Rioja : Wines From Lost Mountain Kingdoms and Forgotten Heroes

 Rioja Dusk

One of my favourite reads of the last decade was published just about a year ago this month, Prof Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms. It is the literary equivalent of luxuriating in browsing old maps which detail, as the book does, a forgotten Grand Duchy here, an ancient Visigoth Kingdom there.

However the real pleasure is in the huge lost kingdoms that Davies examines, realms so large it is absolutely breathtaking that anyone has forgotten them, and which have left indelible impressions that very quickly become lost giving rise to inexplicable alliances and creations to those who forget the former giant kingdom.

The wines of Rioja and their rise to fame as the most famous and important wines in Spain is and example of the power and echo across the centuries of those lost Kingdoms.

The Vanished Kingdoms that have influenced Rioja’s story are the Kingdoms Castille, Navarre and the Kingdom of Aragon.

Spain and long distant past kings are not the only examples of how trading relations, economic and cultural ties survive and thrive the fall of a vanishing Kingdom. In wine the USSR is one of those vanished kingdoms too and in 100 or 200 years time people will struggle to understand what Uzbekistan and Baltic Estonia, Czechoslovakia ( another vanished realm) and Berlin all had to do with each other.

Long after the Iron Curtain and the USSR are a memory, goods and trading patterns will lightly remain if history is repeats itself, as it will, in wine. The sweet cloying wines of the USSR, originating in Georgia and around the Black Sea are still favoured by many Polish and former Iron Curtain nations, turning up in Polish Supermarkets in Lucan in 2005. That will definitely keep historians scratching their heads in 2212.

One of the most politically altered landscapes in Europe however is Spain. What we think of today as a near core European state is nothing of the sort. In reality it was a contrived fusion, through marriage of two of five very powerful Kingdoms, The Kingdoms of Castille and Leon in the 15th century.  However, this only accounted for north central and western Spain. To the north east lay the mountain kingdoms of Navarre and Aragon.


The Spanish Mountain Kingdom of Wine

Travelling South by car from Bordeaux to the Spanish border just south of Biarritz the journey becomes increasingly anxious making in good weather, in poor winter weather it becomes almost alarming, throw in a ferocious headwind and machine gun style rain on the front windscreen and you can see why you would definitely call a halt to the journey as the giant mountains of the Atlantic side of the Pyrenees rise up before you.

This is classic, strong border territory. There is no need to get out a compass and look for imaginary straight lines on a map. That mass of rock, ravines, fast flowing rivers and deep forest say it all.

Clearly if there was a link between Bordeaux and the wines of Rioja, which there is as we shall see momentarily, it was not one forged by easy neighbourly communication.

After an hour or so of hard driving on steeper and steeper sections of roads, in the dark, where the main light is from small villages deep in the valleys or high on hills, the E5 autoroute imperceptibly crosses the Ebro River and following that river southwards, you arrive in the mountains at the mouth of the Rioja region, the town of Haro. The modern administrative region of Castilla Y Leon ends a couple of kilometres from the town of Haro. This is the fringes of the old Kingdoms of Aragon and Navarre.

The reason for the border is the mighty river Ebro, the Rhine of Rioja, though the smaller River Oja, is said to be the source of the regions name, Rio Oja.

The Ebro River runs some 550 km, that is the entire length of Ireland, from its source in the hills of Cantabria to the Mediterranean sea 150km south of Barcelona. All the main towns of Rioja stretch along its course including the defacto capital of Rioja, Logrono.

The landscape of Rioja is not steep or mountainous however, it is a high plateau, with a modest river valley, the entire plateau is however around 1500 feet in the air, dropping to an almost desert like dusty plain at the eastern end of the Rioja region. This far end, heading towards Saragossa famously being used as the landscape for Clint Eastwood’s very poorly named Spaghetti Westerns.

The wine region of Rioja is therefore split into subregions. La Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. Rioja Alta is the highest part of the region, the first portion you arrive at via Haro and is the classical home of Rioja. This is where the oldest and most traditional wines largely come from, like Bodegas La Rioja Alta.

Moving north eastwards and framed by the distant Pyrenees is Rioja Alavesa. While being frequently told that this area is slightly lower than Rioja Alta, there is no physical senses of this at all, in fact Rioja Alavesa with snowy peaks as a near constant backdrop feels positively Alpine or Andean. This is the home of some of the more progressive wineries in Rioja, ones that have been rewarded with parker and Wine Spectator points and offer a fruit forward, blockbuster style amongst their portfolios.

Rioja Alavesa is the home to very many progressive Bodegas including a major part of rebel winemaker Marco Eguren’s  Empire that includes Sierra Cantabria, named for the nearby mountains, Protocolo, one of Ireland’s largest selling Spanish wines and the ferociously expensive icon San Vincente icon wine. Also here is Bodegas Faustino, probably the best known of all Riojas, Bodegas Luis Canas and Bodegas Marques de Riscal.

Bodegas Marques de Riscal was already the main object of wine tourism in Rioja before they had superstar Architect Frank Gehry’s create a daring Dali-like Bodegas of giant swooping folds of silver and gold titanium. It houses a hotel and a visitor centre. Also here is Bodegas Ysios home to bridge architect Santiago Calatrava’s wave formation winery, where set against the mountainous backdrop is a metallic standing sine wave shaped building of the Bodegas Ysios.

Somewhat unsurprisingly the architecture has is some ways begun to outshine the wineries here.

Finally Rioja Baja is the home to warmer, full-bodied and hotter wines. Rioja Baja is at a lower altitude and closer to the Mediterranean its main influence.

