One of the most enjoyable things about my former job as the international public relations guy for the Rioja wine district was showing journalists and chefs around the region. I almost invariably elicited a ‘wow’ when explaining that one of the most popular types of Rioja is almost never sold outside northern Spain. These are the ‘cosechero’ Riojas.
A ‘cosechero’ is a grape grower who makes young red using a modified version of carbonic maceration, or whole berry fermentation. In its most primitive form, largely unused today, grapes were dumped into an open wooden or cement tank, called a ‘lagar’ . Fermentation began inside the grapes themselves until the pressure caused the skins to break, releasing the juice. Once fermentation stopped, the juice, stems, pips and skins were trodden with the workers’ feet, the wine was filtered and bottled.
The modern variation of this method is technically called ‘semi-carbonic maceration’ because the stems are removed and fermentation takes place in a stainless steel tank.
Probably the best known wine made this way is beaujolais nouveau, which is certainly marketed more aggressively than ‘cosechero’ rioja, but arguably, ours tastes better, and selfishly, we keep it for ourselves, as it’s a staple in the tapas bars in Rioja and the Basque Country.
All Rioja was made this way until the beginning of the 19th century when a priest, Father Manuel Quintano from Labastida, discovered that wines from Bordeaux arrived to the Spanish colonies in the New World in good shape, while the wines from Rioja were often oxidized, following the long journey by ship.
Father Quintano went to Bordeaux to discover why this was so, and returned to Rioja with a recipe for success (better vineyard management, destemming, fermentation in closed vats and aging in small wooden barrels). A batch was made and sent to the New World, arriving in much better condition than the wines made using the traditional method, but Quintano’s ideas were not accepted due to the increased costs of production.
In the mid-1800s, the government of Álava decided to sponsor a project to make wines in the Bordeaux style, called Médoc Alavés and went so far as to hire a winemaker from Château Lannessan, Monsieur Jean Pineau, to supervise it. Bordeaux grapes and barrels were bought and several wineries enlisted, but after several years, most of them abandoned the idea for the same reason Father Quintano’s project failed – it was too expensive to make.
A forward-thinking Spaniard, the Marquis of Riscal, who had spent some time in Bordeaux in exile because of his political ideas, decided to hire Pineau in 1862 for his own project in Rioja. Although the wines were not initially a success in Spain, they won a number of awards at international exhibitions, which created demand. The rest is history, as gradually other wineries adopted the winemaking techniques adopted from Bordeaux.
Bodegas Marqués de Riscal is still going strong under the administration of the descendants of the founding family, but that’s another story!
Today there are more than 700 ‘cosecheros’ but only about 150 bottle their wine. The rest is blended into other styles of Rioja.
What’s it like? Intensely purple, with an extremely grapey nose and taste and low acidity (which is the main reason it doesn’t travel well).
So, the next time you visit us, don’t hesitate to ask for a glass of ‘cosechero’ . You will not only enjoy the wine but will be tasting a bit of the history of Rioja!
The only ‘cosechero’ I’ve seen outside Spain is ‘Erre Punto’, made by Fernando Remírez de Ganuza in Samaniego in Rioja Alavesa. If any of you have seen others, please let me know!