Origin and history of the Rioja Alavesa Wine
Over 2,000 years dedicated to the production of great wines
A privileged and strategic location
The origin of the Rioja Alavesa wine is deeply connected to the history and evolution of its own land. This is an area that, as can be seen in the various archeological sites found in Laguardia and Elvillar, has been inhabited since prehistorical times⎯for over 4,700 years.
But the cultivation of vine and the use of the soil for wine-making dates back to the arrival of the Roman Empire, which brought the introduction of enological techniques as well as the construction of infrastructures for the production of wine.
For several centuries, it was the abbeys and local farmers who monopolized the production of wine. However, this was not conducted in the best possible way since little attention was paid to a correct application of the elaboration techniques: different types of grapes were mixed and squeezed too much, hygiene was not a main concern and fermentation was not controlled at all.
It was not until the 15th C. that an expansion of viticulture happened. By this time, there were already some institutions that aimed for a more organized territory, as was the Brotherhood of Álava, to which, for example, Laguardia belonged. In regards to Rioja Alavesa, it had historically been a place of power struggles between the kingdoms of Navarre and Castille. In 1461, the district was seized definitively by Castille, and in 1468, the Catholic Kings of Castille, determined that it should be incorporated to the region of Álava.
The wine’s heyday
During the Modern Age, thanks to the power of attraction of cities, wine began to be commodified. This meant that its production would no longer be restricted to personal consumption, which resulted in a vine monoculture. At the same time, since the wine had to be stored in cool places, cellars were built underneath the houses providing the wines with constant temperatures and a high humidity.
The fact that wine was now bought and sold called for a control over said transactions; thus, the first municipal policies were introduced. Some of these even banned entry to wines coming from other villages, and, among other things, kept an eye on the movement of grape from one area to another.
The first common label for the wines of Rioja dates back to 1560, when some producers decided to feature the first letter of their surnames so that the origin of the wine would be acknowledged outside their village.
Improvements: casks and transportation
The two major problems of the time were the conservation of the wine and the distance between the vineyards and the sea. The former was tackled thanks to the Quintano brothers, who promoted the use of casks as it was done in Bordeaux.
However, this technique did not catch on until the Marquis Hurtado de Amézaga went back to it and managed to make its usage widespread in the 19th C.
This derived in a better aging, thanks to the fact that the wood helped the wine’s storage. Similarly, the improvements in communication systems such as roads and railways brought about the expansion of the wine market, which contributed to this beverage’s export.
During the same century, French purchaser turned their head towards this area since their own vineyards were suffering severely from powdery mildew and phylloxera plagues. They would buy grapes and take them to their wineries, boosting the harvesters’ economic prospects, at the same time as it expanded their market.
Although several plagues arrived in Rioja Alavesa by the end of the same century, its wines were already very well regarded and had already established themselves abroad.
The arrival of French purchasers led some businessmen, mainly from Vizcaya, to build bigger, commercially-driven wineries in the area. The French equally brought along advanced techniques or habits like the use of luxury bottles.
The first Designation of Origin
In the year 1925 the Designation of Origin Rioja is acknowledged for the first time, the first of its kind in Spain. This comprises wines from Rioja Alavesa, Navarre and La Rioja. Since 1991, the Regulatory Council keeps an eye on the areas of production, varieties of grown grapes, maximum allowed production or elaboration and aging techniques.
During the 90s, yet another period of growth and modernization happens, which, striving for quality, achieves great reputation worldwide.
The treading of grapes
Originating in the ancient communities that first contemplated wine-making, this is a very traditional task. Once the grape has been collected, it is put into stone presses or wooden casks, where the first fermentation process happens. In villages like Labastida stone presses dating back to the Middle Ages can be visited.
After this initial process, the grapes are trodden on barefoot, while the sticks from the vine are used as filters. Due to the peels, pips and stems that the resulting must contains, the wines obtained from this technique can develop great, fruity aromas.
Although the treading technique has almost completely been left behind in the face of modernization, there are still some artisan wineries that incorporate it into their processes of elaboration.
Celebrating the grape harvest
Each September since 1994, Rioja Alavesa holds its most precious festivity, namely that of the grape harvest, which celebrates the new harvest. This extremely popular celebration is held by a different village every year. The procedure is very simple: a personality reads an opening speech, the treading takes place in wooden casks and the first must is tasted.