The History of Rioja Wine
last update: 15 September 2021
The basic supposition is that the word Rioja came from some geographical feature (in techo-jargon "the etymology of the Rioja toponym"), and the wine Rioja got its named from the region that is now called La Rioja. The main theories for the name Rioja point to different origins. The most commonly quoted is the compression of Rio (river) Oja, which is a tributary of the River Ebro. In fact most of the autonomous community and the wine making region, are located in the valley of the River Ebro. Options got the meaning of Rioja include "land of streams", "river of riverbed", "land of bread", or possibly “the daughter of the River”.
The first written appearances of this place-name was Rioga or Riogam dating back to the 11th century. Through time different spellings can be found, such as Rioxa, Riogia, Rivo de Oia, Rivogio, or in its final form Rioja. The oldest document found in which the name appears dates from the 13th century, with the spellings riogeñ and riogensi, that is, riojano.
Winemaking is probably the world’s second oldest profession. The use of wine goes back to time immemorial as it is referred to in the Bible, Homers epics, and on Egyptian wall paintings. The word "wine" certainly came from the Greek word oinos, but the place and time of origin of wine is uncertain. The species of grapes used in most wines is Vitis vinifera and is known to have been cultivated before 4000 BC. Wine made before this time might have used wild grapes. In ancient Greece, Dionysus gave wine to man and his Roman counterpart gave us the Bacchanalia. Earlier, Egyptians described the different wine making operations used at that time.
It is written that the vine was introduced to La Rioja region by the Phoenicians in around 600 BC and then taken over by the Carthaginians and then the Romans. Many archaeological remains, such as wine presses and cellars, date from the Roman period, and it is also thought that the Tempranillo grape was already being cultivated. In reality the earliest complete description of the Tempranillo variety dates only from 1807, and at the time it was suggested that it had its origins in the south of France. However, another popular theory was that the Phoenicians brought the variety to Spain over 3,000 years ago. Today Tempranillo has spread to the rest of the world, becoming the fourth most planted variety across the globe (albeit under 66 different synonyms). The name is thought to stem from the Spanish word temperano, meaning early, as in early ripening.
In 2012 genotyping of the Tempranillo variety identified the well known Albillo Mayor and the almost unknown Benedicto as the parents of Tempranillo.
The oldest document referring to the existence of vines in La Rioja, dates from the year 873. It comes from a cartulary (cartulario) of the Monasterio de San Millán, and is about a donation which mentions the Monasterio de San Andrés de Trepeana in Treviana, a village in the Haro region. A cartulary is just a transcription of an original document relating to the foundation, privileges, and legal rights of all kinds of institutions, such as ecclesiastical establishments. It is thought that, by 1024, the Monasterio de San Millán owned as many as nineteen vineyards in Nájera, one of them being destined to produce the oblation wine for mass.
In 1063 the bishop of Nájera approved a charter, under the name "Carta de población de Longares" (Letter to the Settlers of Longares), for a place now known as Albelda de Iregua. About 35 families in the town were obliged to deliver to the Monasterio de San Martín de Albelda “two days of ploughing, two days of digging, two days of planting, two days of cutting and one of harvesting”, for the monastery vineyards.
It would appear that during the Spanish Middle Ages, vines were a staple crop of numerous monasteries. In fact most of the wines sold in the 15th century came from the tithes of Spanish churches and monasteries. In addition by the end of the Middle Ages, vines were grown in almost every part of Spain, even on the poorest of soil. As the vine has a vegetative cycle different from cereals, it allowed peasant farmers to grow a variety of basic crops.
Again in the Monasterio de San Millán, a certain Gonzalo de Berceo (1197-1264) wrote poems on religious subjects. He is considered the first Castilian poet identified by name, and one of his texts dealt with wine as the main subject.
El Museo de La Rioja is in Logroño, and includes a webpage describing the Tablas de San Millán, a triptych describing the life of San Millán. Several wineries in the region have small historical collections or displays, perhaps the most impressive is the 4,000 square metre Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture in Briones.
With the fall of the Roman Empire the arts of brewing beer and winemaking essentially became the province of monks, who carefully guarded that knowledge. During the Middle Ages monks had the resources, security, and stability to improve the quality of their vines slowly over time. Also, the monks had the education and time necessary to enhance their viticultural skills. So throughout the Middle Ages, monasteries owned and tended the best vineyards, so not surprisingly, "vinum theologium" was superior to others. Monks also discovered that egg whites could clarify wine, which was an important advance in the Middle Ages. Following the marriage of Henry Plantagenet to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, England started to imported wine, sparking a viticultural revolution in the Bordeaux region.
The most important alcohol development in the Middle Ages was distillation. The process was undoubtedly independently discovered in many parts of the world, but Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) is said to have been the first to clearly described the process. Arnaldus of Villa Nova (ca. 1240-1311), a professor of medicine, is said to have first coined the term "aqua vitae", i.e. the water of immortality. Brandy was first known as aqua vitae, and the name is said to come from the Dutch brandewijn, meaning burnt (or distilled) wine. Distillers generally used juniper to flavour spirits, and the English would shorten geneva to gin. Knowledge of the process of distillation spread slowly among monks, physicians and alchemists, and distilled alcohol was often proposed as a cure for ailments.
It was Philip II Augustus (1180-1223) who ordered provinces to submit examples of their wine to Paris for the first national exhibition. However the so-called Little Ice Age (ca. 1300-1850) was especially severe from about 1560 until 1660, and dramatically impacted all agriculture, including viniculture. As a result, wine became scarce. During the Black Death (1346-1353) some people thought that alcohol could protect them.
Drinking spirits as a beverage, rather than as a medication, began by the end of the Middle Ages. Christian Europe emerged from the Dark Ages as a heavy-drinking culture. No medical prescription was complete without alcohol, nor, indeed, was any meal. Alchemists used spirits in their studies, and priests held wine aloft in chalices and declared it to be the blood of Christ.
From the 1400's to the 1800's, wine was one of the "staffs of life" for Spaniards, the others were olive oil and bread. People also used wine for cooking, to preserve food, and it was also often a substitute for unsafe water. The Spanish found not one but a multitude of drinking cultures in their American possessions. The conquistadores remarked upon the ubiquity of alcohol, observing that they had not found one tribe "content to drink only water". Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) took sugarcane with him from the Canary Islands, and laid the foundation for a profitable rum industry.
The development of distillation was the most important development in alcohol during the Renaissance. However both Protestant leaders and the Catholic Church considered that God had created alcohol for consumption in moderation. It was for pleasure, enjoyment and health, but drunkenness was a sin. By the beginning of the 18th century people started to consider alcohol a threat to spiritual salvation and societal well being.
The consumption of alcohol was often high. In the 16th century, alcohol beverage consumption reached 100 litres per person per year in Valladolid, Spain. Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) planted the first vines in the Americas (modern day Mexico). Vineyards spread rapidly, with Chile producing wine as early as 1555, and Florida in 1563.
Spirit drinking was still largely for medicinal purposes throughout most of the 16th century. The Irish may have made the original grain spirit, whiskey, but by the 16th century it was already widely consumed in some parts of Scotland. Tsar Vasily III (1479-1532) permitted his courtiers to consume as much alcohol as they wanted, but they had to live in a specific area of Moscow so as not to corrupt the "lower classes". In Japan during the 16th century, it was an insult to a host to remain sober. So guests who couldn’t drink would pretend to be intoxicated and then hungover. They would send thank you notes deliberately late and written in shaky characters. Distilling had become so active in Bordeaux that in 1559 it was banned as a fire hazard. In 1589 Henry III of France (1551-1589) permitted wine sellers and both tavern and cabaret owners to form a guild.
In the 17th century vintners began producing sparkling wine. It first occurred in England with still wine from Champagne stored in cellars during winter. There it underwent a secondary fermentation. The English referred to it as "brisk champagne’" in 1664. Initially the French intensely disliked bubbles in wine and tried to prevent them, however, the English preferred them. Contrary to popular belief, Dom Pérignon (1638-1715) did not invent sparkling wine. Around 1668, he used strong bottles, invented a stronger enclosure, and began blending the contents. However, another century passed before vintners solved the problem, especially bursting bottles, and sparkling Champagne then became popular. By 1700, sparkling Champagne would become very popular, and sell for twice the price of the best still wine from the region. In 1848 an English merchant ordered some Champagne without sugar added, creating the first truly dry or brut Champagne.
Through the 17th and 18th centuries the Virginia colonists continued their traditional belief that alcoholic beverages were a natural food, and that beer was essential to their well being. In "Triangular Trade", people traded rum for West African slaves. They then traded slaves to the West Indies for molasses. Distillers then made the molasses into rum (colonial molasses trade). Almost every important town in the US had a rum distillery. In 1650 rum was imported into New England from the West Indies, and became very popular among poor people because of its low price. The British Navy issued its sailors a daily ration of rum from 1655 until 1970, but in 1731 sailors were given an option of a daily ration of a pint of wine (½ litre), half-pint of rum, or a gallon of beer (4.5 litres).
In the 1600's it was the Dutch who promoted major innovations in wine production, including fortifying wine, using sulfites to prohibit the growth of wild yeasts, and the late harvesting of grapes (not surprising since the wine trade was the most profitable industry in Rotterdam at that time). As an indication of the level of wine consumption in 1600, members of a temperance society in Hesse pledged not to drink more than seven glasses of wine at a meal, twice daily. And in 1609 England had to pass a statute to punish "the inordinate and extreme vice of excessive drinking and drunkenness". It was drinking in excess that was condemned, but even puritans considered that drink was "in itself a creature of God".
The modern wine bottle was an English invention, created by Kenelm Digby [1603-1665], and it was also claimed at the time, "Europe had the technology to age wine". In the 16th and 17th centuries, hand blown bottles largely replaced ceramic vessels for alcohol. In 1781 vintners first used corks as a common stopper. It was in 1795 that a certain Samuel Henshall obtained a patent for the corkscrew.
It was in 1666 that a brand-name was used representing a specific estate in France. When war broke out between Britain and France in 1665, one of the first things King Charles II (1630-1685) did was ban the importation of French wine. In 1694 the Bank of England was formed to help the country fund wars. The bank’s shareholders lent the government money, knowing that the government could guarantee returns based on the potential revenue from taxes on alcohol. In the early 1700's the English Parliament promoted gin production to use surplus grain and to raise taxes. As a result, very cheap spirits flooded the market, thus creating the so-called Gin Epidemic or Gin Craze. In 1685, consumption of gin had been slightly over one-half million gallons (1.9 million litres), but by 1714 it stood at two million gallons (7.5 million litres), and in 1727 it was five million gallons (19 million litres). In 1732 the London area alone produced eleven million gallons of gin (41.6 million litres). In 1736 the English Parliament passed legislation to discourage consumption, and raised the tax on gin. But still in 1743 the nation of 6.5 million people drank over 18 million gallons of gin (68 million litres). But (finally) it dropped to just over 7 million gallons in 1751, then to 2 million by 1758. The reality was that corn prices and taxes increased, and quality beer was cheaper. It was only in 1790 that the English Parliament made it illegal to pay wages in liquor. But still in 1870, more than 30% of all British national tax revenues came from alcoholic beverages. In 1874 Prime Minister Gladstone lost his seat in Parliament when he attempted to restrict gin consumption.
In 1743 John Wesley (1703-1791) included a prohibition against drunkenness in the rules of the Methodist church. And from the 1750's Native American tribes formed sobriety circles or alcoholic mutual aid groups (these would become the bases for temperance societies). In France the first temperance society was created only in 1837, but it was less successful than in other places because it is said that they saw drunkenness as a problem caused by Protestantism. In 1777 George Washington (1732-1799) wrote to John Hancock (1736-1793) "the benefits arising from the moderate use of strong Liquor have been experienced in all Armies and are not to be disputed". Also George Washington was his new nation’s first large distiller. In 1886 Coca-Cola was introduced as both a medicinal and temperance beverage.
After the French Revolution (1789), the new government confiscated the vineyards of the Spanish churches, abbeys and nobles. It divided them into small plots, and for many owners those plots were again divided equally among heirs. This subdivision of vineyards resulted in ever smaller parcels of ownership, which in Burgundy led to the rise of negotiants or wine brokers. They bought wine from many owners, blended it, and then marketed it under their own names. 1803 is the date of the first reference to making cocktails, and in 1806 they were defined as "a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters". In 1810 the Oktoberfest was established in Munich as an annual event.
In 1855 Napoleon III (1808-1873) requested the Classification of Bordeaux wines, which was based solely on the price of the wines. It was in 1861 that Burgundy created a similar wine classification system. In 1953 the best red wines in the Graves district of Bordeaux were classified, reflecting their increasing prominence (the best white Graves were classified in 1959). Also in 1953 Baron Philippe de Rothschild began a 20 year political battle to get his chateau raised from its 1855 classification as a Second Growth to a First Growth. In 1972 chateau-bottling became compulsory for classified Bordeaux wines.
It was in 1863 that Phylloxera, a grape vine parasite native to North America, spread first to England, and two years later to Bordeaux. It then migrated all over Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, travelling at about 40 miles per year. It devastated wine production, and threatened to destroy the entire European wine industry. In 1881 they would discover that French grape vines grafted onto American rootstock resisted the deadly phylloxera parasite. By the end of the century most French vines were growing on American rootstock, and today virtually all vineyards around the world are on American rootstock.
In 1907 an estimated half million farmers gathered in Montpellier, France, demanding government action against imported wine. And in 1910 and 1911 the Champagne Riots were over the boundaries of Champagne vs. non-Champagne wine.
In WW I the French army troops were awarded a daily wine ration, whereas the English army was fortified primarily with rum. The Germans were fortified with schnapps and brandy.
In 1914, 33 states in the US had adopted statewide prohibition, and through 1915 to 1918 other states joined prohibition. In 1919 an amendment to the US Constitution banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. National Prohibition in the US went from January 16, 1920 until December 5, 1933. Contrary to common belief, it did not prohibit the purchase or consumption of alcohol. In the 1920's speakeasies served both sexes, unlike the saloons they replaced. National Prohibition last exactly 13 years, 10 months, 19 days, 17 hours and 32.5 minutes.
When archaeologists opened the tomb of Egyptian King Tutankhamen in 1922 they found wine jars buried with him in 1323 BC. They bore labels with the year, the name of the winemaker, and comments about the quality of the wine.
In 1923 the United Kingdom made it illegal to sell alcohol to anyone below the age of 18.
In 1935 beer sold in cans became popular, Alcoholics Anonymous was established, and France introduced the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) or regulated place name system in order to fight wine fraud.
In August of 1940, The French Vichy government introduced, for the first time in French history, a minimum legal drinking age. It prohibited drinking by anyone under the age of 14, and it also prohibited the sale of alcohol in cafes and restaurants on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. After WW II, the Japanese divided business into two parts, "dry" for meetings during office hours and mizu shōbai, or the "water trade" at night in bars. Japanese women were expected to serve alcohol to men but to avoid it themselves, unless they were old or sick. Italy created in 1963 a national appellation or controlled name of origin system known as the Denominazione di Origine Controllata or DOC.
In the United Kingdom the Road Safety Act of 1967 introduced the first maximum legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit at a maximum BAC of 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood. The use of alcohol breath testers was also approved.
In the 1970's the Potter fermenter became standard equipment in most wineries, allowing vintners to control the temperature of the must.
In 1976 Judgment of Paris, a blind wine tasting comparing California wines with the best wines of France, California wines won first place in both red and white categories. Three years later a 1971 Penfolds Grange Hermitage, an Australian Shiraz, walked away with a first prize in Shiraz. Also in 1976 the European Economic Community imposed rules governing wine production in all its member states. In 1978 Robert M. Parker Jr. began publishing The Wine Advocate and applying his wine rating system.
