Rioja: Spain’s First DOC
Looks like another great day for the climbers, and another day of torture for everybody else! One of the longest of this year’s Vuelta, Stage Fourteen starts off with a few rolling hills over a fairly high plateau, takes it up a notch on a Cat 3 climb with a precipitous descent and, like a rollercoaster, forces the riders immediately up the Cat 1 climb to Puerto del Escudo, just over 1,000 meters. Then they basically do the same thing again – a bit of a plateau, an intermediate sprint, and a merciless ascent up the HC Alto Campoo to the nosebleed-level finish, above 6000 feet. Ugh.
As the peloton meanders through northern Spain, in and out of the Basque territory near Bilbao, we wine drinkers set our sights on one of the most famous wine regions of the world – Rioja. Named after the Oja River (Río Oja), a tributary of the mighty Ebro that slices from the northernmost point of Spain in a southeast diagonal, to the Mediterranean Sea. Wine production takes place in three delimited areas: Rioja Alavesa, which lies within the Basque province of Alavesa; Rioja Alta, in the western reaches of the DO; and Rioja Baja to the southeas, the warmest and driest of the three subregions thanks to its typically Mediterranean climate. Wines made here tend to be deeply colored and with potentially high alcohol levels. As a result, many of them find their way into blends comprising grapes from all three regions. Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa experience the very hot summers and frosty winters common to Continental climates, and the wines reflect that distinction of terroir in their relatively lighter color and body and higher acidity levels.
Rioja was the first Spanish wine region to be awarded DO status, back in 1926, and was also the first to be recognized as Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) in 1991, an honor that owes as much to the high price of grapes in Rioja as to the establishment of high-quality production standards. But Rioja did play an important role in the development of the Spanish wine industry, so it is helpful to understand a little about its history.
Grape growing and wine production in Spain trace their roots to Roman times, when both were part of a flourishing economy. Under Moorish rule, however, such pursuits were tolerated rather than encouraged by the Muslim Caliphates that reigned the country, and wine production faltered. With the success of the Reconquista and the return of Christians to power, winemakers were once again in favor, particularly as suppliers of sacramental wine to the nearby monasteries, which ran a brisk business selling it to the religious faithful making the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, not far away.
Rioja at that time was not connected to any of Spain’s major cities and was, in fact, quite isolated. The wine trade expanded only as far as a horse could travel until Bilbao, the Basque city at the very northern tip of the country, developed into a bustling center for international trade. To take advantage of the markets newly available through Bilbao, including the colonies in the New World, Luciano Murrieta founded the first bodega, later known as Marqués de Murrieta.
The Spanish wine industry got a second shot in the arm when powdery mildew (oidium) and then phylloxera destroyed so many of the vineyards of France. Bordeaux, particularly hard-hit, sent a considerable contingent of talented winemakers to Rioja, hoping for a new start in an area as yet unaffected by either plague. France’s loss was clearly Rioja’s gain, as the expats brought with them decades of experience not just in growing grapes, but in refining and adapting production techniques to craft a superior product. Spain also profited from the relaxation of import duties in France during this period, which made its wines more affordable and attractive to the French public. It was forty years of prosperity.
But, as with all economic cycles, downturns are inevitable. Once phylloxera had been eradicated from French soil, and the vineyards had been replanted using phylloxera-resistant root stocks from America, Bordeaux recovered. And bad luck finally brought the phylloxera louse to Spain, where it wreaked havoc on Rioja and many other wine regions. The colonial markets were lost to France, and wine production in Spain slowed to a crawl. For those of us who love Spanish wine and are particularly fond of Rioja, it’s great news that not only has the industry recovered, it’s better than perhaps it’s ever been.
Within the Rioja DOCa, red wines make up the majority of production, with Tempranillo the generally acknowledged star, but Garnacha and Graciano both contribute important characteristics to the blends (body and aromatic components, respectively.) Wine labels will identify Rioja red wines as any of the following (keep in mind that the word cosecha means harvest or vintage):
Joven – unoaked wine (joven means “young” in Spanish); on the lighter side; fresh
Crianza –released from the winery the third year after the vintage; at least 12 months in oak casks.
Reserva –released the fourth year after the vintage, with at least 12 months in oak
Gran Reserva – sold in the sixth year after the vintage, with at least two years in oak.
White wines are also made here, although less well-known than the reds. Macabeo (known as Viura here), Malvasía, and Verdejo are common in the blends, which generally see little or no time in oak, and tend to be crisp and light.
Rioja wines are easily available in the US, and I hope you will try one today, in honor of the poor peloton still toughing it out in the Cantabrian Mountains! Perhaps conduct your own experiment and taste a Crianza with a Reserva and Gran Reserva. Are the older wines more noticeably oak-driven? What about the fruit? Most wine lovers have a definite opinion about the role of oak in Rioja – what do you think?