Excerpts from 1492 and all that!
The practice of winemaking in La Rioja dates back to the Phoenician introduction of viticulture to the Iberian Peninsula.
The region is served by the Oja River, and it is this that is believed to be the origin of the name Rioja. The first written confirmation of wines in the region comes from local monks and was dated in 873 CE. But it was in 1102 that it was first legally recognised by the king.
The next formal mention comes from the 17th century when the mayor of Logroño banned carts passing in the street close to wine cellars fearing the wines might be damaged by the vibration.
In 1650 the first document was signed that attempted to define the practices that would maintain the quality of Rioja wines.
At the end of the 18th century the Real Sociedad Económica de Cosecheros de La Rioja, Royal Economic Society of Rioja Winegrowers, was founded, uniting some fifty-two areas of wine production. It was also in this century that growers began to be influenced by Bordeaux and started to age wines in oak casks. By 1850 a grower, studying the French processes, produced the first fine Rioja wine.
In 1991 Rioja became Spain’s first Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOC). In 2008 a new logo was agreed to modernise the brand and started to be used on the 2003 Gran Reserva, the 2005 Reserva, the 2006 Crianza and the Joven wines from that year.
Today there are three Rioja wine regions, mostly lying on a 450m high plateau on the south flank of the Cantabrian mountains. Rioja Alavesa produces full bodied and higher acidity wines; Rioja Alta, as the name suggests, is the highest of the regions and specialises in older style wines; Rioja Baja spans an area in Navarre and produces more deeply coloured and higher alcohol content wines (as high as 18%).
The three areas focus mainly on the Tempranillo vines, but blend these with Garnacha Tinta, Graciano, and Mazuelo varieties. Today they produces over 250 milllion litres of wine annually; 85% of this is red.
Each year the town of Haro, the base for many bodegas at the extreme north of the region, hosts a batalla de vino, a wine battle. At the end of June the festival sees everyone join a procession, wearing white shirts and carrying bottles, jugs and buckets of the local wine. At the end of the parade and a religious mass, they throw wine over each other – what an awful waste!