martes, 7 de agosto de 2012

Rioja Wine Region


Rioja, the leading wine region of spain, producing predominantly red wines in the north of the country. Named after the rio (river) Oja, a tributary of the river Ebro, most of the Rioja wine region lies in the autonomous region of La Rioja in north east Spain, although parts of the zone extend into the neighbouring basque country to the north west and navarra to the north east. Centred on the regional capital Logroño, Rioja divides into three zones along the axis of the river Ebro. Rioja Alta occupies the part of the Ebro valley west of Logroño and includes the wine-making town of Haro Rioja Alavesa is the name given to the section of the zone north of the river Ebro which falls in the Basque province of Alava Rioja Baja extends from the suburbs of Logroño south and east to include the towns of Calahorra and Alfaro.


There is archaeological evidence that the Romans made wine in the upper Ebro valley. Wine trade was tolerated rather than encouraged under the Moorish occupation of Iberia, but viticulture flourished once more in Rioja after the Christian reconquest at the end of the 15th century. The name Rioja was already in use in one of the statutes written to guarantee the rights of inhabitants of territory recaptured from the Moors. Rioja’s wine industry grew around the numerous monasteries that were founded to serve pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela, and the region’s first wine laws date from this period.

For centuries Rioja suffered from its physical isolation from major population centres, and the wines found a market outside the region only in the 1700s, when communications improved and Bilbao became an important trading centre. In 1850, Luciano de Murrieta (subsequently the Marqués de Murrieta) established Rioja’s first commercial bodega in cellars belonging to the Duque de Vitoria and began exporting wines to the Spanish colonies. The Rioja region benefited unexpectedly, but substantially, from the all too obvious arrival of Powdery Mildew in French vineyards in the late 1840s. Bordeaux wine merchants crossed the Pyrenees in large numbers and in 1862 the Provincial Legislature in Alava employed a French adviser to help local vinegrowers. Shunned by smallholders who were concerned only with the requirements of the local Basque market, Jean Pineau was finally employed by the Marques de Riscal, who set about building a bodega at Elciego along French lines. It was finished in 1868, four years before Murrieta built its own similar installation at Ygay.

When the Phylloxera louse began to devastate French vineyards in the late 1860s, yet more merchants came to Spain in search of wine. French duties were relaxed and Rioja enjoyed an unprecedented boom which lasted for nearly four decades. New bodegas were established, among them the Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España (CVNE), López de Heredia, La Rioja Alta, and Bodegas Franco-Españolas, all of which were heavily influenced by the French. During this period the 225-l/59-gal oak barrica, or Barrique, was introduced from Bordeaux, and these influential maturation containers are still sometimes referred to as barricas bordelesas in Rioja (although American Oak was the popular choice). Helped by a new rail link, Rioja sometimes exported 500,000 hl/13.2 million gal of wine a month to France in the late 19th century.

Phylloxera did not reach Rioja until 1901, by which time Bordeaux had returned to full production with vines grafted onto phylloxera resistant Rootstocks. Spain also lost its lucrative colonial markets and Rioja’s wine industry declined rapidly. A number of new bodegas were established in the period following the First World War and Spain’s first Consejo Regulador was established in Rioja in 1926, but the Civil War (1936-9) and the Second World War which followed put paid to further expansion. Recovery came in the late 1960s and 1970s, when, encouraged by growing foreign markets and the construction of a motorway connecting Logroño and Bilbao, a number of new bodegas were built in the region, many with the support of multinational companies, which later sold back the wineries to Spanish firms.

Sales on the domestic market continued to grow throughout the 1980s, while exports recovered strongly in the 1990s after significant price increases in the late 1980s cut them sharply. Rioja was promoted from DO to DOCA status in 1991.


Rioja enjoys an enviable position among Spanish wine regions. Sheltered by the Sierra de Cantabria to the north and west, it is well protected from the rain-bearing Atlantic winds that drench the Basque coast immediately to the north. Yet Rioja’s wine producers rarely experience the climatic extremes that burden growers in so much of central and southern Spain. It is difficult to make climatic generalizations, however, about a region that stretches about 120 km/75 miles from north west to south east. Indeed, Spanish critics argue that within this sigle DO there are several entirely different wine-producing regions.

The vineyards range in altitude 300 m/984 ft above sea level at Alfaro in the east to nearly 800 m on the slopes of the Sierra de Cantabria to the north west. Average annual rainfall increases correspondingly from less than 300 mm/12 in in parts of Rioja Baja to over 500 mm in the upper zones of Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa.

Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa share a similar climate and are distinct from from ecah other for mainly administrative reasons, although there are soil differences between the two. Many of the best grapes are grown here on the cooler slopes to the north west around the towns and villages of Haro, Labastida, San Vicente, Laguardia, Elciego, Fuenmayor, Cenicero, and Briones. These zones share similar clay soils based on limestone. Downstream to the east, the climate becomes gradually warmer with rainfall decreasing to less than 400 mm at Logroño. Where the valley broadens, there is a higher incidence of fertile, alluvial soils composed chieflv of silt. Around Calahorra and Alfaro in Rioja Baja the climate is more mediterranean. In summer, drought is often a problem here, and temperatures frequently reach 30 to 35 °C/ 95 °F.


Seven grape varieties (four red. three white) qualify for Rioja's Denominación de Origen and their distribution varies in different: parts of the region. The most widely planted variety is the probably indigenous, black Tempranillo, which ripens well on the clay and limestone slopes of Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa, where it forms the basis for the region’s best wines and in the mid 2000s was planted on nearly 40,000 of the regions 62,000 ha/153,000 acres of vineyard.

