The History of Rioja Wine: Tradition and Invention, by Ludger Mees, Routledge, 254 pp, £120, ISBN: 978-0367618117
In the last ten years or so Rioja has made it onto the wine lists of almost every pub and restaurant in the UK and Ireland, although English-speaking customers still remain phonetically challenged when ordering it, apparently preferring a hard “j” over the husky Spanish version when uttering the name. And very few people seem knowledgeable about the region’s wine-producing history or how exactly Rioja wines became an international success.
Those who know a bit more may be familiar with the geographic dimension to which the label refers, including the subdivision of the region into Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja (or Oriental) and Rioja Alavesa. Similarly they might know about the different categorisations that distinguish among the reds labelled Crianza, that is, red wine aged at least two years in oak barrels; Reserva, wine that has matured three years in oak barrels; and Gran Reserva, wine that has matured five years in oak barrels. However, these official details on the label probably hide more than they reveal. Ask any real connoisseur and she or he will tell you that the information on the label doesn’t fully do justice to the range or real quality of individual Rioja wines. In other words, the information on the label provides some basic orientation but in themselves the labels will not reveal the whole story of how the quality of each wine was achieved, nor how they will speak to the palate.
Enter Ludger Mees, professor of contemporary history in Bilbao at the Leioa campus of the University of the Basque Country. Internationally recognised as an expert in the history of nationalism, and especially Basque nationalism, Mees has over the last twenty years or so added the history of wine to his already impressive research portfolio. That includes a significant number of books on the subject. The first of these, written with two fellow historians and published in German in 2005, was a comparative-historical study of wine and wine production in Rioja, Navarre and Catalonia. An updated version of that study appeared in Spanish in 2019, almost simultaneously with another historical monograph that looked into the Medoc Alavés, the first officially recognised quality wine that Spain ever produced. Now, Mees’s first wine book in English, The History of Rioja Wine, has come out as a monograph in Routledge’s Gastronomy, Food and Drink series.
On the one hand, Mees’s new publication is a weaving together of different research strands, a synthesis of his preoccupation with the history of wine-making in the Rioja region. On the other hand, this book is an attempt to achieve something new, something that goes beyond his past research. The chosen secondary title of the book, “Tradition and Innovation”, gives a hint at the hinge on which the author’s history of Rioja and its wines hangs; it is the oscillation between two poles – one conservative in nature, the other one exploring the new – that explains much of the region’s wine-producing story.
The book begins with the story of how in 1866 Queen Isabella II (1830-1904) and her entourage and guests first tasted what was then an unknown red wine, a recommended new creation from Rioja Alavesa called Medoc Alavés. A century and a half after that historic royal tasting Rioja is now a world-renowned wine which bears the quality wine etiquette DOC (Denominación de origen calificada) and is celebrated by wine experts like Tim Atkin.
The Rioja region itself has become Spain’s biggest wine-producing area, producing 23.6 per cent of all the country’s wines. Forty-four per cent of all wine produced in the Rioja region is exported; almost 34 per cent to the UK (Rioja ranks fifth in the UK’s wine consumer list), 12.3 per cent to Germany and around 10 per cent to the United States. The other 56 per cent is destined for the domestic Spanish market.
This success story is in need of some further historical investigation. Mees’s explanation amounts to this: to become successful requires achieving the right balance between tradition and innovation, and by seizing the opportune moment when the historical constellation presents itself, that is when structural components and some individual effort come together to discover something new.
Crises and dissatisfaction came first. Organised wine production in the Rioja region has taken place since at least the early 1770s. There seemed to be plenty of suitable terroirs available to grow vines. However, the wines produced were often very heavy, and had a relatively high alcohol content, usually to gain longevity. They also varied too much in terms of quality, and they lacked stability and recognition over time. There were no great distinctions between different vines either. The many small-scale properties and wine-growers, and the lack of land reform didn’t make things easier in terms of expected outcome. A more predictable and somewhat more standardised product remained something to be desired.
There were also differences within the Rioja region itself and some became more noticeable and pronounced from the early nineteenth century onward, for example the different administrative, property and tax regime that pertained to Rioja Alavesa (the Basque part of the Rioja region with its capital in Vitoria) when compared to that of its neighbours the Castilian Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja. To complicate matters, in the course of the nineteenth century the wavering influence of the new Spanish liberal regime, its constitution and its enlightened ideas clashed repeatedly with the more traditional Carlist influences and continued to create conditions that would lead to continuous contradictions between the forces of tradition and innovation. Only when the two were no longer in radical opposition to each other would wine production change.
Developments in communication and transport changed the prospects for production, . Railway connections brought the Rioja region not just closer to the rapidly growing metropolitan area of Bilbao and its harbour but also to the rapidly developing Basque coastline, including San Sebastián and the various industrial hubs that sprang up in the Basque inland such as Durango, Eibar, Ermua, Hernani, all the way up to Irun and the French-Spanish border.
Other changes were of an entirely different type but no less impactful in terms of wine production, such as the birth of the modern restaurant. Originating in Paris, this invention quickly became popular in other parts of France and its neighbour Spain, especially in new urban areas and towns that functioned as hubs either for transport, distribution or consumption – or sometimes all of these features together. In reviews printed in newspapers and magazines the gourmet, the expert guide through all these new inventions, would discuss not only food but also the different wines that accompanied the various dishes or courses. The digestive systems of those who could afford lunching and dining in these establishments – that is the new urban middle classes – seem to have been ready for a change not least because the novel scientific treatment of the consumables, and most prominently wine, suggested an improvement and a new health and feelgood factor. It was no less a scientist than Louis Pasteur who had looked into the complex process of fermentation and how to improve wine ‑ and thus also to make it more palatable. In the long run these networks of communication and institutions led to a change in taste – which in turn resulted in new demand.