Returning back to Spain, experts have suggested that viticulture, along with cereal cultivation, were the most important agricultural activities in La Rioja region during the entire Middle Ages. It was from this period (end of the 13th century) that the first exports from the region began to emerge, i.e. viticulture made its first haltering steps towards a commercial activity. Initially the wine produced by monasteries or small holders had been for local consumption, but starting in the early 15th century, muleteers began take surpluses to the Basque Country. The first reference to wines for sale occurred in 1427, and was included along with the sale of fruit from the region around San Vincente de la Sonsierra, although it would appear that Alfonso XI (1311-1350) had in 1336 already prohibited Navarrese wines from entering towns such as Logroño, Haro, etc. (a prohibition that remained in place until at least 1494). This would change in the 16th century, in part driven by a more stable political and economic situation in Spain, in part by the gradually revitalisation of trade, and in part by the monetisation of peasant economies. But above all, things changed with the appearance of wine surpluses, and the fact that taxes charged on wine became the most important income for towns such as Longroño and Haro. For example, between 1550 and 1750, Rioja wine production in the region is thought to have doubled, from 25 to 50 million litres. Initially wine production was the privilege of Spanish churches and monasteries, but society changed, becoming more urban, secular, and subjected to the dictates of the economy. And so wine production rapidly emerged as the capitalist product par excellence. This was not like cereal production, wine production required new skills, an understanding of markets, and a willingness to take risks. Over time growing vines was abandoned in the higher lands, and they were also replaced where more profitable crops could be grown on good quality soil with natural irrigation. We will see that the delimitation of the Rioja production space will slowly emerge due to both environmental and market criteria.
Mule trains were the only effective way to carry goods over rough terrain, and often the "roads" were no more that rutted paths through woods or over mountains (today some classical Spanish walking routes are along old mule and horse paths). A rancher or farmer would use muleteers to take his goods to local markets for sale. A mule train might consists of as few as five or as many as fifty mules. They would be pastures outside the town, and a muleteer would try to choose mules of the same colour or markings so he could easily identify his train. A muleteer would also try to have mules with the same length of leg, so they would walk at the same pace.
Above we have a map from 1804 showing the most important part of the Rioja production area, and below we have a view of the peaks and mountain passes (puertos) in the Sierra de Cantabria. This mountain chain was the physical barrier between the Rioja production area and its closest markets in Vitoria-Gasteiz (70 km) and Bilbao (130 km), but not forgetting that Burgos, 110 km to the west, was also an important market. Different passes would be chosen depending upon the destination, weather conditions, and safety (flighting between muleteers and bandits is a common literary topic in Spain).
Until near the end of 18th century Spain's agricultural development was impeded by a number of almost immutable structural factors. Land was owned by the clergy and local oligarchies, and crop development was totally dependent upon the climate and human labour. Technical advances were not implemented, there were physical limitations on trade, and there were important fiscal and feudal charges (tithes, tributes, manorial rights). One of the oldest and most dynamic crops that contributed to transforming Spains' agrarian world was the vine. It was a very slow transformation, but over time it did modified Spanish agriculture, land ownership, and even their social and institutional structures. One point often ignored was that many varieties of vines existed allowing the shrub to adapt to a multitude of soils, even the poorest. And this offered the farmer a variety in his crops, and one having a vegetative cycle different from that of cereals.
There were also constraints on viticulture, for example, on vine planting on municipal land, on the harvesting of the grapes, on the sale of wine, and on the wine market itself, including protectionism against foreign wines, etc. In addition, the cultivation of the vine and the elaboration of wine required intensive care and specialised skills, but wine was a commodity that could be exchanged for money. Wine was almost never bartered, so in this sense it broke with the feudal economic system. Wine could be traded, and money provided access to markets and fairs to obtain other products (often wood, coal, iron tools and fish). For many farmers, wine was the only product that allowed them to obtain the money necessary to pay the increasingly numerous municipal and state taxes that were collected in currency.
From the second half of the 15th century and, above all, throughout the 16th century, wine became one of the most important economic engines of the upper Ebro basin. Many municipalities that had not previously engaged in viticulture, planted vines in their fields. From then on, the constant demand for wines forced many towns in the Rioja region to increasingly specialise in viticulture.
The above map shows the spread of the vineyards already in the 1500's. It is thought that the vine entered from Alfaro through the Alhama river, and then gradually spread throughout the region, following the path of the different local rivers. By the beginning of the 16th century there were vineyards beyond the Conchas de Haro, and it was rare that villages could not produce their own jugs of wine. On the other side of the Ebro, entering the lands of the Kingdom of Navarre, appreciable quantities of wine were also harvested. Many of the towns near the Ebro would remain linked to Rioja wines, whereas further north there were municipalities that made wines different from Rioja, not only due to different soil conditions, but also because of differing production routines, tastes and markets.
By todays standards, the quality of the wines from the lands bordering the current Rioja domain left much to be desired. In part this was due to the enormous variety of vines that were able to adapt to supposedly inhospitable lands (i.e. you could make wine using almost any variety of vine planted almost anywhere). The arrival of phylloxera at the end of the 19th century forced dramatic changes in both the varieties used, and the land dedicated to vine cultivation.
Towards the end of the 16th century there was a reduction of more than 20% in the land planted with vines. Municipalities abandoned the vine in the higher altitude areas, and those with the worse soils. Vineyards would be located on land with better irrigation and more suitable climatic conditions. Vineyards needed to be near population centres with greater commercial traffic, and with better road and artisanal infrastructures. They needed an abundant workforce and councils that were more protective of viticulture both with respect to competition and local taxes. The process of reduction and concentration of the Rioja space would continue through the 17th century.
Starting in the 16th century, quality control measures began to be adopted and some basic regulations were introduced, which all helped to improve winemaking techniques and the overall quality of Rioja wines. And since the production did not decline, the improvement in quality opened up new possibilities for commercialising any excess production. At the time wine storage and ageing techniques were unknown, so it was vital to deliver quickly any excess production to new customers. However, it was impossible to envisage regular commercial deliveries, because the local road infrastructure was so poor (some reports prefer to call the "roads" bridle paths).
There were some initial problems, for example, the lack of any regulations on wine production causes some initial difficulties. However La Rioja took advantage of its modest reputation to increase production, well beyond local needs. Unfortunately wines of low quality were put on the market, which then tarnished that reputation. During the period from the 13th to the 16th centuries La Rioja became a region of monoculture, vines replaced everything including cereal crops and even animal breeding. In fact one writer noted that in 1786 “Estos vecinos [de Logroño] y los más de La Rioja han invadido todo con sus viñas” (These neighbours and those from La Rioja have invaded everything with their vineyards). The consequences were predicable, overproduction brought poor sales, and there were no food crops or animal herds to fall back on.
Already by the late 16th century the Haro-Laguardia-San Asensio-Fuenmayor-Logroño rhombus, with the Ebro as bisector, was recognised as the centre of Rioja wine production. This area already represented about ⅔ of Rioja wine production, and by the end of the 17th century it would represent more than 95% of production. The concentration on wine production in some towns was so intense that all the land would be dedicated for vines or feed for the animals needed to take the wine to market (i.e. barley and oats), and they would have to import wheat for bread making.
At the end of the Middle Ages more that five thousand square kilometres of vines were being cultivated under the general definition of Rioja, compared to just over three thousand four hundred square kilometres today. In fact, throughout the 16th century vineyards were increasingly concentrated around the Ebro. Experts think that this was due to a decease in self-consumption and an increased focus on markets. Commercial yields and profits were already being sought, requiring better land and proximity to the markets of growing towns. This new orientation can be measured in the evolution of some monastic economies. In one monastery they had 48 workers in 1536, 65 in 1553, 298 in 1574, and 900 in 1606. Competition was fierce and some towns suffered, e.g. in Zarratón there were 84 workers in 1531, and only 45 in 1610. Not all monasteries were in a position to exploit the "wine economy", for example, the Cogolla Monastery went from 472 worked in 1529 to 279 in 1555, as they shifted back to livestock. The demarcation of the Rioja wine region would continue to retract during the 17th century, leaving less that 5% of the wine produced from outside the current Denominación de Origen.
The vines most frequently mentioned in 16th century documentation were Garnacha Blanca, Garnacha Tinto, Graciano, Malvasía, Mazuelo, Tempranillo, Viura, Jaén, Maturana Tinta y Blanca, Malverdre/Monastel, Morisca, Rivadabia, Doradilla, etc.
In the following sections we will learn about the up's and down's of Rioja wine, the poor quality, the over production, the rich becoming richer, and the poor becoming poorer. But we need to keep in mind two simple facts. For the current Denominación de Origen, wine production more than doubled between 1550 and 1800, whereas the gross economic benefit derived from that crop during the same period rose from 3.4 to over 30 million ducados annually.
These figures are all the more impressive since they hide the fact that competition from other wine growing areas was constantly increasing, harvests were very variable from one year to another, several wars affected the region, and the recurrent presence of the plague played havoc with population figures, e.g. between 1591 and 1630 the region lost 30% of its population. And on top of all that we tend to ignore the fact that there were no real improvements in cultivation techniques, no major social developments, and no new large markets (except possibly the creation of new brandy factories).
We will see below that there was an almost constant battle between two different ways of understanding the future of the Rioja wine. On the one hand, the traditional growers wanted to stop the expansion of vineyards and, above all, wanted to prevent small farmers from planting vineyards. They wanted to continue to control of the sector, while having sufficient labour and wheat (which would be produced by those small farmers) at a low price. On the other hand, there were some enlightened people who believed that the future involved agrarian diversification, changes in ownership and improvements in winery processes.
La Rioja de los hidalgos
Through the early part of 16th century, the bourgeoisie of the prosperous cities of La Rioja had enriched itself with the wool trade from the local mountains, where the Honourable Council of the Mesta, privileged since Alfonso X (1221-1284), organised the transhumance of the Castilian Merino sheep, said to provide the best wool in the world. Some of the more important merchants of the region had an open house in Flemish cities such as Antwerp, Bruges or Brussels, where they sold the wool that arrived from Bilbao, via the Consulate of Burgos, and took advantage of the return trip to bring back manufactured products, only paying taxes when crossing the Ebro, since the Basque Provinces were exempt. This trade was very profitable until 1568, when the Eighty Years' War broke out. The crisis worsened as the century progressed and local merchants abandoned foreign trade and dedicated their fortune to acquiring land, which in large part was used for vineyards. These new vineyards were the product of the investment of rich owners, whose capital came from trade. The old vineyards were owned by noblemen and religious communities, and in many ways they had served to differentiate a noble way of life from the commoner's way of life. In the mind of a noble, a commoner was just interested in vile commerce, profit, deals and contracts, but this was about to change in the most unpredictable way. What was true was that the vineyards planted by the bourgeoisie in the later part of the 16th century had profit as their objective, in short, they were capitalist investments.
Above we have the very colourful 16th century Spanish costumes for 1, 3 and 7 Damas de la corte (Ladies of the court), 2 is a Prócer (an eminent or important person), 4 is an Oficial del ejército en campaña (army officer in campaign), 5 a Jefe militar (military leader), 6 a hidalgo, and 8 a Ricohome (a count or baron). It was in the court of Felipe II (1527-1598) that the black Spanish suit appeared. Black was recommended as a symbol of seriousness and rigour by both the followers of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, and was worn by the hidalgo as a sign of distinction.
But not everyone was able to participate in the lucrative novelty of capitalism. The lands for sale and those reclaimed from pastures and vacant lots did grow, but they were still scarce compared to the large properties traditionally used for the cultivation of cereals. In addition, the prices of the plots, and the costs and the rent of the land increased extraordinarily. It is not surprising that the 16th century is sometimes known as the century of the Spanish Price Revolution. Traditional land owners, the Spanish church and nobility, allocated part of their lands to vineyards. The new rich bourgeoisie bought properties, but looked to cultivate marginal lands owned by the local councils. They were able to do this because they focussed on conquering political power in the local and regional institutions.
The decision to plant vineyards was both costly and risky. The risk of specialisation at that time was not trivial, and could mean hunger in bad years, and even social unrest (riots by day labourers were not unknown). And wine alone could not ensure the basic level of subsistence, neither for small farmers nor for day labourers. Only landowners, the hidalgos, were able to make Rioja the centre of their agricultural activity, for which they needed land, good commercial conditions and a certain capacity to run a business. Until the pre-phylloxera expansion in the mid-19th century, what has been called the "Rioja de los hidalgos" was only for those who had money (some say it is still true today). A vineyard required a lot of land, a lot of labour and a lot of investment, plus a certain privileged commercial support. So in the 17th and 18th centuries it was dominated by the noble estates in the great wine towns, organised around meetings of harvesters which often came to mean those running the local councils.
Already the decisive factor in the "Rioja de los hidalgos" was the market, but the paradox of wine, is that "more is less". In times of overproduction, the limited regional market could not absorb a product that was difficult to preserve at that time. Overproduction brought down prices and ruined the small owners without a cellar to store their wine. Tenants and the labourers had also succumbed to the temptation to plant vines during the boom years and were reluctant to abandon a crop to a large extent complementary and on land not suitable for other uses.
Already we can see the weaknesses, firstly outside of their traditional markets who knew about Rioja wines, secondly the roads were so poor that it was almost impossible to make regular trips to distant markets, and then there was the famous overproduction. In the good years, thousands of muleteers traveled through La Rioja to load wine bound for the Basque Country, the northern part of Burgos and the rich towns of the southern mountains, where the Rioja reds had no competition. In the bad years the rich winemaker could wait for better days, but not the workers, the small owners and the day labourers. "The Rioja de los hidalgos" consisted of a minority of owners-winemakers (harvesters), generally nobles, and a large number of day labourers and small vineyard owners very dependent upon the seasons.
Experts have shown that with a property of less than three hectares, a family would have had to combine work on their land with daily wages for work on other people's land. That meant that approximately half of the local population were occasional day labourers, pruning, digging, and harvesting the vineyards of the large owners. In addition to the ownership of the vineyard, the winemaking process was also decisive. The presses, vats and storage were owned by the noble families and by some ecclesiastics. They could make wine and wait for the opportunity to go to the market. In one town there were only four presses, and in another town, of the 110 producers only 57 could store their wine.
In the 15th century a visitor to La Rioja would have seen fields of cereals, with the classic complement of the olive trees, garden products and industrial crops such as flax and hemp. Until the so-called pre-phylloxera decades of the 19th century, many towns in La Rioja cultivated vineyards for their own consumption. Our visitor would have seen wheat fields and the widespread cultivation of beans, the common food of the poor. Even in the famous wine-growing towns they would have seen good forests, excellent wheat fields, and a lot of "irrigated orchard, well cultivated and planted". By the middle of the 17th century, more than half the land in Logroño was vineyards, most irrigated. With its 6,500 inhabitants more than 1,400 hectares were dedicated to vineyards, which actually represented two-thirds of the cultivated land per year.
So through the latter part of the 16th century Logroño became a commercial city surrounded by a sea of vineyards. Two-thirds of the land was vineyards, and local ordinances privileged the cultivation of vines and the wine trade. By the middle of the 16th century, an average harvest in Logroño was around 1.6 million litres, but by 1599, and despite the wars and the plague, harvests of 3.5 million litres (2.7 million litres red wine) were being recorded. By the early 1600's almost everyone in Logroño was active in the wine business, i.e. tax records mention barber surgeons, doctors, notaries, solicitors, apothecaries, retail merchants, shopkeepers, tailors, gold beaters, dyer's, chandlers, shoemakers, drapers, locksmiths, weavers, boatmen, a few of the richer farmers, and even members of the Inquisition and the clergy. But the real power and wealth was in the hands of the rich bourgeoisie of Logroño, who defended their privileges by controlling the town hall and, a century later, the Junta de Cosecheros. It's important to differentiate between those who were wine producers, and those who also owned storage facilities and thus were more like wine merchants. In fact, in Logroño in the mid-18th century there were 295 owners of vineyards with their wine presses, but just 25 of them actually stored 60% of the regions production.
Logroño was rather unique, firstly because of its commercial tradition, and secondly, it was home to a customs office through which all kinds of imported products passed. The situation in other towns in the region was different, where control was in the hands of the large landowners belonging to the hidalgos or local nobility. However, as we move toward the 18th century, power was increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few families who controlled both the production and the local market for wine. At the time, the principle of majorat (mayorazgo in Spanish) was used to ensure that the right of succession to a specific property associated with a title of nobility went to a single heir, based upon male primogeniture. As an example, one noble family owned a large house, stables, an orchard, a winery and a vineyard of 238 obreros, where an obrero was the surface that could be worked in a day, i.e. about 400 to 500 square metres. So 238 obreros would have been about 12 hectares, a huge vineyard property at the time when most vineyards in the Rioja were micro-estates. Rich landowners would loan money to the local town or village, and receive an annual interest, e.g. in one example a noble landowner had lent 30,000 ducats and was receiving 600 ducats in interest per year, that was twice the earnings of the local doctor. The principle of majorat remained in place in Spain until 1820, and meant that the Spanish nobility remained socially and economically relevant well into the mid-1800's. The downside was that all other children were left at the mercy of the mayorazgo.
