So, we all know the name, but what does it actually mean? Does Rioja refer to a style of wine? A grape variety? A region of origin? In fact, Rioja is the last of these three: a wine producing region of northern Spain.
Like most of Spain, vines and winemaking were introduced here by the Romans, a tradition which has continued ever since, albeit with a substantial break during the years of the Moorish occupation from 711 AD.
From the middle ages until the late 19th century, wine from Rioja, as in most parts of Spain, was made for consuming locally and with no great ceremony. Wine was a part of the peasant diet, no more, no less. Workers’ rations at a Riojan monastery in 1205 consisted of “Bread, cheese and wine at midday, bread and wine in the afternoon and bread, meat and wine in the evening.”
What changed Rioja’s fortunes was the arrival of phylloxera vastatrix in France in the 1860s. This splendidly-named vine pest from America attacked the roots of grapevines, causing them to die. Merchants from Bordeaux, whose vineyards were some of the first to succumb, travelled over the Pyrenées in search of substitute wines to sell – and Rioja is where they found what they were looking for.
These were merchants, not grape growers or winemakers, so they confined themselves to sourcing, blending and ageing wines from across the region. They also brought the idea of ageing in oak barrels with them – though it was American rather than French oak which dominated in those early years.
These two elements – blending wines from across the region and ageing in oak barrels – continue to be a hallmark of Rioja today.
After its initial success, there followed an almost inevitable rise to international fame, followed by a long period of whittling away at its own reputation by an industrial attitude to production and little respect for quality. Since the 1990s, however, thanks to greater competition from within and outside Spain, Rioja has been forced to up its game and to begin to justify its reputation once again.
Riojas ancient and modern
Marquès de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial 2007 - £66 a bottle from Hard to Fine Wines and other independent merchants
Two Marqueses, de Murrieta and de Riscal, probably helped lure those first Bordelais merchants over the Pyrenées. Founded in 1852, Marques de Murrieta has been a constant feature of the Riojan wine scene ever since. This wine is made in the best years, mostly Tempranillo with 14% Mazuelo (aka Carignan), aged for 26 months in American oak, then a minimum of three years in bottle before release. This is a taste of tradition, with gentle maturing charms.
Marquès de Cáceres Rioja Reserva 2011 - £12.99 (mix six price) from Majestic
This bodega was the first to introduce new French oak to the region in 1970 and it continues to have a thoroughly modern approach to its wines: plenty of juicy fruit and only a little oak influence.
López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Blanco Reserva 2003 - £25.95 from Hennings, £28.50 from Woodwinters; Avery’s list the 2002 for £26
Yes, those vintages are correct. Viña Tondonia is an ultra-traditional, long-lived style of both red and white wine. In this white wine, Viura grapes (a humdrum, inexpressive variety) are transformed via six years’ ageing in barrel and more in bottle into a rich golden, bone dry wine of depth and elegance. It is fabulous with wild mushroom dishes or mature hard cheeses.