The history of the region dates back to pre-Roman times, making it one of the oldest established wine-making regions on the planet.
Cultivated as a vine-growing region by the Romans, there remains evidence of wine-making dating back to the middle ages. Rioja is a large, culturally and geographically diverse whose history is as intriguing as its wines are delicious.
Hispania, as the Roman's called Spain and Portugal, remained in Roman hands until 476 when the greater Roman empire fell. It passed into the hands of the Visigoths who controlled the entire peninsula until the start of the Arab conquest in 711. The Arabs controlled much of Spain but the River Ebro, which along with the Cantabrian mountains and the Sierra de la Demanda, is the defining geographical feature of the region of Rioja, proved to be the Northern limit of where they could consistently exert control. Galicia, Asturias and Rioja Alavesa (which lies on the northern side of the Rio Ebro) all saw little in the the way of Arab influence.
Beginning in 1085 with the fall of Toledo, the Reconquista was the gradual conversion from Islamic to Catholic rule - a process which continued into the 15th century, leaving behind a more temperate climate in which wine production would become prominent.
Growth of Wine Consumption
Though visitors and pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago had sampled the wines of Rioja for centuries, it was not until after the Reconquista that Riojan winemakers began to look for markets outside of the region.
The trading ports of Bilbao and Santander soon witnessed exports to the Dutch and the British, with the first export regulations (an early portent of what was to come) coming into force in 1560.
In the 1780's Don Manuel Quintano is credited with the introduction of the use of oak barrels for ageing Rioja - a practice which he learned on a visit to the region of Bordeaux in France. Though this technique is said to have resulted in a substantial improvement in the quality of wine from the region, local legislation which dictated that all wine was sold at the same price, prevented the technique from becoming popular.
In the 1800s successive outbreaks of powdery mildew in Galicia and Phylloxera in Bordeaux provided new opportunities for Rioja both in terms of export and inward investment. In particular, the influx of French influence post phylloxera brought wth it knowledge, new techniques and money. The subsequent growth of the region was thwarted by the outbreak of Phylloxera
in the 1890's but the knowledge gained by the French allowed for rapid re-planting and when WW1 broke out in 1914, Rioja was the preminent region in Spain.
20th Century Challenges
WW1, the Spanish Civil War and WW2 presented challenges on a new scale with widespread abandonment of land and the grubbing up of vineyard to make way for food crops. It was only in the 1960s that many of these vineyards were replanted and, after the global acclaim of the 1970 vintage, that Rioja was firmly back on the map.
Boom and Bust
The 1970's saw much investment in the region but this was followed by a period of increasing prices and variable vintages - the effect being a boom and bust cycle that has dogged the region and is, arguably engendered by the dislocation of viticulture and winemaking in the region.
Though lamentable, the various boom and bust cycles were also the birthing grounds for a new wave of experimental winemakers, pushing boundaries and bringing new style wines to the consumer. The growth of varietal wines, more new oak and more concentration came about during this period of cultural and economic growth in the country.
Back to the Future
Having been through the worst recession since before WW2, Spain is now emerging from what has been another eisode of deep national soul searching and division.
We also believe that it is a turning point for the region of Rioja. The excesses of the last 15 years, ushered in on the back of debt, ambition and collective hubris, are now giving way to a more humble, honest approach to winemaking and to viticulture.
Amongst the enlightened, the dislocation between vineyard and winery is being mended, the need to for more concentration and more oak is being is being forgotten and the desire to seek out what our forefathers knew is more relevant than ever. We are truly entering a phase of going back to the future.