With the depression of the 17th century, winery owners completed their change of life by both acquiring noble titles and local power through the purchase of offices from the ruined monarchy. They controlled taxation and were able to divert taxes away from wine and on to other products. They taxed consumption but not exports. They controlled the wages of day labourers, decided on the construction of roads and bridges, and, above all, they owned all the winemaking and storage facilities. These new noblemen of Spain were first and foremost winemakers. And no matter how much they adopted the habits of the nobility, they were above all merchants. Many wealthy professionals, notaries, doctors, priests, artisans and merchants, all participated in the wine business in Logroño at the same time as they all struggled to obtain municipal power, so Rioja wineries became key to the creation of a local oligarchy. For all its members, nobles or commoners, converts or old Christians, what mattered to them was money and controlling all the institutions of the city, especially the town hall and the court of the Inquisition. The rich owned the wineries, and their vineyards were worked by day labourers. The harvesters were the dominant group, and they imposed their law on the wine business in the city until the 19th century.
As "new" local hidalgos, winegrowers looked for ways to protect their newly acquire status, and the best way was to join the church or the army. The first born would leave the second born to run the winery, whilst they acquired a position of privilege and political protection. The process of purchasing a military post from the Crown became common practice in many European armies, including in Spain. The richer you were, the more you could move through the ranks by selling and buying commissions. Another way was to create a new town by royal decree. At that time in Spain "villa" meant a small town or settlement of at least 5,000 inhabitants, so bigger than a town but smaller than a city. A "villazgo", was the separation of a place or neighbourhood, with it residents, from a city to which it had previously been attached. The place and its residents became exempt from both the civil and criminal jurisdiction of city, and equally exempt from paying taxes, etc. to the city. The place was then granted their own officers, i.e. mayors, mounted constables or bailiffs and aldermen (alcaldes, alguaciles y regidores), and the corresponding insignia of justice, i.e. pillory, chains, whips, gallows and stocks (picot, cadenza, azote, horca y cepo). My reading of "villazgo" is that it could also involve the creation of a separate manor, or even just a territorial domain, associated with a lordship (señorío). A lordship responsible for the administration of justice, for the governing of the location, for the vassalage associated with the place (i.e. collecting of rents), and finally the assumption of manorial rights that were not just associated with the land nor related with judicial issues. These other rights or obligations included the provision made to the king for the expenses of war (fonsadera), the operation of turnpikes (portazgo) and tolls (peaje), personal taxes on Moors and Jews (impuestos personales sobre moros y judíos), the tribute made to the sustenance of the king when visiting (yantar), monopoly rights (derechos de monopolio), the collecting of sales taxes (alcabalas), and finally the provision of military service (la prestación del servicio militar). The creation of villazgos by the Spanish Crown, generalised in the 17th century, was a complex tool of the state, but it was used by the wine producers of Logroño, Haro, and other towns in the La Rioja to achieve, in return, ample mercēdes regias (royal favours), i.e. the granting of "grace and favours" in the form of titles of nobility, rights of lease, rent and fixing of prices, donations, etc. Traditionally the Spanish high aristocracy felt that undertaking a commercial or industrial enterprise was below them, and they relied on mercēdes regias to obtain the funds necessary for maintaining their rank. The Spanish crown hardly ever made outright gifts of large sums of money, preferring to grant lucrative positions, encomiendas, and only as a last resort, occasional financial assistance. Certain positions, such as being an ambassador, were considered onerous, others were desirable because they coupled authority with benefits. The generalisation of villazgos in the 17th century opened the door for vineyard owners to acquire titles of nobility and positions of authority (most importantly with associated benefits).
Once privilege and political protection had been acquired, wine became the most monetarist commercial product in most of La Rioja. But the social structure of the wine market was different from the rest of the Spanish agrarian world. Small peasant farmers were excluded from the controlled market for wine, and were treated more like day labourers looking for work. There were too many of them, except during peak periods, when there were not enough. Foreign labour was hired, but the result was overproduction and falling prices. Having acquired privilege and political protection, wine growers used it to control the local councils, regulate wages, and they even used public force to "alleviate social tensions". In addition, privilege and political protection meant that winery owners could exploit any economical and social crisis to increase their privileges.
Vineyard owners highlighted the onerous responsibilities they were willing to take on to protect and develop their towns, but the reality was that they acquired privileged positions in order to reinforce their monopoly. However, acquiring power was expensive, the position of alderman (regidor) could cost as much as 12,000 ducats, but by Royal Provision of 1630 they and their descendants were guaranteed that local muleteers must carry their wines in the most expeditious way. For over two centuries everyone was obliged to collaborate in taking the wines through the Basque Provinces to the markets and on to the ports. This gave the merchants of Logroño an effective monopoly in the north, but things would change in the first decades of the 17th century. The towns of Álava (La Rioja Alavesa), privileged by the tax exemptions accorded to "las Provincias Exentas" (the three Basque Provinces), joined the wine business. The Haro city council complained that these town didn't not have to pay "la sisa y alcabalas", i.e. the "sisa" was a tribute placed of everything sold by weight and measures, and "alcabalas" was a later sales tax of up to 14% introduced in 1340. So the regidores of Haro decided that muleteers and trajineros (flat-bottomed boats) coming to their market to sell wine were obliged to carry away the same quality and value of Haro's local wine.
Vineyard owners had slowly become economically privileged, and the richest of them were able to acquire titles of nobility and additional privileges. But they also had another less obvious privilege, as harvests began to increase in the middle of the 17th century, the ability to store the wine became even more decisive. Small winegrowers ended up having to sell their grapes to the those who owned the big wineries. Wineries were usually attached to the best houses, those of the nobles, and built partly underground or on the ground floor of buildings with thick stone walls. These wineries were rarely sold, and the cost to lease a winery was set to deter small producers. In addition, as the sale of grapes became generalised, anticipated sales constituted a disguised credit system (always to the benefit of the winery owners).
Junta de Cosecheros
We can see that those who owned large vineyards and wineries, often termed "noble harvesters" (los cosecheros), had acquired considerable prestige and power, and in order to protect their power the growers of Logroño gave legal form to their monopoly and constituted the Junta de Cosecheros (later, depending upon the moment, also called La Real Sociedad Económica de La Rioja, Real Sociedad de Cosecheros de La Rioja, Sociedad Riojana or Sociedad Patriótica Riojana).
As one writer put it “in 1729 the Junta was an appendix of the town hall, forty years later the town hall was a branch of the Junta de Cosecheros”.
As far as I can see the underlying objective of all great wine producers, both noblemen and rich commoners, was to take control the town halls, and through them all the regulations and taxes placed on their wines. And this started in 1721 with the creation of the Junta de Consecheros de Vino de la Ciudad de Logroño (Board of Wine Harvesters of the City of Logroño), which might be viewed as a kind of guild of rich wine producers. Their focus was on production capacity, exporting wine, and pricing, and in particular, trying to overcome the problem of the cycle of abundance and shortage. They actually had members of the Junta who would taste the wine given to muleteers for export, and they also started to inspect wineries to ensure that wine was not adulterated. The smaller growers could lease vats or take a stake in a must, and this led to the creation of small warehouses where peasants could sell any excess must or wine.
In all the great wine producing towns a similar phenomenon had occurred, with the great harvesters, noblemen and rich commoners, controlling the town halls and through them all the provisions on their wines. But, in Logroño, the power of the Junta was so strong that it even paralysed that of the magistrature itself. There were numerous tensions and occasional violent conflicts between the powerful and privileged wineries and the peasants and small winegrowers, but finally both were essential to the viability of La Rioja region. For example, in 1769 the Junta contributed 70,000 reales to reduce the debt of Logroño, and many times it advanced money to avoid the shortage of the bread. A good part of the decisions regarding roads, bridges, even the route of the new railway, were due the Junta. But the Junta was a union of hidalgos, that would not hesitate to use the local institutions to reject and expel other industries and protect their interests as large harvesters. The relationship between the great harvesters and the small winegrowers was not always one-sided. At the end of the 18th century the wine market was saturated and increasingly unprofitable. Small winegrowers knew that their vineyards were planted on poor quality land and could only produce wine, so they treated them as a complementary source of income to what was in many cases subsistence farming. The large wineries were obliged to maintain their equipment and commercial networks, and were resigned to throwing away wine in order to free up vats for the next harvest. As one observer pointed out, a harvester with half their vineyards was rich, but with double the vineyards they were faced with falling prices and a dramatic drop in profits. For some people the excessive planting of new vineyards was to blame, for others it was that more vineyards required importing more workers, and to get those workers they had to increase wages (despite the fact that most day labourers were faced with increasing food prices, especially wheat, and experienced serious hardship and poverty). If anything Logroño was a good example, with the granary, bakeries and butchers run by the council. By importing wheat and buying local cattle they were able to feed the large body of labourers and the small farmers in the region. Many wine producers thought that speculating on wine was both expected and honest, but that speculating on wheat and barley, essential to the daily life of workers, was immoral.
You may have guessed by now that harvesters in Logroño did everything to ensure that their wine flowed and that they maintained their privileges. The city council had an "expert in the Basque language" to communicate with the Basque muleteers, and they sent "scouts" into the regions to report on wine prices practiced by their competitors. Unfailingly, Logroño lowered the price of its wines to make it attractive for the muleteers to continue to transport their wines. "Owning" the city council they were able sell cheaper by simply removing taxes on locally produced wines, and even lowering taxes on muleteers who would carry their wines to distant markets. Between 1588 and 1796 Logroño undercut competing wine growing regions, including Haro, by between 25% and 40%.
It would be a mistake to believe that making and selling wine was unregulated. Rigid regulations, inherited from medieval autarky, remained common throughout modern Europe. Medieval wine ordinances remained in force in part because of the irregularity of the harvests and, above all, as a brake on fraud, considered harmful, not for the quality of the wine, but for health of the citizen. The recommendations of the court of Alfonso X (1221-1284), emanated from the purest common sense. Producers were not allowed to mix wines, nor add salt or other things in them. In addition the market was controlled and there were penalties for selling wine without authorisation, rules that still exist today. However, the production of wines increased dramatically from the 16th century, and the Basque market stood out, not only for its consumption, but also for the importance of its ports. Flanders was the preferred destination for exporting Rioja wines, but experts think that the first wines would have been white with high alcohol content. The problem was transporting Rioja wines to the ports, and so a "crude" red wine was preferred, a wine that was already in demand by the popular classes in the Basque cities. In the minds of many experts this conditioned the idea that Rioja wines were cheap and of poor quality, and idea that lasted well into the 20th century.
Surprisingly, in Logroño, even in the mid-18th century, there were no taverns according to the local land registry. It is supposed that this was because almost everyone made their own wine, and you could also buy wine from the small warehouses. Experts think that this was at the origin of the chiquiteo. The idea was that customers who bought wine from the small warehouses wanted to taste the wine before buying. Today chiquiteo (often written in Basque spelling, txikiteo) is the tradition of drinking chiquitos (txikitos) or chatos, small glasses of wine, going from bar to bar, in a limited area, with a group of friends (or chiquiteros). The possibility to buy a snack, simple food and drink, already existing in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, and by the 15th century in Spain it was common to eat a snack consisted of bread and wine, fresh or dried fruit, and even some meat. Even in the court of Carlos III a snack was taken before the noon meal. Interestingly, experts distinguish between a snack and a "pequeño convite como muestra de cortesía" (small treat as a courtesy token), and they placed tapas in "tapas, avisillos, incitativos, llamativos... gollerías, en resumidas cuentas, picoteo goloso y agradable puesto en práctica por puro placer, gula en estado genuino", or as a delicacy eaten for pure pleasure. In fact our experts prefer not to link today's tapas with the food found in the taverns of the past, preferring to see them as appetisers or as a convivial meal with friends. They place the modern idea of tapas as being first developed in Andalusia in the very late 19th century. In 1903 one writer noted that before a meal of gazpacho and roasted lamb, he was offered "unos chatos con tapaera, capaces de resucitar a un muerto", or wine with tapas, capable of resuscitating the dead. The most explicit references to what we would understand as tapas today, dates from the 1890's and were found in fashionable Sevillian restaurants, far from the bars of the more popular establishments. Even in 1911 tapas were associated with Seville, but could not be found in Granada or Córdoba. In fact during that period the rest of Spain was adopting "los alimentos aperitivos", so not tapas. Bourgeois households and the bars of fashionable establishments, were enjoying aperitif foods as accompaniments to aperitif drinks. It took some time for people to replace the word appetisers with tapas.
The word itself, tapa, only entered the dictionaries of the Spanish language in 1918, and was defined as “aceituna, salchicha u otro bocadito fiambre que se da con cañas o copas de vino en colmados y tabernas” or just olives, sausage or another cold meat snack that is given with glasses of beer or wine taken in grocery stores and taverns. Again our experts prefer not to look for that first moment when a slice of ham was put on the top of a glass or pot of strong, sweet wine, noting that still in 1936 a wheel of sausage or a thin slice of ham would be put on glasses of beer or wine in every grocery store and tavern in Andalusia. Although most accord that tapas were to stimulate appetite or thirst, and never as a snack. By the 1920's tapas had become popular throughout Spain, and in 1928 Catalonian restaurants would promote “el mejor servicio de chatos con tapa estilo Sevilla”, or the best wine with a Seville-style tapa. It was only in the 1970's and 1980's that tapas really began as a form of itinerant dining (nómadas del tapeo).
For the purist, in the Basque region txikitear is going from bar to bar having a small glass of wine (txikiteo) in each, whereas pintxos are often specially prepared miniature dishes presented on top of a slice of bread with a toothpick holding it all together (pintxo means to stab, skewer or spike). You pay for a pintxo, whereas the bar might include a tapa, a slice of meat or cheese, with the wine. If you had to make a distinction between a pintxo and a tapa, it would first depend on the region, and secondly a tapa is a simpler tasting of ham, cheese, prawns, etc. whereas a pintxo is a combination of freshly prepared ingredients.
After the War of the Spanish Succession (1700-1715), Felipe V (1683-1746) took the throne of Spain (reign 1700-1746), and began reforming the country. Felipe V was followed by Ferdinand VI (1713-1759) who reigned from 1746 until 1759, and then by Carlos III (1716-1788) who reigned from 1759 until 1788. Spain had an archaic and inefficient financial and taxation system (not to say corrupt), was permanently in debt, and survived only because of the silver shipments from the New World (Spain was effectively bankrupt in 1739). This period has been defined as one in which enlightened absolutism gradually emerged (some would call Carlos III at best a benevolent despot). Gradually the power of the Spanish church and the clergy were curtailed, and more importantly freer trade (comercio libre) was promoted where the regions were allowed to trade with companies sailing from any Spanish port, rather than the restrictive mercantile system previously in place. The Spanish Crown, in asserting its continued sovereignty over it distant territories, discover the export potential of its far-flung empire.
We must remember that Logroño was a special case, it was the most populated city in La Rioja region, it was very dependent on the wine business, and it was totally controlled by a wine oligarchy. Other towns in the region didn't have councils dominated by vineyard owners, and so they couldn't play with local taxes in the same way. However, those town had more fertile lands and so continued to produce cereals and vegetables, and livestock for meat. In fact they sold wheat and livestock to Logroño. Through the 18th century these towns would grow substantially, whilst Logroño, under the monopolistic control of the wine harvesters, would stagnate. As the towns grew so did demand for food, and in some regions vineyards were abandoned in favour of crops and cattle.
During the reign of Carlos III (1759-1788) sociedades de amigos del país (societies of friends of the country) began to be created in Spain in accordance with the ideals of the Enlightenment (movimiento ilustrado). In 1790 the Real Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País Riojano-Castellana (Royal Economic Society of Friends of the Riojan-Castilian Country) met in Fuenmayor (just 10 kilometres from Logroño). It was the last attempt to overcome the crisis in the region through traditional measures, and as such was doomed to failure. But what did emerge was the idea of a territorial demarcation around common interests, over and above the provincial boundaries. In fact the Cortes de Cádiz declared La Rioja an independent province in 1812, whereas in 1922 the province of Logroño was create by royal decree, and took in the whole of the historical territory of La Rioja. This decision was quickly annulled, and in 1833 a new province of Logroño was created within the region of Castilla la Vieja (which also includes the harvesting towns of southern Álava). The province would finally change its name to La Rioja only in 1980, at the same time as it became an autonomous community.