In France, Bordeaux was especially open to experimentation. No surprise then that it was there that the scientific application and new agricultural and oenological institutes first led to more sophisticated forms of wine production (it would soon find a competitor in the Burgundy region). It was only logical that the news about the new developments would spread to other areas, which seemed to be locked, if not to say stuck, in their traditional ways – one of them the not-so-far-away Rioja region. The region had clearly been lagging behind developments in France. However, by the early 1860s things were about to change.
Since 1848, a family-owned bodega, Murietta in Labastida in Rioja Alavesa, had been experimenting with improving its wines. The project found an open ear with the province’s diputación foral (Basque local authority), which was open to experimentation, and which supported innovation, for example, by opening the local equivalent of Bordeaux’s wine institute, the granja modelo. To make a long story short, in the course of events a new “glocal” network evolved in which bodegas, wine patrons and local politicians such as José Maria Olano from Samaniego, Francisco Paternina from Labastida, the Marqués de Riscal from Elciego encountered innovative wine-makers ranging from experts from the French Grignon Agricultural School and Eugenio Garagarza y Dugiols from the nearby Basque province of Guipúzcoa, to Jean Cadiche Pineau, an innovating oenologist from Bordeaux. They all became the drivers of the attempt to produce new quality wine from Rioja. The crowning achievement in innovation was the already mentioned Medoc Alavés, decanted and tasted to great acclaim by Isabella II in Madrid in 1866. International experts agreed and awarded the Medoc Alavés prizes in international competitions. Newspapers and magazines soon followed and spread the news.
All this seemed to point to success. What could possibly go wrong? As it turned out, quite a lot. Modernisation was (and probably still is) never just about a few individuals or a small network of innovators, as important as they may at first sight appear. Equally important are structural factors such as changing customs and tastes, the popularisation of the product, preparing the market for the new wine, improving transport and supply lines nationally and internationally, and, last but not least, rationalising and harmonising the way vines – and different sorts of vines – are grown, grapes are harvested and then processed in the local bodegas (fermentation being one of the most delicate processes). In other words, innovation needed time in order to prevail.
Looking back, the Medoc Alavés experiment was only partly successful, and it wasn’t totally surprising that it terminated in the late 1860s. Innovation hadn’t been helped by a new global threat – the phylloxera plague, which lasted from 1863 to 1889. At first Rioja benefited indirectly from the plague because it took some time before the disease reached the region. That advantage didn’t last, and the head start (or delay) wasn’t used wisely. It mostly resulted in a return to the bad habits of producing cheap and lower quality wine in quantity before the plague hit Rioja as well. Replanting, mainly by resorting to imported American vines and the “American method”, helped somewhat but it took a very long time, actually until 1916, before recovery was noticeable.
The comeback was largely due to what can be described as a consolidation process. Further improvement in terms of infrastructure and communication helped: the new railway connection from Haro and the Rioja Alta to Bilbao proved especially beneficial in connecting the upper Ebro zone and La Rioja with Bilbao. New, large scale investors and producers arrived, among them CUNE, Lopez de Heredia, Bodegas Bilbainas, and Bodegas Franco-Españolas. Despite what one might assume, such new developments did not result in ruining smallholdings or a concentration of ownership. What did change through was that the small owners came to depend on large scale wineries, which resulted in some inequalities in the wine-producing sector, which in turn led to some emigration from the region.
The new bodegas brought more stable investments, which made it possible to survive crises. The discovery and development of new markets in Central and South America, and in the US, helped too. True, a boom can often lead to overproduction, but this time the wine-producing community seemed to have been aware of how important it was to control the process and not slip back into cheap mass production with its associated lack of quality, producing soup-like high-alcohol wines.
All in all, a tradition of winemaking had finally been established. In 1928, new regulations came into force which helped to protect the new Rioja wine label. A new control mechanism was established in which the Consejo Regulador maintained oversight.
By the end of the twentieth century Rioja was a brand that was known worldwide. Today it successfully combines local dimensions and knowhow with global aspirations and outreach. Its success has not been tainted by new internal debates about the creation of additional labels for its ever more sophisticated wines, some of them having evolved from applying and incorporating the latest oenological knowledge with an ever deeper knowledge of the local terroirs. The debate over a new Rioja Alavesa label, for example, is still raging. But to be frank, who would argue with a form of emulation that produces excellent results and from which any wine drinker, be they an expert or just a normal consumer, can only benefit?
Thanks to Ludger Mees’s excellent guidance and this gem of a book we now know more about the history behind Rioja wines, how they came into being and finally reached our palates. One can only hope that the publisher has confidence in a potentially wide readership and makes this book available as a paperback for an affordable price.
Andreas Hess is professor in sociology at University College Dublin and Member of the Royal Irish Academy. Most recent book publications: Tocqueville and Beaumont. Aristocratic Liberalism in Modern Times and, as editor (together with Samantha Ashenden), Between Realism and Utopia: The Political Thought of Judith N. Shklar.