Europe has been able to maintain distinct cultures over a relatively small land area; you cross over a border between European countries, and everything from the language to the food to the architecture can be different. The reason for these distinct cultures may be geological as much as anything else; many countries in Europe are divided by treacherous mountain ranges. Before the advent of the printing press, the transport of people, and therefore, ideas, was difficult. Only exceptional motivators like war, pestilence, and religion were sufficient to cause groups of people to migrate. When new concepts moved into new regions this slowly, they came up against strong existing cultures. As a result, only the best ideas were incorporated into local tradition.
From a wine perspective, nowhere is this more evident than Spain, and Rioja, in particular. The Rioja region is tucked into the valley of the River Ebro flowing through the Pyrenees mountains of northeastern Spain. It has been home to vineyards since the Romans began growing grapes there 2,700 years ago. Through the Moorish occupation and into the middle ages, Rioja remained in relative isolation, developing their own methods of winemaking, which relied heavily on large oak casks and red blends of Tempranillo, Garnacha and Graciano.
In the 1840s, back on the other side of the Pyrenees, powdery mildew -- an unintentional import from the Americas -- began to wreak havoc on the vineyards of France’s largest winemaking region, Bordeaux. Vines were compromised, and the supply of grapes began to wane. The Bordelaise winemakers decided to find a new source of wine. Fortunately, the mountainous barrier between France and Spain formed by the Pyrenees isolated Rioja from the mildew. Bordelaise winemakers flocked to Rioja, bringing with them new ideas about winemaking and perhaps as importantly, money.
The existing wine producers of Rioja relished the opportunity and quickly increased both quantity and quality. When phylloxera hit France hard in the 1860s, even more French winemakers arrived, and investments in railways and large, French style Chateaux -- called Bodegas in Spain -- further advanced Rioja’s standing in the wine world. By the late 19th century, Rioja was sending as much as 13.2 million gallons of wine each month to France! But, this golden era didn’t last, and as French vineyards began to recover from phylloxera, Rioja, with it’s newfound exposure to the world, was struck by it in 1901. On its heels were the Spanish Civil War and World War II, shrinking the profile of Spanish wine in the global marketplace.
During Rioja’s brief stint as France’s wine savior, it gained knowledge without losing identity. While some Bordelaise winemaking techniques were adopted, the red blends continued to be made from Tempranillo, Garnacha and Graciano, instead of the ubiquitous Cabernet and Merlot. Additionally, the Riojans continued with their tradition of aging in American, rather than French, oak. Producers felt that American oak provided notes such as coconut that integrated better with their wines than the vanilla flavor of French oak, which can be overpowering. And the result is a gorgeous wine that is a blend, rather than a clash, of cultures.
Rioja, even with its rising popularity over the last few years, still offers wines that are a great value. A little bit of background and terminology will give you a big advantage when looking for a bottle. One of the best features of Rioja is that the wines are released “ready to drink” and don’t require aging that French wines often need to reach their peak. So don’t be surprised to see vintages from the early 2000s on the wine store shelves. There are 4 aging classifications in Rioja: Joven, Crianza, Riserva and Gran Reserva. Joven, which is rare to see in the US, is not aged in oak, and will be the lightest and fruitiest wine. Crianza spends at least one year in oak and one year in the bottle. Riserva spends at least one year in oak and at least 2 years in the bottle. And Gran Riserva, made only in the best years, gets at least 2 years in oak and 3 years in the bottle. The longer the oak aging, the richer and deeper the wines, and the higher the price. Great wines -- some of my favorites across all categories -- are made by Lopez de Heredia and La Rioja Alta. As the French discovered over 150 years ago, these wines are worth a little extra effort to get your hands on.