old style wines thought of a vineyard as little more than a necessary inconvenience and placed all its trust in production and, particularly, ageing. However, the new La Rioja wines evolve from in-depth knowledge of the original vineyard, estate selection, cultivation methods that prize quality over yield, and the application of state-of-the-art production techniques.

The beginning of the 21st century is seen as a time for firmly establishing the new style wines. They deserve to be included among the ranks of leading La Rioja labels, which have succeeded on their own merit in becoming some of the world's most select labels. In the next few years we will see how this new production philosophy extends to bulk consumption wines. They will gradually adapt to the tastes of a completely new consumer profile.

As always happens with La Rioja wine, new trends are introduced progressively and do not out traditional wines completely. These classic wines will always have their loyal admirers. Consequently, La Rioja wine can be the young annual red, the fruity white, the fragrant rosé, the barrel-aged white or the mature, velvety, aged red; the sturdy, potent wine, the lightest wine or the one with most body. This is precisely where its richness lies, making it one of the most prominent production areas in the world.

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