Below we can see the distinction made today between the autonomous community of La Rioja and the Rioja DOCa which includes areas in La Rioja, Navarre and the Basque province of Álava.
According to some reports the Real Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País Riojano-Castellana (Royal Economic Society of Friends of the Riojan-Castilian Country) had been created in 1783 to try to foster the economic and cultural development of La Rioja region. The same reports mention that this Society retained the common name Real Junta de Cosecheros (Royal Board of Harvesters), and in many ways inherited the same objectives, etc. as the Junta de Cosecheros created in 1729. The meeting of the Society in 1790 was limited to wine harvesters and marketers of Rioja, so not surprisingly the focus was on overproduction and the demand for their wine outside the region. They decided that what was needed were better roads and bridges, in particular to Santander. Initially the Society was made up of 54 towns, the founding towns, mostly from La Rioja Alta. However, from the outset, its statutes invited the rest of the towns in La Rioja to join, but the Society was exclusively for those who harvested and marketed Rioja wines. Some writers have suggested that La Rioja de los hidalgos reached its maximum expression with the creation of this new Royal Society. And in fact it included all the hidalgo families that had been enriched by the wine business, but were now beset by market problems. The Society did not just appear in 1790, preparatory meetings had been held since 1784, and in 1788 Carlos III had already approved the construction of a “main road” to Santander. But by 1795, the road works were practically abandoned for lack of funds, which was in itself a disaster because it had given seasonal jobs to day workers in times of crisis. Many towns had withdrawn from the project, among them Haro. These town were not totally aligned with the interests of the wine-growers, and were more interested in the roads to the markets of Vitoria-Gasteiz and Nájera.
Overproduction also remained a problem, with many harvests exceeding 60 million litres. In 1785 the harvest was so abundant that they had to create new storage options, and they still had to throw away the old wines in order to accommodate the new production. Some producers simply left their vineyards unharvested.
Rioja - romantic pioneers
So at the end of the 18th century Rioja wine production was in a crisis, not so much because of its own contradictions but more so because of the problems that affected the entire Spanish economy. Market saturation and low prices due to excess wine production were the most apparent arguments and the ones most used by Rioja harvesters, but the true cause was that the Spanish economy was no longer viability. The so-called Antiguo Régimen (Old Regime), with its outdated institutions, was on its last legs.
For Rioja wines the problems were multiple, starting with the unbalance between wine production and market demand, caused in part by the persistent monopoly of Logroño and in part by the abolition of taxes on wine coming from other regions of Spain. But there were far larger social problems. Cereal production was at an all-time low, creating a brutal rise in the price of wheat. Wine production was increasingly unprofitable, and producers couldn't maintain their labour force or increase wages. There was a climate of extreme social tension, not helped by the serious negative consequences caused by the Spanish War of Independence (1807-1814).
The climate of political and social instability continued until the middle of the 19th century, and La Rioja region would suffer even more with the end of Basque home rule and the Carlist Wars (1833-1876). Logroño would retain its political importance, becoming the capital of the newly created province and later the seat of a provincial council. It became an urban society with a focus on agrarian diversification in favour of cereals and horticultural products, thus displacing the vineyard from their fertile irrigated land. Having lost its privileges Logroño would take longer to recover as a major exporter of Rioja wine. During this period there was considerable consolidation of the Logroño landed bourgeoisie, and at the same time a dramatic impoverishment of the peasantry throughout the region.
The small Rioja producing towns consisted of smallholder peasant farmers who had only partially abandoned their vineyards. This was the key to sustaining the wine sector until help arrived with private investors in the mid-19th century. Haro and its region and the harvesting towns of La Rioja Alavesa were in a better position to respond to the challenge of the growing demand from the new urban middle classes. Once again, the Basque market, later accompanied by capital invested in the creation of wineries in the producing towns, would give new life to Rioja wines. There was still a demand for the annual rude, acid wine consumed by the popular classes, but there was now also a small market for a finer wine, the one that would open the way to the Rioja we find today.
In the mid-19th century many producers still thought that the Basques were “gentes que gustan del vino áspero y grosero” (people who like rough and coarse wine), and wanted “espesos, cerrados,... que se masquen” (thick, closed, ... chewy) wines. But tastes evolved rapidly and soon the Spanish liberal bourgeois society showed more refinement, which, in terms of wines, came from abroad during the reigns of Ferdinand VII (1784-1833) and Isabella II (1830-1904). The example was Bordeaux wine, which from the 1830's, was considered a luxury product. It appeared on the best tables, including in the Basque cities and even the ex-colonies in the Americas.
Some experts have noted that there were earlier attempts to improve Rioja wines. The Marquis of La Ensenada (1702-1781), Spanish prime minister (1743-1746) and impressive personality in his own right, pushed for internal reform, including looking for outlets for Spanish wines. For example, he sent Spanish wines to Ricardo Wall, Spanish ambassador in London, however the English palate, already accustomed to Port wine, disliked the rude wines. He also noted that the Rioja should not be transported in animal skins, and that tricks such a diluting the thick wine with brandy or water must be stopped. Wall also noted that vines that were manured to produced more grapes, also produced a worse tasting wine. A clear sign that there was much to learn from the winemaking techniques in places such as Bordeaux. The Marquis argued that Spanish wine producers must send spies out and recruit foreign technicians to learn how the experts made good wine. He even suggested to recruit wine producers from Bordeaux, but then he fell out of political favour, and little happened. Later others would take up the same argument, that making good wine was a complex process and that the Spanish must study others and take a scientific interest in perfecting their wines.
Here we have two examples of the animal skins (pellejo de vino) that were used to transport early Rioja wines.
Despite all the problems the majority of the traditional Rioja harvesters were focussed on stopping the small holders planting more vineyards so they could continue to control the sector. They preferred to see small holders planting wheat (a useful crop but not particularly profitable), and thus being forced to act as day labourers when needed for harvesting the grapes on the big estates. But at the end of the 18th century a small minority of Rioja wineries, instead of resorting to traditional "remedies", had turned to Bordeaux, changing the traditional winemaking techniques and importing new grape varieties, but it was too early. There was not yet a sufficient market for a more expensive Rioja, and many of the traditional harvesters reacted negatively against the novelty. In any case, the timid 18th-century attempts, for example by the well-known experiments of Manuel Quintano, remained misunderstood by the majority of harvesters.
Manuel Esteban Quintano Quintano (1756-1818) was born into an important landowning family in Álava, which included extensive vineyards. His farther died when he was two, and he spent his formative years with his uncle Manuel Quintano Bonifaz (1699-1774), a bishop and Grand Inquisitor of Spain from 1755 to 1774. Not surprisingly our young Manuel was ordained as a priest in 1782, and in 1800 would become Dean of the prestigious Burgos Cathedral. It is written that back in 1783 Manuel and his brothers Diego and José Vicente noted that more Rioja was thrown away than sold, and we know that in 1785 the Real Sociedad Bascongada de los Amigos del País (the Royal Basque Society of Friends of the Country, which still exists today) established a prize for anyone who could find a way to preserve wine during transport. So Manuel decided to visit Bordeaux in 1785, and again in 1786, to learn their winemaking techniques. In 1787 he presented his work in Bilbao, where he obtained the award, pointing out the notable differences between the processes that were carried out in Spain and France.
He first observed that the land of the Bordeaux and Medoc vineyards was a mixture of sand and small gravel, and that the grape varieties (castas de uvas) they used were called Gracianas in La Rioja (today the leading varieties for Bordeaux wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, selected because they responded better to grafting after the phylloxera outbreak in 1875-1892). He went on to note that the wine vats were big enough for the "pisadores" to comfortably trample the grapes and keep the grape skins under the surface (today a "pisadora" is a grape crushing machine). Also the vat base was inclined so that the must ran naturally to the lowest part. As the grapes were trampled on, the stalk, stems, etc. were removed. Quintano was of the opinion that in the Rioja wines, keeping the stalks, etc. transmitted a bad taste to the wine. The must was collected in a large vat, and as the fermentation starts, the few remaining skins and pips, etc. rise to the surface, with the purest and lightest liquid below. After about four to six days the fermentation slowed down, and the wine was removed from the bottom of the vat. The wine was put in barrels, and later clarified and filtered.
Quintano underlined what he felt were the principle lessons, firstly Rioja was fermented with the stalks and skins, the grapes were pressed with excessive force, and the resultant wine was not clarified and filtered. The result was a Rioja so full of bits and dregs that it is neither looked nor tasted nice, plus it did not keep for long, and suffered during transport.
So as far as I understand things the improvements introduced by the Quintanos were to remove the stalks (sin raspón) on the grapes, to filter out the scum or dregs (heces, which does not always translate well in Spanish) that traditionally accompanied the Rioja to the point of sale, and to use barrels and not skins for storage and transport. The difference with the coarse wine (grosero), which continued to endure "cooking" (cocción) with blood and animal bones, bacon, etc., must have been extraordinary. I understand that from that moment the traditional Rioja became known as "ordinary" when compared to the wine of the Quintanos. Confident in the method, the Quintanos and those close to them bought vineyards and transformed wineries. During the first few years they sold their new wine "al estilo de Burdeos" (in the style of Bordeaux wine) for 24 reales, so 8 or 10 reales more than the one made "al estilo del país" (in the style of the country). Given that Logroño always undercut the prices of other producers, it meant that at times they were having to selling wine for only 6 reales. By 1790, and under Royal protection, the Quintanos began exporting to Mexico, Havana and Veracruz. Success seemed to accompany the pioneer, but it would not last long. The local growers continued to have the same problems, but now had a culprit, the different production system of the Quintanos. The harvesters first accused the Quintanos of using their new wine to widen the gap between rich and poor, because the wine was more expensive it was destined exclusively for the rich city dweller. Then they took the path of tradition, approving in 1801 protectionist measures that were intended to exclude the Quintano wine from the commercial circuits. The ordinances set a single fixed price for all wines produced in the region and imposed a rigorous order to make sales only to muleteers, two conditions that, obviously, the Quintanos could not accept. They appealed and won in 1804, but it was too late. The Spanish War of Independence (1807-1814) meant that Manuel Quintano could not continue his experiment, and he died in 1818.
Rioja - no way back
The situation in which the winemaking pioneers of the mid-19th century developed their business activities was very different from that seen by the Quintanos. Initially the traditional winemaking sector tried to maintain and even increase its protectionist habits, but Spain had adopted a more liberal framework which privileged private initiative and market freedom. So the conditions were perhaps even more favourable for those producers looking to make quality wine. However, initially they still would be a minority and, furthermore, far less philanthropic than the Quintanos.
Liberal legislation had separate measures relating to agriculture, dominated by the untouchable freedom of the owner and by the inertia of tradition. These "protectionist" measures were different from the more liberal measures for the industrial and commercial sectors. These "new" sectors were a priority for the Spanish State, however wine was considered a national product to be both developed and protected (many other European wine producing countries thought the same). The pre-phylloxera period saw the gradual emergence of the two worlds, increasingly confrontational, because after the romantic pioneers of the 18th century the new initiatives appeared based more on speculation than philanthropic experimentation. For the new winemakers, to modernise was to produce industrially, to reduce commercial costs, and to generating profits by satisfying demand. In short, to set aside the Spanish artisan traditions of winemaking.
First, a new legal framework for land ownership was needed. This would produce a profound transformation of the property regime applied to Rioja vineyards. Until "la desamortización de Godoy" (the Spanish confiscation) of 1798 the land was divided into two large classes. There was land that belonged to the Spanish church and the nobles, which could not be sold, and there was free land.
Land that belonged to the Spanish church was defined as "amortizada o vinculada", meaning amortised or (compulsory) tied to a particular holder or use. Amortised meant that the lands (or any goods) of the church were placing under the protection of the monarchs, because it was they who had donated them to the Spanish monasteries and churches. Amortisation protected assets from current and future usurpation and transfer. Already in 1765 a report claimed that “amortisation is contrary to the public utility and to the conveniences of the State Treasury since the inalienability of the clergy's assets prevents economic traffic from taking place […]. The removal of land from the market determines that access to property by the subjects of the crown is difficult and, in short, all this has an impact on the creation of wealth”. At this time more that 60% of the land in La Rioja was held by the Spanish church and the nobles, and in many other places the figure was even higher. The sale by public auction of the assets of the Jesuits in 1768 had only disentangled a limited package of assets, but as an example, it would be used in the future. In 1798 Godoy would confiscate and sell off "residual" property of the Spanish church. Then during the Spanish War of Independence (1807-1814) landowners and merchants seize goods from the town halls, and at the end of the war they billed them for their contribution in food to the royal troops. Many old noble families had to pay huge war debts, and by 1818, the ten largest landowners of Logroño included no less than six nuevos ricos (nouveau riche), and the other four were local church councils and convents.
The revolución liberal (liberal revolution) in Spain did not stop, and in the so-called Trienio Liberal (Liberal Triennium 1820-1823) more land was confiscated and sold at auction. These auctions were exploited by the nuevos ricos, for example, a certain Domingo Santa Cruz bought land throughout La Rioja, helped by the fact that his future father-in-law, Manuel María García, was the special commissioner for the confiscation, and his son was the auctioneer of the ecclesiastical assets. More land was confiscation after the death of Ferdinand VII in 1833. The seizure of land was not exclusively for the benefit of the bourgeoisie, since a large number of peasants also took advantage of the auctions. The spectacular growth of many medium-sized winegrowers came from this land transfer process, and by 1875 the largest taxpayers by territorial ownership were the children of those who took advantage of the land confiscation. Four of the largest taxpayers lived in Logroño, capital of La Rioja, and another four lived in or near Haro. So not surprisingly land transfer and wine growing were highly correlated in La Rioja region. The Quintanos would not live to see it, but the experiments of Murrieta and Riscal on winemaking and marketing practices were much better understood by the nuevos ricos landowners. It was the only way that their investments were going to be profitable.
Already in 1816 free trade was decreed in the city of Haro, including for wine, and in 1833 it was extended as a general principle throughout La Rioja. The following year, another law ended the unions and boards in the style of Junta de Consecheros. This new legislation also forced the Real Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País Riojano-Castellana to disengage from its intimate link with extreme protectionism in the wine sector. These changes occurred at the same time as a reform of taxation, with the introduction of direct taxes (territorial, industrial and trade) and indirect taxes (including on wine, spirits, beers, oil and soap). Municipalities and provincial councils could charge various excise duties, which in some cases produced an increase in the final price of wine. And naturally this created new opportunities for wine smuggling and to the systematic adulteration of wine with water or distilled spirits (both treated as crimes against public health). In any case, liberalism took the crucial step in separating the winemaker and the viticulturist, and it also differentiated between wine merchants and simple storekeepers (between those who bet on quality and those who sold anything in a bottle).
From their privileged position as industrialists and merchants, most 19th-century winemakers preferred tradition over innovation. They tried to retain a tight control over the market, imposing a strong separation between their "quality brands" and the wines of the smallholders. The provincial councils had continued to insist in the first half of the century on the old measures that favoured commercialisation. They finished the roads and only then timidly tried to improve quality. They did import new varieties of grapes, and the Álava County Council even hired a Bordeaux winemaker, a certain Jean Pineau from Château Lanessan. The French technician resided in the Rioja Alavesa and very quickly was adopted by the Marqués de Riscal winery. What they found was that they needed not just to adopt the new winemaking techniques, but they also needed substantial capital to invest in barrels, presses, pumps, etc. The wood was American oak imported through Bilbao, the iron was Basque and often English, and the presses and pumps were imported from France.
As if that were not enough, unknown diseases such as powdery mildew (first seen in Europe in 1851) and then downy mildew (first observed in Europe in 1862) attacked the vines. I understand that the easiest way to tell the difference is that downy mildew is limited by leaf veins, whereas powdery mildew spreads over leaf veins. In 1863 phylloxera would be first detected in a French vineyard. The shortages produced by these diseases, and in particular phylloxera, encouraged different types of fraud, in particular, the falsification of the origin or provenance of the wine, and the creation of artificial wines made with water, industrial alcohol and colorants such as fuchsine, a magenta dye.
