Rioja: The Bordeaux of Spain

Jun 22, 2009

Good wine ruins the purse, bad wine the stomach – Spanish proverb

When I first discovered wine, I wanted to drink only Bordeaux. But lo and behold, I also discovered that Bordeaux and many other French offerings are often quite pricey, not just for the Canadian market, but for my budget.

Because my approach is very Mediterranean, I regard wine as more of a food than an alcoholic beverage. Looking into my wallet, I have to think about my bank account and realize I have a decision to make. I eat food everyday but I drink wine everyday. What’s it going to be? 

A compromise is necessary. 

And that compromise is – Spain. 

Because it’s easy on the pocketbook and elegant on the palate. Spanish wine is the first place, I believe, where wine lovers should begin on their educational journeys. The country is abundant with value-driven reds and whites - still, sparkling and fortified.

Even the prominent wine regions are affordable. Ribera del Duero has its Vega Sicilia but there are numerous under twenty dollar Tempranillos that will wow the most hardened Aussie wine buyer.

As for myself, I keep coming back to Rioja. If a wine could be a woman, she’d have black hair, almond-coloured eyes and honey-tanned skin. Draped in a mantilla and standing on a sunset-washed balcony she is there behind the encompassing sip. She is Rioja.

(Though I enjoy Cabernet Sauvignon, I’m sorry to report that, in lieu of my Spanish sweetheart, I actually imagine a spoiled, wrinkly rich woman in an Eric Roehmer film complaining to her friend she cannot eat trout unless she is near a river.)

But though I don't chose Bordeaux in the LCBO, I have to acknowledge its influence on Rioja.

If it wasn’t for the Bordelais, my favourite wine region of North-Central Spain might still be making white wine and cheap reds.

Just a few centuries ago, little wine was exported from Rioja due to the poor state of the roads. Located in North-Central Spain, Rioja rarely ever reached the outside world. Despite the famed pilgrim’s path to Santiago de Compostella passing right through it, the best way for wine to reach the cosmopolitan markets of northern Europe was by water. Rioja stood landlocked.

But it still wasn’t really Rioja even though the first wine laws that came into place stated it was. In 1560, John Radford comments in The New Spain, there were already “…regulations concerning the treatment of grapes, musts and wine… In 1635, the major of Logroño [a town in Rioja] banned traffic from using streets next to bodegas in order to prevent vibration from damaging the wines.” Talk about precautions! But comparing the suspension-less carts of old to the smooth ride of a modern automobile, the man had a point.

With all these safety measures, if the wine said ‘Rioja’ on it, it had to be from the region. But even though the wines came from the region on the River Ebro (Rio Oja – name of an Ebro Tributary, oja – leaf in Spanish), it was only until the eighteenth and nineteenth century that the wines began to aspire towards fame and their present character.


In the 16th, 17th, and early 18th century, many winemakers continued to make their wine in methods initiated by the Romans. Despite all the regulations on carts and musts, traditional lagos (lit. ‘lakes’)or tanks made of either plaster or cement, located in the basement of houses remained the basic container and tool at a winemakers' disposal. Apparently everything, the “…grapes, stalks and all,” noted Julian Jeffs in his The Wines of Spain, were thrown in to these lagos. Add some light foot stomping and soon after, the violent fermentation would begin. (Violent because it couldn’t be controlled. The temperature would rise and fall depending on the time of the day and the weather conditions.)

After a week, the first wine or vino de lagrima (lit. wine of tears) would run into a smaller tank, leaving most of the grapes still intact. These were turned over and further fermentation took place, which produced the second run or heart wine (vino de corazon), the better of the two. 

The wine of the first run was added to the heart wine. The blend of musts was then run into large oak casks where the last fermentation took place over a period of months. As Jeffs notes, this process is still used today and resembled a “primitive form of carbonic maceration”.

But again, the wine wasn’t the wine we now know. The wine of the peasants with their lagos-style of winemaking could have continued had it not been for three men.