Many wineries, especially the broader and more widely available brands actually blend across all three regions to give a more complete wine, softening the stern tones of the Rioja Alta with fruit from the Rioja Alavesa and a bit of fire from Rioja Baja.

Hannibal, Pilgrims and Plagues

Rioja’s wine history stretches back before the Romans, with the Greeks and Phoenicians both playing a part. The reason is the large navigable river. Roman galleys explored and mapped almost every large river around the Mediterranean and the Ebro was hugely significant. Indeed the Romans called the Iber, almost certainly giving the name to the Iberian Peninsular. The Ebro river marked the end of Ronan territory for centuries and the border with Carthage. It was from here that Hannibal set out with his elephants to attack Rome.

As a border region it has always been occupied and over valued by conquering parties, as a strategic communication infrastructure it was also well guarded and militarised, this is where as ever much of the impetus for planting vines came about.

Rioja after the fall of Rome became a plaything amongst the kings of Castille, Navarre and Aragon for centuries. Each perhaps over exaggerating the beauty of the wines available.

Eventually wine production faded became a local treasure with some of the earliest control laws passed to protect the authenticity and unadulterated nature of these mountain wines.

The fame of Rioja wines grew steadily, but slowly, until the region fell under the control of France courtesy of Napoleon. It became integrated as a French Department at the turn of the 19th century and this is where modern Rioja and its ultimate superstar status arose and why Bordeaux played such a role.

At the turn of the 19th century Bordeaux was already a world famous and highly commercially successful wine producing region with world wide exports. Wealthy local aristocrats in Spain began to look not the model of peasant farmers across Spain, and colonial markets, but rather towards high value exports to the USA, Holland, Belgium and above all England to aristocratic owners in Bordeaux.

They travelled north and studied both the viticulture and the economics of the fine wine production. They began to prioritise noble varieties such as Tempranillo which came to dominate.

Eventually Napoleon was defeated and Spain got Rioja back. Increasingly good wine was being produced and this was exported to Spain’s colonial empire. Eventually Rioja may have found its way to fine wine tables on its own, but a small pest intervened. Phylloxera.

As France’s vineyards were being destroyed one by one in an apocalyptic plague, the wine makers of Bordeaux began to look south to see if their was some safe haven for wine. Eventually the looked to Rioja.

In the 1870s, railways were completed up to Haro from the Bay Of Biscay coastline, bringing an effective modern shipping route for Rioja wines north to Britain and Belgium and across the Atlantic to the west.

The Bordeaux players who came to Rioja bought and founded many Rioja Wineries to procure Phylloxera free, top wines. They brought with them the ideals of lengthy ageing and a love of oak barrels, setting the style for contemporary Rioja.

Bodegas La Rioja Alta is a classic example of Bordeaux and local influence using both the impetus of plague in Bordeaux’s vineyards and the possibility of stealing Bordeaux’s export markets as the rationale for foundation.

The peak of Rioja’s reputation ran from the 1870s to the first world war. Unfortunately for Rioja, by the turn of the 20th century the cure for Phylloxera was widespread and replanting across Bordeaux and Europe had begun.

However, Rioja had a few compelling advantages.

It had used the very best modern techniques that Bordeaux wines had enjoyed, the grape selection was first class, the sites were of clear Grand Cru status  and best of all, taking a leaf out of the Bordeaux book, good wines were aged for 2 to 4 years before being given to the citizen

Rioja became famous for putting its money where its wine reviews and or its mouth was. Wines were sold fully mature with many Reserva and Grand Reserva wines being well over the minimum 2 years status.

Traditional Rioja Bodegas still do this and it is now a legal requirement if your wine is going to have the status of Rerserva or Gran Reserva. The resulting wine is famously soft, with silky tannins, it is all about graceful ageing.

These wines are however light on fruit notes, which would have been regarded as too simplistic and transitory, by traditional Rioja makers.

So, the New Wave winemakers over the last decade have replanted many vineyards in higher densities, and produced wines that are blockbuster in style, fruit forward and aimed at an more contemporary demographic.

This is the genius of Rioja down through the ages, unlike Burgundy or Chianti it was not fostered by a native ruling elite. Rather as a political plaything of France, Aragon and Castille it adapted to each new twist, creating new markets for each new elite.

That all ended with the opportunistic dive into finer, chateau or Bodegas style wines when Bordeaux hit its Phylloxera crisis and from that point on until now Rioja is making wines for itself, now a semi-autonomous Spanish administrative region that has taken a little from each former Kingdom around it.

Eengagingly and intelligently Rioja has become the world’s finest Tempranillo producer and the fine wine region it has always promised to become.


Wines Of Rioja

Faustino V Chardonnay-Viura DOCa Rioja 2011 (88) around €11.95

Faustino I, Gran Reserva DOCa Rioja 1999 (90) around €22.50

Torres Ibericos Crianza, 2009 (90) around €14.39

Vina Real, Gran Reserva DOCa 2006 (91) around €22

Muga, Reserva DOCa Rioja 2007 (90) around €20

Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva, DOCa 2007 (91) usually €20 around €14.99 on sale at Obrien’s

Bodegas Riojanas, Monte Real, Reserva DOCa Rioja 2004 (90) around €18.99 on sale O’Briens €12.99

Luis Canas, Reserva DOCa Rioja 2005 (92) around €19.85

Marques de Riscal, Reserva DOCa Rioja 2006 (90) around €18.99

Sierra Cantabria, Reserva DOCa Rioja 2004 (91) around €21.99

Sierra Cantabria Rioja Gran Reserva DOCa Rioja 2004 (92) around €27.99

La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904, DOCa Rioja 1997 (93) around €39.95

Imperial, Gran Reserva DOCa Rioja 2004 (92) around €31