The businessmen-harvesters looked for ways to protect their interests against these frauds and thus the concept of Denominación de Origen (DO) emerged. In 1878, at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, a draft treaty "concernant la Création de l’Union Gènèrale pour la protection de la Propriété Industrielle" was presented. In 1880 there was, again in Paris, a conference concerned solely with the international protection of industrial property rights. A new draft called "Union for the Protection of Industrial Property" was proposed, this time covering also agricultural products such a wines, fruit, cattle, etc. In 1883 another conference was held, also in Paris, and a Convention was finally agreed by 20 countries. It was envisaged that the Convention would be amended through practical application and a periodic series of conferences, starting in Rome in 1886. The 1883 Convention incorporated a table of sanctions that countries should apply, "to any product that falsely carries as an indication of provenance, the name of a specific locality, when this indication is linked to a fictitious commercial name or adopted with a fraudulent intention". In this context, the debate arose about the protection "of the origin" of Rioja wine as a consequence of the situation created by phylloxera during the first two decades of the 20th century. Some winemakers bought wine in other regions and then sold it under the Rioja brand. The tension between winegrowers and winemakers increased to the point where they demanded that the use of the name Rioja be regulated. The birth of DO Rioja was possible because there was a general legal framework. In addition some wanted to differentiate their wines and fight fraud by protecting the "origin of the wines", and others simply wanted to protect their investments. In November 1923, the president of "las Bodegas Cooperativas de los Sindicatos Agrícolas Católicos de La Rioja Alta de Haro" presented to Lieutenant General Primo de Rivera a regulation on indicating the origin of the wines of the province of Logroño-Rioja. Practically this involved sealing the bottle, carrying out controls, and punishments for fraud. Everyone supported it expect the "Asociación de Exportadores de Vinos de La Rioja", highlighting the difference between those who grew grapes and those who made wine (viticultores y vinicultores). What had happened in the first two decades of the 20th century was that some producers were already focussed on higher quality wines, including the investment needed for ageing and long-term storage. In some cases this meant ensuring a supply of quality grapes either by wineries buying and/or planting their own vineyards, or by imposing quality controls and inspections on independent vineyards. The idea was simple, vineyard owners would produce better grapes and wineries would make better quality wines. The one element that changed was that now wineries had to stop buying wine from third party suppliers outside the region. This created a problems between those who produced fine wines and wanted to protect quality and control fraud, and other wineries who just wanted to produce wines with the minimum of restrictions.
The solution was to introduce a higher category with "Denominación de Origen Calificada" (denomination of qualified origin often written as DOCa) which included a quantitative control plan for production and a qualitative control plan with analytical and homogeneous batch tasting, plus the exclusive sale of wine in 75 cl. glass bottles (i.e. no bulk sales). In addition you can also now find "vino de pago" (single-estate wine or VP), and "vino de Calidad con indicación geográfica" (quality wine with geographic indication or VC). "Indicación geográfica protegida" (protected geographic indication or PGI) is for wine originating from a specific place, a region or a country, which has a certain quality, reputation or even a specific production cycle, that can be essentially attributed to its geographical origin (can also be called VT or "vino de la tierra"). Collectively DOCa, DO, VP, and VC are called "denominación de origen protegida" (protected denomination of origin or DOP), which is the mainstay of Spain's wine quality control system. Outside of this system you can also find "vino de mesa" (table wine or VdM), the catch-all for unclassified vineyards, and for blended wines.
To be honest, the result of the all the work in the 19th century was that the marketing of Rioja had improved, but not the quality of the wines. The vast majority of Rioja wines were not aged in barrels, nor stored and transported in bottles, and the wine was still thick and adulterated with alcohol. The winemaking pioneers' produced small qualities of wine that earned them medals and prestige in competitions, but the railroad also made it cheaper to transport ordinary wine to the popular classes of the cities.
In the middle of the 19th century poor winemaking was not an impediment, since those wines continued to find easy placement in the Basque markets, where storekeepers and retailers often mixed them with wines from other sources. They also added alcohol or brandy ... or just water. The business was profitable since the transformation costs were low and the vineyards continued to be an income supplement for the majority of smallholders. In addition, the alcohol companies, which began to appear in Haro and Logroño, added more value, both for the producer and the merchant of wines and spirits. These merchants were the heirs of the old muleteers who were no longer satisfied with just charging for transport and had emerged as wine dealers.
Looking back we know now that everything was about to change. The French buyers would appear from 1860 just when production was dramatically hit by the arrival in La Rioja of the fungus oïdium, often called powdery mildew. In Haro production would drop by nearly 80% between 1852 and 1858. But what the producers saw were rising prices and improved profits, so in just six years, from 1855 to 1861, they planted another 1,200 hectares in and around Logroño. The collapse of wine production in France due to phylloxera, the world's leading per capita consumer country, led French winemakers to seek production areas that could alleviate their shortage. La Rioja was ready with the arrival of the new railroad, with Logroño opening its railway station in 1864. A fabulous market had opening, nothing less than the French one, unimaginable until then. And with the train transporting a litre of wine to France by rail now costing less than 5 cents. But despite what we might think about the importance of the French market, the province of Logroño still placed nearly 80% of its production in the domestic market, and only about 10% was sold to France. On the other hand between 80% and 90% of Rioja Alavesa wine was exported to Bilbao and France. The peak was in 1885, the year in which a new fungus, downy mildew, appeared in Rioja vineyards, drastically reduced grape production by up to a fifth. Unlike what happened with powdery mildew, the crisis was not accompanied by the rise in wine prices. On the contrary, with stable prices, operating costs grew by about 10%, since the formula to defeat the plague, the "Bordeaux mixture", required the acquisition of sulphating machines. And with the additional labour costs to apply copper sulphate, operating margins were significantly reduced.
As might have been expected, French productive capacity gradually recovered, and in 1892 the French market was definitively closed when protectionist tariffs were imposed on the importation of Spanish wine. The impact of this was less than might be expected because the Spanish had been themselves "closing the door to the French market". In their hunt for profits at all cost there was massive counterfeiting of Rioja wine. Water, industrial alcohol and colouring were added, some harmful to human health. French importers started to distrust Spanish wines and sales plummeted. Rioja wines did not have a high reputation and this ruined what little fame was left. The irresponsible actions of Rioja producers spread an image of widespread fraud that took many years to recover.
We wrote that the French importer would change the market for Rioja, but also the Spanish domestic market would itself change and evolve. As Spain's standard of living rose, demanded for more elaborate wines increased. Some people looked for better colour and flavour, and "fine table wines" started to appear.
Two mythical characters serve as examples of those who pursued quality, namely Luciano Murrieta (1822-1911) and the Marquis de Riscal. Both belonged to the liberal bourgeoisie, the first was in London, and the second, Camilo Hurtado de Amézaga, chose Bordeaux (portrait above dated 1888). On his return to Logroño, Murrieta began to make wines in the Espartero family's winery, before buying a farm in Igay. The family Riscal chose Elciego to build a new modern winery, in which everything recalled what the Marquis had seen in Bordeaux. Both were wealthy people guided more by enthusiasm and desire for individual distinction, rather than a desire to act as examples for traditional harvesters. In fact their efforts were considered so timid at the time, that they were not seen as aiming at any major reform of traditional winery techniques. Already it was recognised that there were two options for the future. The first was to continue to produce the "classical" Rioja wine but using the new techniques that would allow an increase in alcoholic content. The second option, more visionary, was to try to make a new, higher quality wine. As one expert of the day wrote, wine for "well-off people who want low-spirited drinks". Murrieta and Riscal chose this route, but without completely abandoning the old practices. We must remember that older ordinary-type wines may have used poor quality grapes and old technology, but they remained commercially profitable.
What the Espartero-Murrieta wine demonstrated was that a radical transformation in production methods could make a high-quality wine that could easily travel. He showed that ageing not only improved the wine, but was also the only way to avoid market swings (i.e. decoupling the year of production from the year of sale). The Marqués de Riscal would demonstrate that the new production systems could also be profitable. Unlike Murrieta, the landowner Camilo Hurtado de Amézaga surrounded himself with good technicians. The circular of the Official Gazette of Logroño of 1862 gave an account of Murrieta's success, and recalled that there were years in which wine was used to knead plaster (amasar el yeso), because given its abundance it was cheaper than water. An exaggeration, often used by Murrieta himself, which touched a nerve since harvesters remembered well the times when wine was being poured down street drains.
However Elciego's business experience would show that, in addition to quality and prestige, investment in new techniques brought long-term financial benefits and above all health and safety advantages. In 1877, the Agricultural Gazette of the Ministry of Public Works published a report “Elaboration of the Red Wines of the Marqués de Riscal in El Ciego de Álava”, which provided instructions for the manufacture of a fine table wine. The author added economic data on the financial reality behind the "romantic adventure". After offering a hypothesis of yields for three years with poor or regular harvests on two similar farms, one still adhering to traditional methods and the other following the "modern" techniques, the conclusion was that the traditional way payed the owner an average interest on the capital invested of 3.6%, whilst the modern or improved method payed an average interest of 7.7%. This did not include the fact that maintenance of the vines, etc. would cost the double. However, it was expected that the wines themselves would sell for two-, three-, or even four-times the price of the "old" Rioja. Of course, the key problem was that the initial investment needed was beyond the possibilities of traditional harvesters, the vast majority being owners of smallish plots. For this reason, the transformation of the harvester into a harvester-investor, which was what was advertised institutionally, did not take place. On the contrary, the result was the appearance of new wineries built with capital coming from outside the wine business.
Faced with the passivity shown by the Logroño Provincial Council, which barely intervened in promoting Bordeaux-type wines, the institutions in Álava offer the opposite example. They worked to promote the transformation in Rioja Alavesa and they hired the Frenchman Jean Pineau to disseminate the new winemaking methods in the region. At the same time, the Marquis of Riscal served as a link between the provincial institutions and private growers. The landowner would add capital and a good dose of perseverance to the directives emanating from the provincial technicians and politicians.
The first step was to follow the instructions of Monsieur Pineau. The method was simple and consisted of separating the grape from the stem before pressing the wine. After the first fermentation the skins were removed and the must put into barrels. The barrels had to be continually refilled during slow fermentation (fermentación lenta) to prevent the wine from oxidising. Then the impurities had to be filtered out, three times during the first year and twice in the second year. Only three modifications were accepted to this recipe. The first was to maintain the "raspa", so as not to lose tannins and not compromise the ageing (I think "raspa" literally means the deposit inside the barrel wall). The second was the use of containers other than barrels, which were still very scarce in Rioja wineries. The third was the clarification with egg white, which did not appear in the French winemaker's instructions.
The alcoholic fermentation of wine normally occurs in two more or less well differentiated phases. The first is the "fermentación tumultuosa" (literally tumultuous fermentation), and the second the "fermentación lenta" (slow or secondary fermentation). The first corresponds to a maceration period with an intense agitation of the liquid mass and significant gas release. It lasts for 6-10 days before the liquid is transferred to another tank. This second phase lasts almost twice as long, between 10 and 20 days depending on the temperature, and is called slow fermentation (or malolactic fermentation). This fermentation process slows down, and many yeasts die because the environmental conditions are more adverse due to the formation of alcohol. It is the most critical moment since there is the risk that the fermentation stops early, and wines are easy prey for diseases. For this reason the slow fermentation is constantly monitored for the temperature and the density or sugar levels. Later the must-wine is usually extracted by gravity, and placed in barrels for ageing.
Wine produced using this new technique suffered, firstly from the lack of a packaging that would maintain the ageing process, and secondly the low demand for the new product. Between 1858 and 1868 the production of the new wine in Rioja Alavesa did not exceed 2-3% of the total annual production. It did not help that the Marqués de Riscal proceeded very timidly, and initially allocated only part of the harvest to the new way of production. He feared that he would not be able to sell his wine, despite the fact that it was well received in Madrid. However, the vintner dropped the wine simply because other wines and alcohols were more profitable, and being "well received" did not mean that there was a demand for the new wine. The Marquis de Riscal did not give up, perhaps encouraged by the success of his wines at the international exhibition in Bayonne in 1864 and in Bordeaux the following year. As so often is the case, the recognition would have to come from outside in the form of medals and awards in the most important exhibitions (Dublin in 1866, Paris in 1872, Vienna in 1874, Philadelphia in 1875) until reaching the mythical medal of Bordeaux in 1895.
During this time, on the other side of the Ebro, the Espartero-Murrieta winery, started by Luciano de Murrieta García Lemoine, later titled Marquis de Murrieta, would continue, but in relative anonymity. Starting in 1877 Luciano de Murrieta began to buy land in Ygay, east of the city of Logroño, creating an agricultural holding called "Chateau Ygay" (i.e. not just dedicated to vineyards and a winery). Then there was another twenty years of relative anonymity, during which some experts presume that he was perfecting his winemaking technique. The estate consisted of 168 hectares dedicated to cereal, vines, olive trees, hops and honey (the urban area of Logroño covered about 80 hectares at the time). He did expand the vineyards, at the expense of unused stony land occupied by holm oaks. It is thought that the estate did not produce a lot of wine, but it did obtained a first diploma in Paris in 1878, one more in 1889 and, finally, another in Bordeaux, in 1895. It looks as if the farm was in deficit, but that he continued to employ about sixty families in order to "give wages to the poor" so they did not have to emigrate to the American Republics. For this he received from the City Council of Logroño an award "He is also, and therefore deserves to be named adopted and favourite son of La Rioja, one of the men who have contributed the most to the prosperity of this region by introducing our winemaking procedures the advances of foreign oenology 'Europeanising' winemaking in La Rioja, which until the Marquis became a winemaker was done exactly the same as in Noah's time".
Together with individual initiatives such as those of Riscal and Murrieta, for the first time in the history of Rioja, business projects were clearly dominated by the investment of capital from outside the agricultural world, such as the creation in 1882 of the Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España (CVNE). With three French partners, one of the initial business opportunities was the purchase of local wine to be later resold in the French market. But, starting in 1892, wine exports to France stopped and La Rioja suddenly found itself with an overproduction. CVNE rapidly adapted by selling fines wines in the Spanish domestic market.
For many experts, the mutual protectionism of 1892 represented the true transformation of the Rioja wine sector. This was less about markets, and more about the city of Haro becoming the headquarters of an Oenological Station (Estación Enológica), an institution that over time would become the benchmark for the evolution of Rioja wine. This was the moment when phylloxera was devastating several Spanish provinces and exports had almost disappeared. It was time to propose substantial changes in the wine business, which together with Valencian oranges, had been one of the most important positive contributors to Spain's precarious balance of payments.
Then phylloxera arrived, and nothing would be the same again
By the middle of the 19th century, it became apparent that Murrieta and Riscal would not "save" the Rioja wine. In 1863 phylloxera was first recorded in a French vineyard. With the introduction of the steamship, the faster transatlantic crossing meant that the pest could survive the trip from America. The Great French Wine Blight would destroy many French vineyards and lay waste to their wine industry. With the help of the railroad the pre-phylloxera Rioja wineries filled the gap. The La Rioja landscape was drastically transformed in the 1870's and 1880's, with vineyards covering every conceivable type of terrain. No one thought about quality issues and even less about the ecological risks that threatened the expansive patches of vineyards. The natural barriers that other crops produced had disappeared, and La Rioja looked just like one big vineyard. At the time of maximum historical production of Rioja, in 1899, phylloxera made its appearance in Spain. By then, the French had already recovered their vineyard and their market in the world. Rioja would have to start all over again, …
Just as wool had been the catalyst for change in the production of Rioja in the 16th century, so from the middle of the 19th century La Rioja began a new industrial revolution. The wine sector was increasingly in contact with the world of industrialists, both for new capital and for new innovations. For example, Tonelería Murua would revolutionise the production of barrels and Marrodán would start manufacturing wine and olive presses in Logroño. Alongside wine production, the agricultural world diversified and specialised in transformation products with high added value. Industries for the transformation of agricultural products and more stable marketing networks, soon helped by the railroad, complemented traditional agriculture products, forming what over time came to be called an agro-industrial complex. In this framework, two branches of similar strength and importance developed on both sides of the Ebro. On one side, the vineyards and wine, on the other, irrigated agriculture and preserves. La Rioja became the main producer of canned food throughout the second half of the 19th century, thanks mainly to the irrigated areas of La Rioja Baja.
