The wines from the Rioja region, although in high demand in northern Spain, were not highly regarded abroad. In his memoirs, the future Marquis of Murrieta, Luciano de Murrieta y García-Lemoine complained about their quality:
“I was in England with the Duke of La Victoria (General Baldomero Espartero), suffering the consequences of forced exile (from 1843 to 1848) because of our political ideas and constantly observing the esteem, that bordered on admiration, that was given to good wine. On my return to Logroño and seeing that in many cases wine was used to make mortar because it was cheaper than water, we felt pained that such a resource had a terrible image only because of awful winemaking…” (1)
Murrieta goes on to say that this inspired him and the Duke of La Victoria to create the winery known today as Marqués de Murrieta.
Two unsuccessful attempts to adopt Bordeaux winemaking:
(I). Father Manuel Quintano, a native of Labastida in Rioja Alavesa and dean of the cathedral in Burgos
There were two unsuccessful attempts to improve the quality and aptitude for long distance shipping of wines from Rioja. Both looked to Bordeaux for inspiration. The first was by Manuel Quintano from Labastida in Rioja Alavesa beginning in 1787.
At that time wines from Rioja were fermented in open tanks using whole clusters of berries, including stems and seeds. The wine was decanted into wooden hogsheads for shipment and almost invariably arrived at its destination in an almost undrinkable state.
They were a badly vinified variety of the cosechero (semi-carbonic maceration) wines we know today in Rioja. Even in the 21st century, these wines are mainly sold in northern Spain because of their inability to age and travel over long distances.
Professor Alain Huetz de Lemps in an article from his book Vignobles et Vins du Nord-Ouest de l’Espagne describes the situation:
“…in the years when the harvest was abundant there was a serious problem of overproduction, since the disadvantage of these wines was their inability to keep for long periods, and of adulteration during long voyages. Shipping these wines by sea outside of Spain was impossible.” (2)
The Real Sociedad Bascongada de Amigos del País (Royal Basque Society of Friends of the Nation), one of the institutions created around the country to foment liberal ideas and modernize the country, were familiar with the great wines of Bordeaux. The Society commissioned a contest to determine the best methods to allow Riojan wines to be successfully shipped to Spanish America.
Quintano accepted the challenge and traveled to Bordeaux to observe winemaking techniques there. Among the practices he learned were:
- Planting vines following the ‘quinconces’ pattern
- Better vineyard husbandry including pruning to control vine growth;
- Separating the stems and pips from the grapes before fermentation;
- Using clean vats for fermentation;
- Clarifying the wine with egg whites;
- Racking the wine several times to remove solids;
- Using small 225 liter oak barriques for ageing.
On their return to Labastida, Manuel Quintano and his brother Diego made wine following this method and were granted permission to ship it to the New World.
The shipment was a huge success. However, efforts to implant the Bordeaux method met with resistance from other wineries in the region because of the high costs of buying barrels and the financial cost of maturing wine for several years before shipment.
The controversy turned out to be favorable to the ‘traditionalists’ and against the ‘modern’ winemaking style. When the French invaded Spain in 1808, the project was forgotten.
(II).The Médoc Alavés
A half century later, a second attempt to learn to make wine following the Bordeaux method was the brainchild of Eugenio de Garagarza, the director of the Model Farm belonging to the regional government of Álava and a graduate of the agricultural school in Grignon in France.
In 1860 he recommended hiring a winemaker from Bordeaux to teach winemakers in Rioja Alavesa “the practices and secrets of the area of the Médoc”.(3) The regional government of Álava would finance the operation.
The man hired was Monsieur Jean Pineau, winemaker at Château Lanessan in Cussac-Fort Médoc. Pineau moved to Elciego in Álava and carried out his duties admirably, instructing the winery owners who participated in the project. The wines were excellent, but just as with the Quintano project, most of the wineries thought that the cost was too high. Pineau’s contract was rescinded in 1868.
The Marquis de Riscal hires Pineau
Fortunately, one of the participating winery owners was Camilo Hurtado de Amézaga, the Marquis de Riscal. He hired Pineau, built a winery according to Pineau’s specifications and soon Riscal’s wines were winning medals in international competitions. Others noticed. The Bordeaux method had taken hold.
Phylloxera discovered in France and demand for wines from Rioja soars
The phylloxera plague began to decimate French vineyards in 1865 and consequently, demand for wines from Rioja increased, with new vineyards planted to meet the demand. According to Ludger Mees, the vineyard area in the Alto Ebro region (La Rioja, Álava and Navarra) increased 79% between 1860 and 1890. (4)
It was in the context of this increased demand for wines vinified in the Bordeaux style that many wineries were founded in the last third of the 1800s.
In his book De Goede Wijnen van Rioja (1985), Dutch wine writer Hubrecht Duijker published a list of the earliest ‘modern’ wineries founded in Rioja (5)
# = a winery in Haro
## = a winery in the Haro Train Station District
185? Marqués de Murrieta
1860 Marqués de Riscal
1861 Faustino Martínez
1870 Rioja Santiago ##
1874 Bodegas Montecillo
1877 R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia ##
1879 Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España (CVNE) ##
1880 Martínez de Ayala
1881 Bodegas del Romeral (now Bodegas AGE, part of Pernod-Ricard Winemakers Spain)
1886 Duque de Moctezuma (today Bodegas Gómez Cruzado) ##
188? S.M.S. (now Bodegas de la Marquesa)
1890 La Rioja Alta, S.A ##.
1890 Bodegas Franco-Españolas
1890 Martínez Bujanda
1890 Bodegas Riojanas
1894 Bodegas Palacio
1895 Martínez Lacuesta #
1895 De la Torre y Lapuerta (now Bodegas Campo Burgo)
1896 Carlos Serres #
1898 Federico Paternina
1901 Bodegas Bilbainas (merger with Savignon Frères, founded in 1859) ##
Later, two other wineries were built in the Train Station District:
1970 Bodegas Muga (founded in 1932 with a winery in the center of Haro)
1987 Bodegas Roda
By adopting the Bordeaux method of winemaking and ageing, Rioja and Bordeaux have been inextricably linked for over 150 years. The epicenter of this link is the Haro Train Station District, the largest concentration of one hundred-plus year old wineries in the world.
In Part 3 of this series, we will examine the Haro Train Station District today and its homage to Bordeaux at the Barrio de la Estación International Wine Encounters (BEIWE) on March 21, 2022. At this event, a winery from each of six prestigious Bordeaux appellations – Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Saint Julien, Margaux, Pessac-Leognan and Saint-Émilion will show their wines alongside six wineries from Hero’s Train Station District.
Footnotes to Part 2
- Llano de Gorostiza, Manuel. Los Vinos de Rioja. Induban, page 62.
- Huetz de Lemps, Alain. La Lucha Tenaz de Don Manuel Quintano en favor de la calidad de los Vinos Riojanos.
- Llano de Gorostiza, op.cit. page 67.
- Mees, Ludger. La Vitivinicultura en Navarra y La Rioja: Economía, Sociedad y Política de Intereses (1850-1940). Published in Gerónimo de Uztariz, boletín 6, page 154.
- Duijker, Hubrecht. De Goede Wijnen van Rioja. Uitgeverij Het Spectrum, page 40.