Celtiberians press wine
But that is a long story. It starts, like most European wine stories, shortly before the beginning of our era, when the indigenous peoples pressed the first wines. After the Celtiberians, whose name has nothing to do with pressing wine, came the Romans, and they made wine in great style. The turmoil of the Middle Ages set winegrowing back a long way, even though the King of Navarra legally recognised Rioja in 1102. However, 1492, when Christopher Columbus discovered the continent of America relatively unnoticed, was a crucial year for wine, because the last Moors had to leave the Iberian Peninsula along with their alcohol ban.
Christian monks, especially Cistercians, put the vineyards back in order. The Burgundians were the leaders in growing technique, and wine soon became the most important economic sector in the region. Even in 1787, when other regions were still far removed from such marketing instruments, the first producer association – the Royal Society of Winegrowers in Rioja – was founded.
The territory with its dry, slightly alkaline soil is excellently suited for winegrowing. Between Haro in the West and Alfaro in the East, there are around one hundred kilometres where vines find very good growing conditions on the banks of the Ebro. In the high altitude Rioja Alavesa, the vineyards stretch up to 700 metres altitude on clay and chalk soil, where full, fresh Tempranillos emerge. In Rioja Alta, the climate is similarly cool and influenced by the Atlantic, but the wines are softer. In contrast, the lower altitude Rioja Baja is more Mediterranean and dryer, with its alluvial soil and the most opulent wines. In addition, microclimates on slopes facing in different directions create niches for various styles. Even in the 20th Century, this potential allowed the crop land to grow quickly. In 1980, there was already 40,000 hectares, and today there is 64,000 hectares with vines which provide up to 300 million litres of wine in good years.
The autochthonous variety Tempranillo is as dominant as it is trendy. Its quality potential is high and can be significantly increased by storage and maturing in barriques. The good Garnacha is more of an aromatic addition, similarly to Mazuelo, Maturana Tinta and Graciano. The also autochthonous varieties were once present in large parts of Rioja, but were so susceptible to diseases, that “Gracias no” prevailed as the name for the ridicule of the industry. However, it primarily gives good results in the chalky soils of the valuable high altitudes, which is why it is currently experiencing a small Renaissance. With its high polyphenol content and the robust acids, this could result in a lasting resurgence.