In addition to the impact of a phylloxera plague, Spain was undergoing an agricultural and livestock crisis. It began in Europe in the 1870's, and manifested itself in Spain in the last years of the 19th century. The crisis meant the end of traditional agriculture for the European powers. Agrarian development shifted towards a capitalist model of specialisation and global competition, which deepened the division between agricultural business profits and the cost of work. In poor countries, incapable of adapting to this new reality, it meant the ruin of the small peasant, social misery and in many cases emigration.
Discovering the Americas was motivated by the desire to find scarce, and thus valuable, resources. What they stumbled upon was a resource so abundant that it was effectively free, New World land. The result was an increase in the land endowment per European by a factor of six, but the full implications of this would not be felt until after the 1850's. New World land needed to be cultivated, and this needed European labour and capital, as well as an efficient transport system. By the late 19th century everything was in place, with rail and steamships linking New World land to the European economies, effectively these were the tools that exported New World land to Europe, embodied in New World food. The result was a depression, that started just after 1870 and would only start to fade in 1890 when the United Stated officially closed their frontier, although it would take at least another 20 years for the world economy to settle into a new equilibrium (refrigeration would later have the same effect on animal husbandry).
The reasons are simple to see now, firstly, the population of the United States more than doubled between 1850 and 1880, and most immigrants were of a productive or marriageable age. Secondly, the railway network in the United States grew by a factor of ten during that same period. Thirdly, over the same period the acreage used for wheat grew by more than a factor of five. Most importantly wheat exports increased from 4 million bushels in 1860 to 150 million in 1880, or equivalent to half the total production of France at that time. In addition Russia also became a net exporter of wheat during this same period, and other countries were also exporters, i.e. Egypt, India, Australia, but mostly to the United Kingdom market. In 1860 imported wheat cost about 20% less than home grown wheat, and the same was true for rye, barley and oats. It was only around 1877 that parity between home grown and imported grains was reached, but the damage had been done. Whilst capitalists had gained because their wage costs had fallen, landlords had lost because rents had fallen. For workers nominal wages had fallen, but if food was a sufficiently important part of the workers' budget, then real wages actually increased. The question in the United Kingdom was between the effect of grain imports on the cost-of-living set against the demand for cheap labour by domestic grain producers. Finally the United Kingdom was the first to effectively change from an agricultural country to one dependent upon industry and commerce, and simultaneously become a net importer of food stuffs.
The "grain invasion" had provoked different political responses across Europe. The Danes and British adhered to free trade, the French and Germans protected their agriculture, and Spain adopted an ultra-protectionist solution. A solution that only benefited large landowners, whilst day labourers and small landowners suffered the effects of the market, i.e. low wages and rising prices for basic necessities. In addition winegrowers were hit by a tiny parasite that wiped out their vineyards.
In 1863 phylloxera had been discovered in London nurseries and from there it spread throughout Europe. It arrived in France in 1863, in the Côtes du Rhône region, and five years later, it devastated large areas of Provence and Languedoc. In 1867 the insect was identified in the Gironde, the emblematic region of Bordeaux wine. In just a few years, France lost more than 1.5 million hectares of vineyards, well over half of the total planted.
In Spain the spread of the disease was noticed very early, and the government issued in 1872 the first ministerial orders alerting the provinces. In 1874 the importation of vines and branches from the phylloxera infected countries was prohibited. Despite these measures most people assumed that the peninsula would not be affected. However the invasion began in 1878, in the Malaga vineyards and shortly after in Catalonia. The whole of Spain was affected, over a period that lasted at least twenty years.
In November 1896 phylloxera was detected in the region of the upper valley of the Arga, and it slowly descended towards the Ebro. The presence of the insect was verified in a vineyard in the Rioja town of Sajazarra on June 5, 1899, and the parasite arrived in La Rioja Alavesa in 1900. We have to remember that at that time in many municipalities nearly 80% of the available land was planted with vines, the remaining space was occupied by urban centres, wineries, roads and some wastelands. Phylloxera ruined approximately 85% of all the vineyards in La Rioja. Different municipalities responded differently, some simply uprooted the vines, and turned to other commercial activities. Some towns such as Logroño reduced the vineyard to a complementary crop, giving greater prominence to new crops favoured by irrigation and the canning industry. A few replanted the vines, but for other municipalities the reconversion was really traumatic because no alternative commercial activity was found.
In hindsight, once the risk was identified, affected vineyards should have been stripped and not left to continue harvesting. Local authorities did not take coercive measures because they were afraid that the precarious social calm would be broken. At the same time people began to distrust and criticise technicians and officials in the local councils. In the desperate search for a miraculous remedy, some towns payed large sums of money for fake remedies. The Haro Oenological Station came under attack for proposing that the only effective remedy was replanting. Despite the evidence, even up to 1910 American-based nurseries were still being sabotage by local winegrowers who could not, or did not want to, replant.
There were also many private initiatives, often led by the large landowners. Some replanted, but others went one step further, teaching grafting techniques and ways to treat and conserve ancient varieties. In Álava it was again the Marqués de Riscal winery that took the initiative, creating a large nursery to replant their vineyards and offering products to local farmers at cost. Both Riscal and Murrieta had stopped buying grapes and wine from outside the local region in order to continue to make wine. Later the provincial administration started to buy and distribute American plants at a discount. Loans were granted, but on the condition that owners focused more on quality and less on yield. i.e. less Garnacha and more Tempranillo. The Haro Oenological Station produced a varietal definition of Rioja wines, as a mixture of grapes with Tempranillo at 75% and the Garnacha and Mazuelo varieties at 15% and 10% respectively.
It was only in 1914 that finally both public and private actors agreed that a genuine Rioja was back, "with a bright colour, fresh on the palate, and an unmistakable nose due to its soft and pleasant aroma".
The vines might have recovered and the wines might have started again to find their unique personalities, however the social consequences were more profound. Small farmers and farm labourers could not cope with the high costs of replanting. American plants were still simply too expensive, and the results was a wave of emigration from La Rioja province. Over the period 1900 to 1920, about 45,000 people left the region. Some places developed alternative crops for local canning factories, especially peppers, tomatoes and peaches. In La Rioja Baja, the disease had little longterm impact, but other regions such as Haro and the Rioja Alavesa only recovered in late 1950's. Logroño had avoided the wine boom of the 1880's and instead had accorded a concession to a tobacco factory, which by 1915 was employing 16% of the local work force.
La Rioja agrarian landscape had changed, and the vine and wine had lost their importance. But wine consumption increased, so the remaining large wineries increased the purchase of wines from other regions and simply re-branded them Rioja, exempt from any type of regulation. From the 1920's, with the recovery of the vineyards in La Rioja Alta there emerged (again) a strong tensions between winemakers and winegrowers. The idea of regulation was defended by some of the "historical" winemakers and, of course by the technicians of the Haro Oenological Station. Thus, the creation of the Rioja Denominación de Origen and its Regulatory Council was first motivated by the need to stop fraud and abuse.
Rioja Denominación de Origen
Starting with the agricultural and livestock crisis of the late 19th century, followed by the devastation caused by phylloxera in the early 20th century, and with the arrival of industrial modernisation in the agro-food sector, La Rioja would undergo lasting changes. Initially the area devoted to a mix of cereals, vineyards and olive groves did grow as a refuge against the end of the century crisis, but its profitability started to decrease. Between 1900 and 1910, the surface allocated to intensive crop farming remained constant, but its profitability grew by 60%. In 1900 vineyards still contributed nearly half of the total value of agricultural production in La Rioja, but through the first third of the 20th century, the surface allocated to vines would drop by almost one-third. The surface allocated to intensive crop farming would double, in particular on the best irrigated land, and the returns on that investment were spectacular. Wineries producing low quality table wines would be the most affected, whereas those producing high-quality aged wines could still evolve and be profitable. The canneries had multiplied the market for horticultural produce, and with the evolution of the modern wineries, had created in La Rioja a "canning and wine-growing complex". A complex based upon intensive agriculture with high added value that energetically resorted to irrigation and the use of inorganic fertilisers.
In the 1930's, the main export from La Rioja were cereals, beets, wine and frutas y hortalizas (fruits and vegetables). Imports were fossil fuels, metallurgical products, and lots of fertilisers (nearly three times the Spanish average). Protected by liberal legislation, the wine sector saw an increase in the separation of vineyards and wine production, a process that had already begun before phylloxera. This separation was based a historical difference between the ownership and the rent of the land, to which was added a more pronounced contradiction between liberalisation of commercial activities and the desire for state interventionism. The wine sector had to combine two opposites such as private initiative and the collective defence of the denomination of origin or provenance. In short, before the end of century crisis and after the recovery in the 1920's, what had changed the least was the opposition between two different world-views, one that came from the cultivation of the vineyard, very agrarian and traditional, and the one that emanated from the elaboration of the wine, decidedly industrial and commercial. On to this there was added a broad normative regulation on the wine sector, international and national, which became one of the defining characteristics of the 20th century.
It all started in Paris in 1883, where in the context of industrial property, guidelines were set for "indications of provenance or appellations of origin". The Madrid Agreement of 1891 limited the freedom of the wine market based on respect for the same industrial property, insofar as the Denominations of Origin were "collective marks" for the specificity of the origin of a product. And the Agreement introduced protective controls which were supposed to be distinctive and exceptional. In Spain, two Royal Decrees (Reales Decretos) were fundamental, firstly in 1892 Oenological Stations were created, and secondly in 1902 a new Industrial and Commercial Property Law was promulgated. The first followed an agreement on the control of practices in the vineyards and in the making of wines, and the second granted the use of "collective marks" with the geographical name of the place of "manufacture, elaboration or extraction of a product".
The first legal initiative resulted in the creation of the Haro Oenological Station in 1892. However, all the second did was to confirm what had always been known as the "place of origin", i.e. wine "from La Rioja" or "from Rioja". Both the Haro Station and the traditional "geographical indication of origin", now legal, initially encouraged the vineyards and the wine producers to defend their uniqueness, and later, to defend the qualitative character of Rioja wine. The two initiatives were one step away from the future "Rioja Denominación de Origen". The only thing missing was the awareness that they needed a "collective mark". This came in the 1920's when production increased, exports boomed, but coupage [blending] practices continued, i.e. mixing good Rioja wine with poor quality wine from outside the region, but still calling it Rioja. Denouncing this practice as illegal was aimed directly at the Asociación de Exportadores de Vinos de Rioja (Rioja Wine Exporters Association), domiciled in Haro. Naturally they claimed that they needed to import wines from outside the region to create distinctive brands. Here we see the differing interests of viticulturalists and winemakers, however, both were still united on the benefits produced by protecting the historically prestigious "brand" Rioja. Despite the mistrust, they managed to create the Denominación de Origen y su Consejo Regulador (Denomination of Origin and its Regulatory Council).
So a nice idea, but the real-world was much more complex. The first Regulatory Council (Consejo Regulador) of 1926 had to deal with the strong ups and downs in foreign markets, and the financial problems from the 1929 crisis which resulted in the introduction of protectionism throughout Europe. However, the first years of the Regulatory Council were positive. The vineyards had been completely rebuilt, albeit covering only 36,000 hectares and not the original 70,000 hectares (in 1985 it was still only 39,000 hectares, although it expanded rapidly to more than 60,000 hectares by 2015). In the mid-late-1920's Rioja was once again experiencing a boom in wine exports. In addition, intensive crops, in particular beets, resulted in agricultural incomes much higher than the national average. Since the installation of sugar mills after the WW I, some farmers began to use beets as an easy and profitable crop. Intensively irrigated crops were more profitable than vineyards, thus stopping the temptations to plant vines and so preventing a pre-phylloxera monoculture.
Those 36,000 hectares were in fact divided in more than 100,000 plots, most run by micro-landowner, using vines as a complementary crop and cultivating them on land not suitable for other things. The result was that it was almost impossible to really control the production of Rioja, and the Regulatory Council was submerged in an avalanche of criticism from all parts. So in 1932, when the Council's regulations were to be revised, the Logroño Chamber of Commerce reported that "the action of the Regulatory Council of the Rioja Wine Denomination did not respond for the purposes for which it was created, it represented only exporters and manufacturers of wine to the exclusion of all other sectors".
In 1925 the door had been opened to the creation of a Denominación de Origen (Denomination of Origin) of Rioja wine, but given that it was a Ley de propiedad industrial (Industrial Property Law) its application was not simple. However, most importantly it authorised "the creation, as a collective trademark, of a seal on packaging” and permitted sanctions against illegal competition. One problem was the issue of territoriality. Already around 1910, an interprovincial agreement had been sought between Álava, Navarre and Logroño for a common brand of Rioja wines, but the initiative ended in a resounding failure. Later, encouraged by the coup d'état of September 1923, a new proposition was made through the Dirección de las Bodegas Cooperativas de Haro (Directorate of the Cooperative Wineries of Haro), and supported by the "fuerzas vivas" in the province of Logroño. It spent more than 18 months going from one ministry to another, not helped by fact that Haro winemakers were working against it. Finally, the Spanish Ministro de Trabajo (Minister of Labour), intervened and resolved one of the most conflictual points, precisely that of territorial demarcation. The Denomination would be Rioja, even though "the qualifier for Rioja" was not "a Spanish geographical name that corresponds to a sufficiently determined administrative or political term". In June 1925 the law was published, even if it met neither the expectations of the agrarian cooperatives, nor the winemakers. Both were interested in preventing fraud, but the law did not propose any control requirements, and it was also felt that the term Rioja could cause confusion and resurrect old interprovincial conflicts. But the law did give birth to the Denominación de Origen Rioja (Rioja Denomination of Origin), with its Consejo Regulador (Regulatory Council).
Above we have the seals used 1925, 1953, and 1974, and below we have the ones used today.
In October 1926, the Regulatory Council was created for the denomination "Rioja region", with powers to fix its delimitation, to manage and regulate the "registration as a guarantee seal of the corresponding collective trademark", and treat complaints, including a proposal on fraud penalties. The start-up was done remarkably quickly. By December, members residing in the Rioja region (Logroño, Álava and Navarre) were appointed for the Permanent Commission and the Regulatory Council. In January 1927, the Regulatory Council was officially constituted in Logroño. Six members were from the province of Logroño, four from the province of Álava and two from Navarre (the remaining three represented the Ministries). In general, the members of the Council were clearly identified with political conservatism and Catholic agrarianism.
The first task was the geographical delimitation of the Denominación vinícola Rioja (Rioja Wine Denomination). This included ways to indicate the "origin of its wines and the use of its collective guarantee mark", "the defence and promotion of the wine industry in the region of La Rioja", the registration and regulation of the brand, and finally sanctions for "usurpation" of it. The Regulatory Council had powers related to "the indication of origin of La Rioja wines", and controlling the conditions of the land, kinds of vines, cultivation and production of the wines. The economic resources of the Regulatory Council were from subsidies, donations, own assets, fines-confiscations-compensation on fraud, and a percentage on seals. Infractions were regulated through Industrial and Commercial Property Law, the Penal Code and the laws on wine. Fines could be levied on both wholesalers and retailers for everything ranging from the concealment in the declaration of the harvests through to the falsification of seals. The seals themselves could be attached to anything ranging from vats through to barrels and bottles. It is true that agrarian criteria prevailed such as territoriality (the place of production) over the industrial-commercial factor of the production system (brands). The 20% limit placed on wines from outside the region used for blending appeared meagre, but in reality it was in line with industrial practices at the time. The regulations were a compromise, and in some ways contradictory in allowing those controlled to do the controlling.
The Spanish Second Republic (1931-1939) started optimistically with an excellent harvest, in both quality and quantity (exceeding 90 million litres and almost double the previous year). And not forgetting that the agrarian diversification of the 1920's had introduced crops that were more remunerative than wine. But the euphoria did not last long, with the harvest of 1932 being one of the worst in the 20th century. The 1929 economic crisis and the Great Depression would show that wine was a fragile and exposed product. The result was that between 1929 and 1933 Spanish exports fell by 30%, and exports of Rioja fell by 15%. However, quality wineries were hit more than others, with a drop in production of two-thirds. Rioja retuned to the bulk exporting of cheap wine, a practice that would still dominate the market until the 1970's.