Most Riojas are blends of more than one variety, however, and wines made from the garnacha vine, which after phylloxera superseded native varieties in the Rioja Baja, are often used to add body to Tempranillo, which can taste thin on its own in cooler vintages. On its own. Garnacha produces hefty alcoholic red wines. Rioja, like neighbouring Navarra, produces rosé entirely from Garnacha grapes. Two further red varieties Mazuelo (Cariñena or carignan) and Graciano, are of relatively minor importance. Although Mazuelo is not especially prized for quality, the indigenous Graciano great potential, contributing to the 310 and structure of the wine. Owing to its susceptibility to disease and its low productivity, Graciano fell from favour with Rioja´s  vine-growers before a strong revival in the 1990s when the area devoted to this variety grew back to 200 ha/500 acres and varietal versions are no longer oddities.

The Cabernet Sauvignon vines which arrived with the French in the 19th century are
allowed by special dispensation in vineyards belonging to the Marques de Riscal. Several other companies have experimental plantings of this Bordeaux grape, and of white imports such as Chardonnay.

Historically, until Phylloxera arrived, Rioia's chief white grape variety was Malvasia. On its own, it produced rich, alcoholic, dry white wines which responded well to ageing in oak. However, Viura (known elsewhere in Spain as Macabeo) took over as the most planted light-berried variety in the region and from the early 1970s, fresher-tasting, cool-fermented, early-bottled white wines were in Fashion all over Spain. By the 1990s, most white Riojas were made exclusively from Viura, and Malvasia vines were extremely difficult to find, although some of the traditional oak-aged whites and new barrel-fermented wines are blends of Malvasia and Viura.

Vineyards in Rioja tend to be small, especially in Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa, where vines are often interspersed with other crops. Vines used to be free-standing Bush Vines trained into low goblet shapes, but of the thousands of hectares of new vineyard which have been planted since the 1970s, most are trained on Wires. This resulted in a marked and alarming increase in yields in the region in the 1990s, even before irrigation was legalized in the late 1990s. Official DO limits are 63 hl/ha (3.5 tons/acre) for white wines and 45 hl/ha for red wines. In 1998, there were about 50,000 ha of authorized vineyards, producing an average of about 2 million hl/53 million gal of wine, of which about 80 per cent was red.


Grapes are usually delivered to large, central wineries belonging either to one of the cooperatives or to a merchant’s bodega. Most wineries in Rioja are reasonably well equipped with a modern stainless steel plant and facilities for temperature control.

Rioja wine-making is characterized not by fermentation techniques but by barrel maturation, however, and the shape and size of the 225-l barrica bordelesa introduced by the french in the mid 19th century is laid down by law. The regulations also specify the minimum ageing period for each officially recognized category of wine. In Rioja, red wines labelled crianza and reserva must spend at least a year in oak, while a gran reserva must spend at least two years. In common with other Spanish wine regions, American oak has been the favoured wood type for wine maturation. New American oak barrels give the soft, vanilla flavour that has become accepted as typical of Rioja, but a similar effect can also be achieved by slow, oxidative maturation in older barrels. French oak is used, increasingly, however.

Over 40 per cent of all Rioja falls into one of the three oak-aged categories above (the rest is either white, rosé, or sold as young, unoaked joven red, much of it within Spain), and the larger bodegas therefore need tens of thousands of casks. In the late 1990s, the largest producer of Rioja, Bodegas Campo Viejo, maintained a stock of over 45,000 barricas. Most bodegas renew their barricas on a regular basis; new oak use is on the increase and the number of traditional producers who pride themselves on the age of their casks is dwindling. Some new producers are also spurning the tradional categories and bottling their oak-aged wine with a basic, generic Rioja back label.

After the widespread adoption of cool fermentation techniques in the 1970s, the amount of oak-aged white Rioja progressively diminished. López de Heredia, Marqués de Murrieta, and only a few other bodegas upheld the traditional style by ageing their white wines in oak barricas. For whites labelled Crianza, Reserva, or Gran Reserva, the minimum wood-ageing period is just six months with a further year, two years, or four years respectively before the wines may be released for sale. By the mid 1990s, a large number of producers had switched to fashionable barrel fermentation, however, in effect reviving the region’s traditional white wine vinification method.

Some reds as well as whites may occasionally need acidification.


Rioja’s vineyards are split among nearly 20,000 growers, most of whom tend their plots as a sideline and have no wine-making facilities of their own, although in Rioja Alavesa they have been financially encouraged by the Basque regional government to acquire them. Many growers have an established contract with one of the merchant bodegas, whose numbers rocketed from about 100 in the mid 1990s to more than 500 a decade later. Others belong to one of the 30 cooperatives that serve the region and receive around 45 per cent of the grapes. Most cooperatives sell their produce, either as must or as newly made wine, to the merchant bodegas, who blend, bottle, and market the wine under their own labels.

In the 1980s, a number of bodegas bought up large tracts of land to plant their own vineyards, although few as yet have sufficient to supply their entire needs. A number of single estates, such as Contino and Remelluri, have also emerged, with the distinction, rare for the region, of growing, vinifying, and marketing their own wines.

Like other Spanish Dos, Rioja is controlled by a consejo regulator. Based in Logroño, the Consejo keeps a register of all vineyards and bodegas and monitors the movement of stocks from the vineyard to the bottle.

The Consejo also maintains laboratories at Haro and Laguardia where tests are carried out on all wines before they are approved for export. Alter a long debate dating from the 1970s, Rioja was granted DOCA status in 1991. The qualifications have little to do with absolute quality, the single most important being that Rioja's grape prices are at least 200 per cent above the national average. The Consejo Regulador set itself the target of mandatory bottling within the region, was defeated in the European union court in 1992, but finally won on appeal in 2000.

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