Until 1435, paintings were more or less nice representations of images, but for today’s observers a bit bizarre. Figures were painted on flat backgrounds, and objects overlapped or were placed on top of each other. Those paintings convey messages, but they lack something.
Then master painters created a new, more complex, and more emotional dimension to their compositions. Two men made that breakthrough possible: Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti. The first famously discovered the principles of perspective, while Alberti produced a treatise on its applications to painting. A new art was created out of science.
Making a name
Until 1858, Rioja was a region producing lots of wine, quite common wine. In 1833, Cyrus Redding wrote his masterpiece on wines of the world, A History and Description of Modern Wines. For Spain, he gave many details about Sherry, Val de Peñas (as he wrote it) and other regions, but not a single word about Rioja – this seems incredible today. There was no ambiguity, however: Rioja was not a fine wine region.
Then two expatriated marqueses intervened. Although not connected in any way, they did the same thing at very similar times. Marqués de Riscal and Marqués de Murrieta brought the science and technology developed in Bordeaux to Rioja. Viticulture was improved, grape selection, de-stemming and extended maceration applied, and – most importantly – the craft of controlled ageing of wine in oak barrels was imported. A new fine wine was created out of science.
The first of these wines produced using the Bordeaux method received many accolades, even in France. Rioja became the wine of Spain’s wealthy. These wines were not only impressively good, they could also improve over a long time in bottle and develop the capacity to last over several generations. I have had the opportunity to taste all Riscal vintages from its founding cuvée, 1862, until 1920. Most wines were amazingly alive, complex, refined. Jewels.
It was not long until what had started out as a tiny industry became a major player in wine markets, thanks to another imported innovation: the train. Until the 1870s the only way of freighting wine out of Rioja was in mule carts. When the train line between Haro and Bilbao became operational in 1875, Rioja wine found an easy route to urban markets in Spain and France, and a number of wineries were created around the Haro train station. The Rioja wine region was born.
Wine production increased exponentially, with both good and bad results, when phylloxera devastated French vineyards. On the positive side, many French investors set up businesses in Rioja, accelerating the process of technology transfer from Bordeaux to the region. On the negative side, most exported wine was of average quality.
The whole business came to a halt when, after finding the remedy for the vine plague, the French imposed prohibitive import tariffs on Spanish wines and developed wine production in the Languedoc and then Algeria.
At the same time, phylloxera reached Rioja, with similarly devastating effects as in France. Here though, they were able to apply the solution of grafting to American rootstocks relatively quickly.
Every cloud has a silver lining, and what was deemed a disaster at the time can be seen as a blessing with hindsight. Rioja producers were forced to concentrate on quality; wineries had to compete with each other using ever more refined adaptations of the Bordeaux method. Indeed, the second golden age of Rioja came after that crisis, in the 1920s, during a period in which Spain’s exports of quality wine were close to nil.
One of Rioja’s most distinctive features – and most solid assets – is the reliability of its brands. For more than a century, the best Rioja wineries have been releasing wines with clearly hierarchised brands that are easily identified by loyal customers. Most of those brands were built on the work of the bodega. The Rioja business model was not based on bodegas owning relevant land holdings; most grapes were bought from many small vine-growers. Wineries, having the trading power, decided quite logically to highlight their own work as the most relevant for the brand. Therefore, many classic Rioja wines are identified by the winery rather than by the vineyard (with some well-known exceptions).
Rioja winemakers introduced further refinements to Bordeaux’s blending craftsmanship. They became masters not only of blending grape varieties, as in Bordeaux, but also of blending wines from different vineyards, some of them geographically distant from each other. Rioja is smaller than Bordeaux, but far more varied in climate and landscapes. Rioja Oriental (formerly known as Rioja Baja) is very different to Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa, with a warmer and drier climate, for instance. Inside those sub-regions, the terroir variations are also impressive. Rioja winemakers realised that they could get excellent quality and consistency across vintages by blending wines from different origins.
Therefore, classic Rioja is a blend. Those who fell in love with Rioja more than 20 years ago are fascinated by blends of terroirs rather than by single terroirs. A blended wine is excellent if, and only if, all the blend components are excellent and the master blender is very skilled. For that reason it was taken for granted that the best vineyards were used to produce the best wines, so there was no point in highlighting them.