A new law appeared in May 1933, regulating both the production and internal market, as well as imports and exports. Denominations of origin were still based upon international conventions and protected geographical names. Names associating with "typical wines" that respond "to special production characteristics and to production and ageing procedures used in the region or region from which they take the geographical name". Production was defined "by the varieties it grows and the climatic and geological conditions that exist in it". Winemaking was prioritised, but it clearly stated that Denomination of Origin wine was one where production or ageing had occurred in that region under "characteristic conditions", and that it did not include wines that "have not been produced or elaborated" in the geographical demarcation of the Denomination. Nineteen geographical names were specified, including Rioja, Jerez, Xerez or Sherry, Malaga, Penedès, Rueda, etc. A new Regulatory Council had to create a new territorial map of the towns with the wine-growing areas and the location of wineries, "expressing the cultivation, climatological or geological conditions to which the musts owe their characteristics", as well as determining the characteristics of the various typical wines protected by the Denomination of Origin. La Rioja region, was made up of the provinces of Logroño, Álava and Burgos, but the ageing and export of Rioja wines was limited to the North region. The main issue was territoriality, which had suddenly become even more complex because it now appeared to extend into three provinces. As you might guess some towns in one province made Rioja wines that "fitted" with another province and wanted to be included in that province. Finally they decided that the Denomination "debe ser una sola para todos, o sea tipo Rioja, exclusivamente" (must be for one Rioja wine).
The reality was that Regulatory Council did little before the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), yet the law would only be repealed at the end of the Franco regime (1975). The Rioja wine region was not a battle front and therefore kept its productive capacity intact. However, in Franco's Spain there was only one priority for the region, that of agricultural supplier. The countryside was once again the axis of the national economy, and the agricultural workforce grew after decades of decline. After the war the new agrarian landscape was dominated by crops of basic products, but the region had to survive one of the driest periods of the 20th century. In addition there were ration cards, an inevitable black market, and a drop in wages, which pushed the region into an economic and social depression. El Servicio Nacional del Trigo (The National Wheat Service), the body that guided Spanish agriculture, was a symbol when eating bread was the main desire for millions of Spaniards. But even then it was not possible to increase production. Wheat occupied 39,000 hectares in the province of Logroño in 1935 and only 30,000 in 1939, and in La Rioja Alavesa and Navarre, the reduction was of similar proportions.
The voluntary national isolation, first, and then the blockade policy decreed by the Western powers after WW II, dramatically affect Rioja production. The vineyard was once again at best a small supplement to income, and not very profitable. Vast tracts of vineyards were lost, and the Rioja Denominación de Origen and the Regulatory Council were only memories of the past.
However, the recovery of the vineyard was once again a solution when the law of diminishing returns forced the abandonment of poor-quality sowing lands. In 1950, the Rioja Denomination reached 39,000 hectares dedicated to vineyards, 3,000 more than in 1944. But the increase was not noticeable in production, which remained practically stagnant, from 630,000 hectolitres produced before the war, it rose to an average harvest of 670,000 hectolitres between 1941 and 1950. There were lots of reasons for this, i.e. poor working practices, the lack of fertilisers, low profit margins, etc. Some viticulturalists produced just enough for self- or local-consumption, others traded through barter, yet others discounted their wines to merchants, who also had their difficulties. Some producers mixed Rioja with the cheapest imported wines, and discredited the brand. The canning industry also failed during the same period. Dependent on the importation of various raw materials, tin, nail, strap, copper for welding, etc., it suffered a brutal fall, e.g. the tinplate received in the period 1943-1947 was equivalent to only 10% of that received in 1935. So in some areas of La Rioja Baja, wine again appeared as a solution, despite all its problems.
Argentina's grain and meat alleviated the tremendous shortage until Spain was able to expand imports after entering the UN in 1952 and the International Monetary Fund the following year. Timidly, exports started with the emblematic products of a traditional backward Spain, citrus fruits and wine, the two mainstays of the battered Spanish balance of payments. However, La Rioja's GDP grew below the Spanish average. The "export vocation" of wine and canned food during the 1930's had turned into a wish that would take time to come true. Rioja export figures from the 1930's were not reached again until the late 1960's.
With France, a country with which there were no exchanges between 1937 and 1947, only 90 litres of wine were officially exported. On the contrary, in 1949, once relations were reestablished, exports were said to have exceeded 9 million litres (which no one believed). In the hardest years of international isolation, only Switzerland and some Spanish-American countries maintained their commercial dealings with the Rioja Denomination. For example, in 1943 and 1944 Switzerland imported some 8 million litres, representing 80% of the total wine exported by the Rioja Denomination in those two years.
Gradually, the Rioja wine sector would start again to take off, using the old regulatory institution that was "resurrected" in 1947 and began to work (again) in 1953. In fact, the Spanish wine sector continued to be governed by one of the few laws passed in the Republican period that was not repealed by the new authorities. But the real power in the sector was in the hands of los sindicatos de la vid, cervezas y bebidas (the unions controlling wine, beer and drinks). Los sindicatos de la vid (literally the union of vines), established in the Rioja 1941 was dominated by the subgroup of Criadores Exportadores de Vino (Harvesters and Exporters of Wine), the true nucleus of power of the Rioja winemaking network during the dictatorship.
The Rioja Denomination covered only the wines made with grapes from a defined region, and ageing had to be carried out in the wineries in the Rioja area. The grape varieties were defined, i.e. Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo for the reds and Malvasía, Garnacha Blanca, Calagraño and Viura for the whites. But (as usual) "exceptions" were allowed "when the needs of domestic and foreign trade advise it", and this could even include "the introduction into the ageing cellars of similar wines from other origins, with the sole purpose of practicing oenological operations and correcting defective vintages". However, the reality was that harvests were very irregular, as were markets and profits, so exceptions for "oenological operations" were both frequent and understandable. The oenology of the time could not work miracles, and the characteristics of Rioja were very generic. So mixing wines in the Bilbao warehouses and fraud in the Denomination's own wineries were common. And sometimes harvests were so poor that there were years in which "oenological operations" instead of harming the Rioja benefited it, at the expense, of course, of the long-suffering local Rioja winegrowers.
The role of the "resurrected" Regulatory Council of the Rioja Denomination was to defend and promotion Rioja wine. That meant preventing falsification and adulteration of the wines, monitor viticultural practices, issuing certificates of origin and guarantee seals, monitoring national and foreign markets, and applying sanctions as needed. However, as you might have guessed the "resurrected" Council did not meet regularly, had little public relevance, to the point where the local Chamber of Commerce called it an "organismo inoperante y sobre papel que aún no ha logrado iniciar su funcionamiento", and even "it produces effects contrary to those pursued as far as the national market is concerned".
So the Regulatory Council was reformed yet again in 1953. The wine that the winemakers could use for blending, if the harvest had been poor, was again limited to 20%, but most importantly the Council could have its own supervisors to monitor the application of the rules. The problem was money, the few controllers they had were obliged to bicycle from one vineyard to another well into the 1960's. After paying the personnel, what little money left was spent on generic advertising for the Rioja brand. But some members of the Council did try to ensure that the control mechanisms were effective and that the wineries only bought grapes from within the Denomination. They defended the farmer, fought for the price of grapes and advocated for the freedom to plant what they wanted. So there was a permanent uneasiness between farmers and winemakers, only diluted abroad by the friendly propaganda that presented Rioja wine as an emblematic regional product, and increasingly seen as representing Spain "in the world".
The first setback for the Council was the problem of the territoriality of the Rioja Denomination. The Council had begun by registering winegrowers, production wineries and exporters. The province of Logroño and the Navarrese towns accepted, but the municipalities in the La Rioja Alavesa did not. They did not like to be dependent on an entity based in another province. And they did not want to pay a fee to defend an unattractive commercial option, since wine from La Rioja Alavesa found a perfect outlet in the markets in Vitoria-Gasteiz and Bilbao, where it was often mixed with other wines and still called Rioja. The vintners who purchased practically all the production of the Álava towns wanted to blend wines and still call them Rioja. However, the wines of harvesters enrolled in the Denomination would be protected, so they could not be mixed with wines from other sources. One suggestion involved using the denomination "Elciego-Rioja Alavesa", but the vintners refused that option. Slowly those in La Rioja Alavesa registered, but refuses to pay fees to the Council. The result was that the Regulatory Council suggested to separate the localities. The majority of Álava vineyards would have agreed, but in 1965 the Álava County Council decided to pay the royalties that the growers refuse to pay. The money helped the Regulatory Council start a propaganda campaign directed at the Basque Country, promoting the idea to pay a little more for a real glass (chiquiteo) of Rioja.
Resolving the difficulties with the Álava vineyards was overshadowed in the first years of the 1960's, when wineries fought against the reinforcement of quality control measures. The Regulatory Council wanted to separate the production of protected higher-quality wines from that of common ones. However both types of wine were processed together in many wineries, making any control measures difficult to implement. The "bulk operators" argued that the transformation of their facilities would be too costly, and they threatening to stop buying Rioja wine. Winegrowers were in favour, and many exporting harvesters sat on the fence. Technically what was being proposed was just the application of one of the regulations of the Council, but the real objective was to reinforced the Councils powers to fight fraud. The response was to accept the regulation, and then ignore it in practice.
Viticulturalists (winegrowers) were very vocal in defended the separation in the wineries between higher-quality wines and more common ones, coupled with controls to combat fraud. They listed many of the tricks used:-
Damaged wines were replaced by wines from other regions, and still sold as Rioja
Deficient Rioja wines were mixed with whites from other places and marketed as Rioja clarets
Selling of Rioja labels of origin that were then used to protect wines from other origins
Production wineries that assigned or sold their Rioja labels of origin to storekeepers
Elaboration within the Rioja region of grapes from outside the region, then declared as Rioja with labels of origin
It would be wrong to demonise "bulk producers" some of them still bought Rioja wines, which were worse than other wines that could be brought from outside the region and at a lower price. In some ways they helped many Rioja cooperatives survive poor harvests which resulted in poorly elaborated wines.
It did not help that at the highest level, the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture was more concerned with quantity than quality, and in their eyes Rioja had already overcome large-scale systematic fraud and was now one of the strongholds of Spanish exports. In fact in 1965, 10% of the total wines and spirits exported by Spain was Rioja. In addition, capital was entering the region for the construction of new warehouses, so what was the problem? For example, Campo Viejo (1962) had already been built, and AGE (1967) would soon be born, with 16 million litres capacity. So the only way forward was for the Regulatory Council to impose separation through reinforced controls and fines.
The war, famine and pain of the 1940's was now just a bad memory, and tourism was again on the agenda, and foreign market were again accepted Spanish products. Rioja was present in agri-food fairs in Munich, Berlin, London, New York, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco, but not Rome, Milan, nor Paris. The target was to replace French red wines with Rioja. And it worked, exports rose from 2 million litres in 1967 to 4.7 million litres in 1972. On the September 20, 1970, the first "carrozas" paraded in Logroño celebrating the Fiestas de la Vendimia.
But behind the scenes there was a painful reality. Cultivating a vineyard was ruinous for the men working in the fields. Half a dozen large wineries dominated the sector, and imposed new methods that broke with the traditional basis of Rioja. The emergence of cooperative wineries allowed the large wineries to buy just the wine, avoiding the production and purchase of grapes, and even the vinification process. These large wineries became just large stockists who speculated with wines from various origins, while the winegrower was prostrated before the low prices they imposed.
Between 1965 and 1971, some 3,000 hectares were cleared in the province of Logroño, but the average prices of grapes, especially those paid to cooperative members, remained below five pesetas. The cooperative winery may have produced a large volume of wine, but they were usually poorly managed by a couple of the larger grape producers. Initially the cooperatives were well received by the winegrowers, since at least it ensured a buyer for their harvests.
New regulations had been in the pipeline for more than seven years, but they finally appeared in 1970. The reasons for the modification of the current regulation, that of 1953 and the reforms of 1956, were simple to understand. The Regulatory Council had become an essential institution, but in practice it could only carry out a limited number of controls allowed within a narrow set of regulations. Many of the fines they imposed ended up in the courts, delaying execution, and producing a sense of ineffectiveness. On top of that the courts often agreed with the plaintiffs, based upon nothing more that the desire to protect the unassailable principle of freedom of trade. As an example, the Regulatory Council attacked Bilbao storekeepers because they did not respect the controls and quality certificates that protected Rioja wines. In 1961 the Spanish Supreme Court sided with the Bilbao storekeepers, ruling that the wines they bought in La Rioja Alavesa could not be classified as Rioja wines and therefore they were exempt from the controls of the Rioja Regulatory Council. The court simply pointed out that its ruling was based upon the deficient wording of the regulation. A new regulation was needed, but the wine exporters continuously torpedoed the drafts with technical amendments, whilst really aiming to put an end to Regulatory Councils supervisory capacity. They questioned the Councils right to establish protected varieties of vines, to define the appellation and ageing regions, or establish the characteristics of the various typical wines. But really they were against the requirement to separate different wines in the warehouses. They argued that it costs too much, and if they had to buy small batches of Rioja they would be forced to open separate wineries, duplicating machinery, tools and administration. They claimed it was impossible to buy and sell wine that had not been properly declare and controlled, when everyone knew that fraud was widespread. Interestingly, they claimed that controlling the true quantity of imported wines was both "perfect" and "impossible", at the same time.
Alternative proposals included the idea that industrialists could bottle Rioja in wineries anywhere, and not just in the designated region. Another view was that characterising Rioja by its colour, aroma and palate was not needed because the consumer just used taste. An alternative control measure was proposed where only wine stocks in each winery were verified. There would be entry and exit books of wines, samples taken, and tastings and analysis used to guarantee the provenance. For the wineries the origin and not the quality was important. They even suggested that wineries could work with wines from other regions provided they also worked with Rioja wines. In fact these suggestions came from wineries that purchased wines from outside the region, and then mixed them with Rioja wines, before selling the wines in bulk to what was called el sector menos exigente del mercado (less demanding sectors of the market). In the 1960's tanker trucks would take Rioja wine to freight trains that ran directly to the docks in the Basque Country, ready for bulk shipping to the Americas. It must be said that these wineries were proud of their contribution to the development of the Rioja wine industry and to their positive impact on the Spanish export economy.
In late 1970, the new Estatuto de la Viña, del Vino y de los Alcoholes del Estado Español (Statute of Vine, Wine and Spirits of the Spanish State), came into force. The 1970 law included the definition of Denominations of Origin, the Regulatory Councils, and a new body, the National Institute of Denominations of Origin (INDO). In La Rioja, about one month before the enactment of the law, a new set of regulations were published for the Rioja Denominación de Origen and its Regulatory Council. These regulations, would remain in force to 1977, and brought in some very significant changes. The Council could restrict and reduce the production and ageing regions, they could insist that new plantations used some varieties of grapes over others, they could prohibit viticultural practices that increased yield to the detriment of must quality, and they could exercise vigilance over pruning.
Putting Rioja on the map
As happened since the creation of the Rioja Denomination, each time the regulations changed, the first thing the Regulatory Council did was define a new map of the Rioja region. Until 1970, the Rioja Designation of Origin comprised "the lands included within the geographical limits of the province of Logroño", that is, all the municipalities in the current Autonomous Community, plus half a dozen towns from Navarre and twenty towns from the province of Álava. Also the growing area (vineyards) coincided with the production area (wineries).
The new map, excluded the mountainous areas in the province of Logroño, and limited the growing area (for vineyards) to a total of twenty-seven municipalities, i.e. ten in La Rioja Alta region, six in the La Rioja Alavesa region, eleven in La Rioja Baja region, and only one in Navarre.
Originally Rioja included 183 municipalities, but now more than one hundred in the province of Logroño were excluded. Some fifty had always been totally unproductive due to their mountainous location, but there were many others that did produce Rioja but were now excluded from the new Rioja Denomination. The argument was that the new Denomination focussed on a particular ecology in terms of climate and soil, one that had traditionally produced the highest quality wines. This was a focus on the quality of the grapes, and almost 300,000 hectares of the little more than half a million in total were excluded in the province of Logroño. In addition the new Rioja Denomination included about 90,000 hectares in La Rioja Alta region and about 115,000 hectares (22%) in La Rioja Baja region, plus 18 municipalities of Álava with a surface area of 31,575 hectares and of the 6 Navarrese municipalities with a total of 35,679 hectares. The only quantifiable requirement was a minimum of 100,000 litres of annual production per municipality, but it was not strictly applied. In addition, the new Rioja Denomination was even more restrictive concerning ageing, allowing only wineries in fewer than 30 towns.
