Last week John Perry Calaff, Export Manager of the fine Rioja estate, Bodegas LAN, stopped in to promote five of his estate wines. Mr. Calaff is part of the family ownership of LAN (since 1972) so tasting with him means getting an in-depth history of the property. This time the lesson included a look at a ten year period in the late nineteenth century that was even more critical to the development of Rioja than the current modern renaissance of Spanish wines brought about by new world investment (blogpost 10/29/15).
Spain has perhaps the oldest of European wine histories which is even now being extended backward through archeological discoveries. Interestingly enough, the earliest written references to grapes and wine making in Rioja occurred during the just barely tolerant Moorish rule in the eighth to fourteenth centuries AD. With the return of Christian rule came legislated wine quality protections leading to a wine export industry.
Our story begins in 1850 when the first Rioja winemakers sought out Bordeaux estates to learn from the masters. At the time Bordeaux was the center of the wine making universe and the obsession of Britain, the elephant in the room of international trade. Among other things those Spanish winemakers learned the de-stemming of grapes, barrique aging, and the use of small fermentation tanks. That training was brought back to Rioja where, without monetary support, it was promptly ignored.
Then in 1862 an aspiring Rhone Valley winemaker planted his newly arrived American grapevines and with them, the American Phylloxera louse, a nuisance in this country but a nascent plague in Europe. In no time that pest devastated the French wine industry. By 1875 the infection reached Bordeaux leading those industry leaders to the momentous decision of turning to Rioja for support. Quickly arrangements were made to send French consultants with investment capital to expand plantings and build new wineries in Rioja. Many of those French oenologists then would remain in Rioja for much of what became a ten year period supervising production and constructing a new distribution system to get the wine ultimately to Britain.
Because virtually the entire tonnage produced during that ten year period was exported, Rioja ultimately reaped the reward that comes with fine wine creation but that only occurred over time. You see, the wines shipped to England over that ten year period were labelled as French Bordeaux! Then once Bordeaux was replanted on disease-resistant American root stocks, demand for Rioja plummeted and without the faux-Bordeaux income, assets like high quality French wine barrels had to be replaced by lower quality substitutes. While Rioja had gotten its ticket punched for fine wine cache, because of World Wars, Depressions, American Prohibition,and their own Phylloxera blight, it would be nearly a century before Rioja would shine on the world stage again.