By the end of the last century, Spain had become an affluent country. More wine professionals could afford to travel abroad in search of better information; consequently, both self-confidence and the willingness to innovate grew. Winemakers realised that Rioja owned an impressive heritage of old vines planted in privileged sites, capable of rendering excellent wines. In addition, revised Rioja regulations allowed small vine-growers to produce wine. The vineyard was ready to play a much more visible role in the image of Rioja.
New wines from selected plots started to appear, in many cases with resounding success. However, since Rioja DOCa appellation rules did not foresee the certification of wines made with grapes from a single vineyard, the exclusivity of those wines was not guaranteed. The producer’s word was more than enough in most cases, but there was a risk that anyone could claim single-plot status with misleading wording, and this threatened to erode the prestige of the term ‘single-vineyard’.
Therefore, the appellation has worked to develop a system that provides guarantees on wines from individual plots, the viñedo singular (VS). Its purpose is to control and protect wines that are made with grapes cultivated in a demarcated area, whose characteristics are deemed worthy of protection.
Viñedos singulares are still associated with the wineries, since they need to own the vineyards or have a long-term lease. (In this aspect the system is very different to that of Burgundy, where the classification refers to grapes rather than to wines.) Each VS must be registered as a commercial brand, which can only be used in association with Rioja DOCa.
The production requirements are stricter than for other Rioja wines, using the following criteria:
• Vines must be 35 years old or older
• Maximum authorised yields are at least 20% lower than for generic Rioja
• Maximum grape-to-wine ratio is 0.65kg/litre (0.7 for non-VS wines)
• Manual harvesting is compulsory.
In addition to complying with these criteria, candidate wines undergo a double-blind tasting evaluation as a pre-condition for certification.
The quality pyramid is built with two other intermediate categories, vino de zona and vino de municipio. The zonas are the classic Rioja Alavesa, Alta and Oriental. Municipio is roughly equivalent to the French villages categories.
As the borders for zonas and municipios are political rather than natural, the denominations can be used even if up to 15% of the grapes used in a wine come from neighbouring areas.
It is too early to assess the impact these measures have had on quality, but it is all too obvious to see that this protection was necessary.
Origin and ageing
The new legal protection measures are not a substitute for the classic system for evaluating quality in Rioja – ageing. Rioja was born to the fine wine world because of the capacity of its wines to reveal their greatness after oak ageing.
Even now, a Rioja gran reserva label is very likely to guarantee the wine lover a wine of very good quality and great personality. What’s more, the appellation has recently introduced modifications to the regulation in terms of minimum ageing requirements, which should sustain this image. Thus, in Rioja there is not a single quality pyramid but two interwoven quality classifications, one referring to origin and the other to ageing.
The Rioja appellation is the oldest in Spain, and although it was inspired by the French example, in practice it is quite different to French appellations. In France, the most prestigious appellations protect one or several wine typologies. For instance, Château Margaux produces an excellent white wine in Margaux that cannot be labelled Margaux because that appellation is exclusively for red wines. Rioja’s mandate refers to the territory. It extends to all styles of wine: red, white, rosé, sweet and, most recently, sparkling.
The DOCa sets production conditions that should be conducive to quality, but these are not linked to a particular style of wine. This means that the appellation system can respond to changing market demands while keeping the necessary quality controls in place.
This is the rationale behind the creation of a new official category in Rioja: sparkling wines, to be labelled as Espumoso de Rioja. In broad terms, these wines can be white or rosé and must be made according to the méthode traditionnelle, with minimum lees ageing times of 15 months for basic-level wines (as in Champagne), 24 months for reserva and 36 months for gran reserva. Other production conditions are similar to those in Champagne and Franciacorta.
The Cava appellation includes a number of wineries in Rioja, which will now have to choose between the two appellations. As the Cava wines are remarkably good, the rationale for offering high-quality sparkling Rioja is sound. Other wineries have also stated their intention to produce sparkling Rioja. While it is too early to comment on the effects of this measure, there is certainly a good potential market for the wines.
Rioja is a classic born of past innovation. It needs further innovation to ensure its role as a classic in the next century. The recent changes are a step in that direction, rather than a completely redrawn picture. Rioja will undoubtedly continue to attract new admirers while keeping us old lovers infatuated.