It did not help that the period would kick off with a major attack of mildew in 1971 which affected dramatically the 1972 vintage both in terms of harvest (down by 55%) and quality. Naturally there was widespread fraud and illegal imports, and chaptalisation (the practice of adding sugar to the must to raise the degree of alcohol), a solution that was widely used and widely denied, allowed winegrowers to sell their poorly matured green grapes.
One indirect outcome of these problems was that capital backed by the banks entered the sector, producing a shock to a traditional system that was still based upon family roots and traditional winemaking. This was capital moved by people from outside the sector, with a strong commercial vocation, whose methods were soon to cause a huge stir. The most emblematic case was that of the holding company Rumasa that bought the mythical Paternina, a winery whose origins could be traced back to the 18th century. This was just one example of a winery of great tradition being turned into a producer of "common market wine". Rumasa would be expropriated by the Spanish government in 1983, but it would take considerably more time for Paternina to regained her reputation for traditional excellence. Allied Domecq, Seagram's, Osborne, Distillers & Vintners, Schenley, etc. would all acquire historical family owned wineries (as would the banks Bankunión, Bankinter and Bilbao).
Nobody expected that 1972 would be followed by the world oil crisis of 1973, which saw Rioja exports drop from 28 million litres in 1970 to just over 9 million litres in 1974. Recovery would not come until well into the second part of the decade. And that recovery would come in the form of new wineries creating new styles of wine, with Marques de Caceres, Lan, Olarra, Beronia, Viña Salceda, etc., while others, such as the emblematic Berberana, would develop spectacularly their market share at the end of the década prodigiosa.
The wineries would change their physiognomy, some would target presentation with decorated bottles presented in finely printed cardboard boxes (bottles that were often non-recyclable due to the decoration). Other wineries would start on the long trip to make them beautified tourist attractions. Again, we saw the paradox of wine, when there is a crisis in Rioja wineries they become targets for external capital, and the 1970's was a period of unprecedented financial speculation.
Did the winegrowers organise themselves to respond to the new situation? No, following the trend of the mid-1960's, cooperatives continued to mis-sell their wines. Many cooperatives were run by well-intentioned old men, with an archaic, pre-industrial mentality, who ended up selling nearly 90% of what they produced to the large wineries. Cooperative wineries were born in the 1950's, and evolved in the 1960's as a real support to winegrowers. But men with berets and hoe's on their shoulders were no match for the capitalist industrialist.
The war of sangrías
Trying to deal with the serious production and marketing problems of the 1970's was not helped by the fact that the Regulatory Council's had not addressed some of the problems of the past. One such problem was the fact that they tolerated making other products in the Denomination's wineries, among them sangría, a punch of red wine mixed with fruit and other alcohol's. The guerra de las sangrías (war of sangrías) began in 1971 with winemakers favouring the production of sangrías. They argued that sangría helped promote Rioja wine by making its name known abroad, and in addition it helped winegrowers who could thus sell their low-grade wines. Exporters of Rioja claimed that the production of sangrías had a negative influences on Rioja wines, and in any case the Regulatory Council was not about "Rioja products", but about "Rioja wines".
In 1971 the Council allow the production of sangría within the wineries protected by the Denomination. Initially in 1972 the permissive attitude continued, perhaps because of the bad harvest of 1971. Wines had been imported for making sangrías, but then they started to mix the imported wines with the protected Rioja reds. This did not affect the red wines of the Denomination, but sangría bottles were now labeled "This sangria has been made in Rioja". This was one step too far, and the Council reacted by prohibiting importing red wines for sangrías, plus it also had the label removed. As of 1973 production of sangrías in the Denomination's wineries was prohibited.
Sangría producers complained, noting that Rioja wineries were still making vermouth, cava, and brandies, in some wineries protected by the Denomination. The problem gradually disappeared when the main sangría producer opened a winery outside the region in the summer of 1975.
Another more complex problem was the issue of white wines. The Rioja Denomination suffered from a strong deficit of white wines, and either they needed to extend white grape cultivation, or import a lot of foreign wines. The answer from 1970 to 1972 was to import millions of litres of foreign white wines, but the extraordinary harvests of 1973 and 1974 showed that white wine imports were not necessary. Alongside imports, there were many requests for new white grape plantations. However the region had to backtrack when they noticed that those requests far outweighed the new requests to plant Tempranillo and Grenache. Some experts felt that this could seriously damage the Rioja Denominación de Origen and so subsidies were increasing denied for Viura-Malvasía, in favour of subsidies for Grenache in La Rioja Baja.
The whole discussion on what was actually planted in the vineyards, signified that the Council was beginning to take an interest in the quality of the grape itself. The great pruning controversy was about to begin.
In December 1973 the Council decided to disqualify of wines made from vines that had not been well pruned, and inspections were started, plot by plot. Throughout 1974 the Council reiterate its demands and continued to threaten winegrowers with disqualification. Finally, in December 1974, they disqualified vineyards for excess yields, announced the names of suspected farmers, and threatened them with permanent disqualification if in subsequent years they continued with excessive yields. In 1975 the Regulation included the legal text, "Pruning will be carried out in the traditional way of medium height. The vine will be compulsorily formed in porte en vaso with a maximum load of 12 buds per vine". I think "porte en vaso" in English is goblet training, as seen below.
Naturally the 1976 vintage was a modest one million hectolitres, but there was wine from the previous vintages which had aged well, so winery profits actually rose. With the difference between the prices of the grape and wine prices being so great, it was time to reformed again the Rioja Council Regulations.
To the beat of a new democracy
The new Regulation of the Rioja Denominación de Origen came into force in June 1976, a few months after the death of General Franco (November 1975). Regarding territoriality, the new Regulation remained restrictive, and if anything it was more inflexible concerning both the management of both vineyards and wineries. For example, the Regulation now detailed the density of planting, limited both new plantings and pruning methods, and above all, it hardened everything related to infractions and sanctions. So the 1976 Regulation marked a stage of institutional consolidation in the history of the Rioja Denominación de Origen and its Regulatory Council. At the same time in the region there was a growing demand for autonomy for La Rioja, which would later result in the creation of a single-province Autonomous Community.
The first reform included in the 1976 Regulation was to include a few municipalities that were on the boarder of the old Rioja Denomination. So in 1976 Rioja gained 37,476 hectares, and totalled around 300,000 hectares. Next bottling and vintages were addressed.
Until 1977, the Rioja wine was mostly sold in bulk, with bottles representing only a small part of the total production. It was recognised by everyone that bottling was the best guarantee against fraud. Some resisted, but most producers thought about the future and quickly adapted. In 1977 Rioja exported 23 million litres, 14 million in bulk and 9 million in bottles, but by 1982 exports had rose to 32 million litres, 10 million in bulk and 22 million in bottles. The triumph of bottling over bulk was almost painless as everyone realised that it was an unstoppable trend.
However, the control of vintages was another story. It was only in 1980 that the Regulatory Council felt strong enough to introduce controls and to demand that wineries declare their wine stocks. Opponents went to the courts, arguing that the Regulatory Council didn't have the authority to impose such rules, that they had not followed their own internal rules, and that the substance of the controls was unacceptable since it did not distinguish "los conceptos de crianza de los de añada" (the concepts of ageing from those of vintage). But what really hurt the wineries was the increased control of the Regulatory Council. The appeal was dismissed in the courts, and the Regulatory Council went ahead with their system for qualifying wines suitable for ageing, starting with the 1980 vintage. However, 1983 many still argued "que el sistema tradicional aplicable en Rioja era el de coupage y no el de añadas" because "las cosechas se completan unas a otras, pues las mismas son de distintas calidades y la forma tradicional aplicable en Rioja había sido siempre realizar el coupage de vinos" (That the traditional system applicable in Rioja was that of coupage [blending] and not of vintages because harvests complement each other, since they are of different qualities and the traditional way applicable in Rioja had always been to make a blend of wines). However, the Regulatory Council knew that the opposite trend would prevail in the marketplace, but they had to wait until the mid-1980's to have a harmonised legislation on "calidad, edad y crianza" (quality, vintage and ageing). So this problem was also finally overcome, and Rioja would be a coupage or assembly of wines, but limited by the vintage, a tribute to the worship of quality.
In 1979 the Regulatory Council of the Rioja Denominación de Origen had been in place for half a century. It knew much about the group of winemakers, but much less about winegrowers. They had been poorly represented in the past, and statistics were poor or non-existent. This would change with the first wine-growing cadastre, done during the years 1973, 1974 and 1976, and finally published in 1981. The collection of data was not perfect, but it did reveal a great diversity in the history and geography of vine plantations and varieties, etc. but nothing on the properties themselves or the social aspects of vineyards. However, crossing this data with other sources, they finally determined that the area of vineyards protected by the Rioja Denominación de Origen was 39,429 hectares in 1976, distributed among 131 towns in Logroño (29,394 protected hectares), Álava (7,014 hectares) and Navarre (3,021 hectares). For example the Wine Cadastre discovered that land planted with vines in the province of Logroño was divided into 103,104 plots, of which a quarter did not exceed 0.1 hectares, whilst only about 3% were above one hectare. In addition to this exaggerated plot fragmentation, the plantations were old with almost half of the vines over forty years old. Replanting was neglected, and thousands of hectares of vineyard had been cleared. The reality was that there was a growing demand for fruit, preserved products (e.g. pickles), and cereals. Finally, the cadastre showed that Grenache was the dominant red wine grape, not Tempranillo.
Many small holdings consisted of vines mixed with olives, almonds, walnut and even cherry trees. Most had exchanged cattle for "la mula mecánica" (mechanical mule), or small motor hoes that were used to work among the tight rows of plants. Traditional trades associated with the countryside had almost disappeared, and the "mechanical mule" was slowly being replaced by a more versatile little articulated tractor. At the same time, the small family wineries were slowly disappearing, replaced by the cooperative winery. The cadastre showed a total of 2,324 wineries distributed in 72 towns in the province of Logroño. Of these, 1,727 had between 100 and 500 hectolitres capacity, and only 61 could handle more than 10,000 hectolitres. Most made "vinos nuevos tintos" (new red wines), and only 61 wineries could age wines. Few had adopted modern methods of fermentation, production and storage.
At the end of November 79 the census revealed that around 13,000 hectares were held by 6,232 winegrowers registered in cooperative wineries, and another 21,000 hectares were held by 7,479 winegrowers. Only about half of vineyards were registered in the Rioja Denomination. Around 1,500 people worked in wineries that only bottled and/or exported their wines.
In the late-70's and early-80's the price of Rioja was considered excessive and sales were falling, with some wineries on the brink of bankruptcy. Winegrowers were not happy, and despite 3,500 hectares being offered for new plantations, only 1,000 were planted. In 1980 it was reported that 300 million litres remained unsold. As the Regulatory Council approached new elections in 1980 there was the question of representation between winegrowers (big and small), cooperative wineries, and winemakers (and the wine cellars that just bottled and exported). Finally it was decided that viticultores (growers) and vinicultores (wineries, warehouses, bottlers-exporters) should have the same number of members on the Regulatory Council. Around the same time it was decided to take legal action against those who were not providing information on production, ageing, etc.
Through the 1980's the Rioja Regulatory Council evolved with Spanish society, opening to farmers' unions defended the cooperative movement and the dignity of the working man. However, the Regulatory Council retained its focus on quality above all else, both in the wines and in the vineyards. For example, in 1986 samples of Rioja wine were taken from points of sale, such as supermarkets, and it showed that the quality of Rioja wines was not increasing as quickly as expected. From the mid-70's the export of bulk wine had been reduced in favour of bottled wines, but still in the early 1980's about 30% was exported in bulk, and even in 1988 bulk exports still represented 20%. Finally the Regulatory Council decided not to allow bulk exports to markets where bottled Rioja could be found, and secondly they stopped proving certificates of origin to those exporting bulk wines. Many were not happy, but the 1992 deadline for ending bulk shipments was met. Compulsory controls were implemented desde la producción hasta la comercialización (from production to commercialisation). They also had to impose limits on harvests to stop excess yields and overproduction, yet still allowing territorial differences due to weather conditions, age of plants, crop improvements, etc., whilst adecuar el Reglamento a lo que da la naturaleza (adapting the Regulation to what nature gives). But they did fix a maximum yield at 6,000 kg/hectare.
Another serious problem was, and still is, that speculators and multinationals see vineyards and wineries as just financial investments to be exploited to maximise profits. Controlling quantities was easier than controlling the quality of the Rioja wines, but there was legislation on the quality, vintage and ageing of Rioja wines dating from 1985, and it depended upon sampling, tasting and analysis. All it took to impose those quality controls on all Rioja wines.
The result was that, in 1991, Rioja was the first wine to be awarded the denoninación de origen calificada (denomination of qualified origin or DOCa), the highest category in Spanish wine regulations. Only two regions have been classified DOCa, the second was Priorat in 2003.
Before moving on, here is a list of the best historic Rioja vintages based upon those quality control criteria, i.e. 1934, 1948, 1952, 1955, 1958, 1964, 1982, 1994, 1995, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2010, 2011, and 2019.
DOCa Rioja vineyards now cover nearly 66,000 hectares, up from nearly 39,000 hectares in 1985
For red wine, nearly 88% of the surface of all the vineyards is now dedicated to Tempranillo, followed by Garnacha
For white wine, over 68% of the surface of all the vineyards is now dedicated to Viura, followed by Tempranillo Blanco
For 2020 the harvest was 410,000 tons of grapes, but only 385,000 tons went to vinification of protected wines
Of that 340,000 tons was for red wines, and 45,000 tons for white wines
Certified production was nearly 270 million litres, up from just over 170 million litres in 1985
Just over 230 million litres was for red wines, with about 65 million litres produced in cooperative wineries, and 155 million litres produced in wineries for ageing
Domestic sales were 161 million litres, up from nearly 68 million litres in 1985
Exports were 94 million litres, up from nearly 29 million litres in 1985
Stocks totalled nearly 900 million litres, whereas they were only 355 million litres in 1985 (stocks can be found in process tanks, barrels, ageing tanks, and bottles)
Number of ageing wineries was 449, up from 58 in 1985
Number of barrels in storage was nearly 1.4 million, up from 540,000 in 1985
Number of bottling wineries was 576, up from 58 in 1985
Most plot sizes are between 0.1 and 2.0 hectares, representing 77% of the total surface area under cultivation (only 0.14% of the vineyards are bigger than 30 hectares)
Annual yields in hectolitres/hectares can vary from 37 (1990) to nearly 60 (2000)
For 2020 the United Kingdom was the largest market for Rioja, taking ⅓ of all exports (followed by Germany and the US)
The US appears to have a slight preference for Reserva wines, and Switzerland clearly prefers Gran Reserva
Antonio Larrea Redondo, "Notas Sobre la Historia y Geografia del Vino de Rioja" (1974)
Alfredo Ollero De la Torre, "La Comercialización del Vino en la Rioja durante el Siglo XVIII" (1995)
José Luis Gómez Urdáñez, "El Rioja Histórico, la Denominación de Origen y su Consejo Regulador" (2000)
Santiago Ibáñez Rodríguez, "La Consolidación del Vino de Rioja en el Siglo XVII" (2002)
María Dolores Borrell Merlín, "Ilustracion y Reformas Politicas - La Real Sociedad Economica de Amigos del Pais de la Rioja (1783-1808)" (2004)
María Dolores Borrell Merlín, "Historia y Cultura del Rioja - El Marqués de Murrieta" (2006)
José Luis Gómez Urdáñez, "El rioja de los hidalgos" (2012)
José Luis Gómez Urdáñez, "El Rioja, 500 años de historia social y cultural de un gran vino español" (2015)
Emilio Barco Royo, "La configuración del sector vitivinícola en la Denominación de Origen Calificada Rioja. Parte I: caracterización" (2015)
Emilio Barco Royo, "La configuración del Sector Vitivinícola en la Denominación de Origen Calificada Rioja - Parte II - análisis histórico" (2015)
Rioja Annual Report 2020
Luis Vincente Elías Pastor, "El Rioja a la Luz de un Archivo Familiar (Gómez de Gayangos, Los Quintanos, Los De Pobes, and Los De la Mara)" (2021)