The first traces of viticulture in Spanish Rioja date back to the 11th century BC, when the Phoenicians colonized the region. Since then, the locals have produced wine almost continuously. Although La Rioja’s geography is not conducive to wine exports, its climate is excellent for production. Consequently, until the 1800s, most Rioja wines were drunk by residents or pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.

A series of technological advances and environmental disasters from the 18th to the end of the 20th century. The development of Rioja in the 19th century not only contributed to its longevity, but also made it one of the most famous wine regions in Spain.

Rioja in November / Getty

The beginnings of Rioja wine

Until the 1700s, Rioja wine was made by trampling the grapes in stone troughs. The wine was stored underground in amphorae that were often poorly sealed, and because it was exposed to oxygen, the wine often spoiled quickly or turned into vinegar.

The small amount of wine exported had to be packed in leather water bottles called bota bags. They were marked with a seal indicating that the Rioja wine was made only from local grapes.

The first attempt to improve winemaking in the region was made by Don Manuel Esteban Quintano Quintano, a native of Rioja who went to Bordeaux to learn how to make wine that tastes good, travels well and gets better with age.

One of the main techniques he learned is to age wines in oak barrels to balance their flavor and protect them from spoilage. Soon it was possible to ship wine to America, but the expensive oak barrels fell into disuse in Spain due to zoning regulations. It also didn’t help that Don Manuel tried to promote French-inspired viticulture when the French army invaded Spain in 1808 during the Napoleonic Wars.

Oak barrels were reintroduced almost a century later by Luciano Murrieta and García-Ortiz de Lemoine. He learned to appreciate Bordeaux wines by visiting his friend Baldomero Espartero in London.

 

When Baldomero returned to his estate in the Rioja, Luciano followed him. Like Don Manuel, he felt that Rioja wines were not as good as Bordeaux wines. So he went to Bordeaux to find out how winemakers make such delicious and portable wine. Unlike Don Manuel, Luciano’s technique is received with enthusiasm upon his return to Spain.

Wine growers harvest grapes in Rioja in 1910. / Alamyia

Railways and Phylloxera

While these innovations have improved the longevity of Rioja wine, they have not made it easier to transport the bottles outside the region. This problem was solved after the completion of the railway network in the middle of the 19th century. The century is over. The railway connected La Rioja with two important port cities, Irun and Bilbao, facilitating the access of wine producers to important national and international markets.

In the mid-1800s, the railway coincided with two other environmental events in the early 20th century. The first was the appearance of a fungus called powdery mildew in the vineyards of Galicia, one of the other wine-producing regions of Spain. Downy mildew has weakened affected vines and reduced grape yields, impacting the wine industry. The vineyards of La Rioja have remained largely intact and have begun to fill in the gaps left by the cessation of wine production in Galicia.

Then, in 1863, a phylloxera epidemic hit France. Many winemakers have settled in Rioja. Their experience has contributed to the region’s meteoric rise.

The boom lasted until the end of the 19th century. But it was discovered that vines could be protected by grafting them onto wax-resistant American rootstocks. By grafting American vines, Rioja’s winegrowers were able to avoid the devastation that afflicted French vineyards.

At the beginning of the 20th century At the end of the 19th century Rioja was ready to establish itself as one of the best wine regions in the world.

Winery Rioja Marqués De Riscal, founded in 1858 / Photo courtesy of the Marquis de Riscal

Civil war, World War I, World War II and Rioja wine growers

Just when it seemed that Rioja winemakers would breathe a sigh of relief, World War I (1914-1918) decimated European markets. Then in 1936 the Spanish Civil War broke out and vineyards across the country were abandoned or destroyed.

The end of the war offered a brief respite. Severe food shortages led to the destruction of many of the remaining vineyards to grow crops.

Bilbaínas winery, opened in Rioja in 1901 / Photo courtesy of Bilbainas Winery

The Spanish wine sector only began to recover after the Second World War (1939-1945), when European markets were reopened. It wasn’t until 1970, with the appearance of the legendary Rioja grape variety, that international consumers regained interest in Spanish wines. The death of dictator Francisco Franco five years later helped transform Spain into a democracy with more economic freedom. La Rioja has begun to regain its former international prestige.

Late 20th century In the early 20th century Rioja became known for its delicious and affordable wines that could be drunk shortly after purchase. In 1991, the Spanish authorities granted Rioja the status of Denominación de Origen Calificada, in recognition of the high quality and consistency of its wines. Only Rioja and Priorat in Catalonia received this ranking, in which they appear as the best wine regions of Spain.

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