The first man to step on the scene and dust away the old traditions happened to be a priest. 

Manuel Quintano y Quintano was canon of the Burgos Cathedral and a native of the region. At the end of the 18th century, he undertook an excursion to Bordeaux. There, he curiously observed that the French winemakers used barrels to store and age their wine instead of cement.

Aware of the possibilities and equally impressed with the French vintages, he returned to Spain and did the same thing. The French coopers had perfected the method of keeping barrels airtight by using a bung on the ‘belly’ of the cask. Quintano filled the barrels with Rioja wines and sent them to Cuba and Mexico. The time spent in barrels crossing the ocean gave the wines a pleasant oaky flavour and the first seeds of Rioja’s fame were planted.

City of Burgos

Of course, with all innovation comes resistance (I think of Einstein’s quote: “Great spirits have often encountered violent opposition from weak minds”). Quintano’s Rioja wines were truly wonderful but met with adamant hostility by his fellow winemakers as well as the government. 

Intimidated and threatened by Quintano’s innovation, the winemakers preferred their traditional lagos-style wine while the authorities, not being able to embrace the idea of enhancing the overall quality of the region, declared all Rioja must be sold at the same price. “The cost of buying barrels and aging wines for three years was disallowed,” Hugh Johnson writes in his perennial book, The Story of Wine, “even on appeal to the Council of Castile.”

While dealing with unimaginative peasants may not have been the worse thing in the world, Napoleon showed up in Spain. With his brother and army in tow, the Iberian people were engulfed in The Peninsula War for the next six years. During this time, Quintano finally gave it up, turned his back on winemaking and, in leaving the simple-minded peasants and officials to wrangle with their traditions and wars, he returned to his cathedral in Burgos.

A half century later, two marqueses sat on the wrong side of the First Carlist War (a war in which a pretender to the throne, Carlos V, fought the Cristinos, followers of Queen Isabella.) Both were also very familiar with Bordeaux.

Exiled in London, England, Peruvian-born Colonel Luicano de Murrieta y Garcia-Lemoine took a liking to French wine. On the way back to his beloved Spain, he made a detour through Bordeaux, soaking up the wine and knowledge. He then returned to Rioja to make similar wine at a bodega owned by the Duke de Vitoria, General Baldomero Espartero.

Like Quintano, Murrieta believed the old, antiquated ways had to go. Going beyond his predecessor, he not only used barrels to age the wine, (this time with quarter-casks) he also took control of the fermentation process. The lagos, being traditionally shallow vats, left some of the grapes uncrushed and the time it took to fully ferment longer. Not only was this hard to control, it was also very unhygienic. Instead Murrieta installed deep vats, imitating the classic process of the Bordeaux châteaux he’d visited.

This combination of French know-how and Spanish wine would eventually become the trademark style of Rioja. The Tempranillo grape (from the Spanish, tempran, meaning ‘early’ for its early ripening) has a spicy strawberry character and matched with oak, there is a lovely vanilla current running through the wine.

Dom Camilo Hurtado de Amezaga, Marqués de Riscal was also in exile when he fell in love with Bordeaux. He, too, studied the trade in Bordeaux, returning to Rioja to build his own château in Logroño overlooking the river. On 202 hectares, he planted mainly the grapes of Rioja with a fair portion of Cabernet Sauvignon he’d brought from France and some Pinot Noir. His first vintage appeared in 1860.

Bottling his own wine in Bordeaux bottles, wrapped in iron mesh (you can still pick up Riscal wines with similar wired mesh), he went on to win first prize at a Bordeaux wine competition in 1865. The winning wine was made with pure Tempranillo.

The region finally saw the light. In 1862, the provincial government imported a Bordealais wine-grower, Jean-Cadiche Pinau. From Château Lanessan, he was employed to teach the new methods of winemaking. Some local winemakers took to the methods but the majority of peasants stood firm. Like recalcitrant children, they shook their heads and crossed their arms. Nothing would part them from their precious lagos.

The year is 1862 and the first railroad tracks were laid in Spain. John Cross notes in his book, Spain: The Root and the Flower that the Spanish had resisted the railroad, fearing another invasion from France. (These fears would prove to be groundless.) Because many of the grand bodegas were built close to railway stations, Rioja wine finally took off and the problem of being landlocked dismissed with this new means of transportation.

In France, the vineyards were devastated by Phylloxera. This was a root-eating aphid that destroyed the French wine trade, leaving a gap in the market. It was Rioja wine that filled that gap. Spain further benefited from a large share of French vintners looking for work in the wake of lost vineyards.

In 1888, the Estacion de Enologia was established by royal decree. Then, in 1891, the wine trade of Rioja peaked at an astounding nine million litres. (Unfortunately, it fell to two million litres in 1894.) After France’s vineyards were reconstructed, duties doubled on imported wine. Blow followed blow as Spain lost the Spanish-American War, lost control over Cuba and the Philippines, then lost to Phylloxera. After feasting on French vine roots, the aphids ate their way down to Rioja in 1901 (Jumilla, in Southern Spain was one of the last regions to be hit in the 1980s – pesky little buggers).

It got worse but Rioja finally managed to come back into its own by the 1920’s when the consejo regulador was founded. This was an official organization set up to defend and control the promotion of a Denomincion de Origen, a wine appellation based on the French system to protect the consumer and winemakers from fraud. But its success was short-lived.

The world was devastated by World Wars I and II, not to mention the Spanish Civil War which further dampened wine matters in Rioja. Hitler had lost but General Franco had won and ruled Spain with a heavy hand. Europe and North America refused to have anything to do with a country run by a stern dictator. Thus a boost, a new life, and a new direction was needed.

It would be two men - a Spaniard and a Frenchman - who would bring Rioja into the twentieth-century. If they’d lived in our time, they would have been the best PR agents Spanish wine ever had.

Enrique Forner left Spain in 1936 to flee Franco’s regime. Wandering into the Rhone Valley, he eventually reached Bordeaux. Falling in love with the countryside, he bought Château Camensac and La Rose Trintaudon.

Professor Emile Peynaud was famous not only for his work as a consultant to Bordeaux winemakers, but a great teacher (he taught at the University of Bordeaux where Forner studied while in France), taster and scientist in his own right. Peynaud spent his career taking the guesswork out of how fine wine could be fine. His work in the vineyard (he emphasized picking the grapes when fully ripe) and the winery (crushing should be done gently and softer) are now common practices today.

Innovation was the name of the game in the 1960’s and 70’s, stainless steel the new technology. It worked for the rest of the world, so why not in Rioja? Moving back to Spain in 1970, Forner invited Peynaud, his former tutor to share in his latest developments, hoping to make fresh white wines with no oak and reds with minimum requirement. Advised by the Bordeaux Professor, he built a winery in Cenciero (just up the river from Logroño) called Union Vitivinícola and bought his grapes from local, independent growers to make what he called a true ‘village wine’. Forner named the winery after a friend – the Marqués de Cáceres. (A wine commonly found in the Spanish wine section of your liquor store.)

(Forner and Peynaud also worked together, transforming the Verdejo grape, once used to make sherry-style wines into a world-class still wine exuding crisp gooseberry flavours reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc.)

What we know of Rioja came to fruition in this period. From the 1980’s onwards, the regulating body spread to all of Spain’s wine regions and winemakers throughout the country found something to learn from Rioja, a region that had learned a great deal from the Bordelaise of France.

Even so, I’m sure we can still find those pesky peasants, stubbornly tramping their grapes, holding onto their traditions.

‘Leggo my lago’ – not a chance.


Crow, John Armstrong,
Spain: The Root and The Flower, Berkley, University of
California Press, 1985.
Johnston, Hugh,
The Story of Wine. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2004.
Jeff, Julian,
The Wines of Spain. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2006.
Radford, John,
The New Spain. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2007.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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