The Marquis who salvaged Rioja wine

I’m reading a fascinating book (originally a doctoral dissertation) about the founding of the Marqués de Riscal winery in the mid-19th century, titled El Marqués que reflotó el Rioja (The Marquis who salvaged Rioja wine).

One of the most interesting chapters discusses the marquis’ role in the Médoc Alavés project.  For those of you who don’t know what that is, it was an experiment sponsored by the government of Álava from 1862 to 1868 to attempt to make wine in Rioja using vineyard management techniques and winemaking processes from the Médoc.

I was surprised to read that the marquis, Camilo Hurtado de Amézaga, was only responsible for hiring the Bordeaux winemaker – Jean Pineau from Château Lanessan – and arranging for the shipment of a number of 225-liter oak casks from Bordeaux as well as 9.000 vine shoots of different varietals for the nine wineries that participated in the project.  Hurtado de Amézaga did not participate in the experiment himself.

Even more interesting was the choice of varietals:  johannisberg riesling, semillion, purmint (furmint?), pinot gris, pinot blanc, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and two totally unknown varietals, at least to me:  moissac and pieponille.  A quick look at Jancis Robinson’s Vines, Grapes and Wines revealed that moissac is a synonym of mauzac blanc, a white variety planted in southwestern France, especially in Gaillac, while pieponille is likely a misspelling of picpouille, a minor red variety in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Therefore, the Médoc Alavés project seemed to favor white varieties over red and more emphasis on varieties from eastern, southern and northern France than on those associated nowadays with the Médoc.

In any case, the Marquis of Riscal hired Jean Pineau for his own project after the Médoc Alavés project was judged a failure due to higher production costs and poor harvests which failed to enthuse the rest of the wineries from Álava.  As a matter of fact, the varietals planted in Riscal’s vineyards in the period immediately before the onset of phylloxera at the very beginning of the 20th century were:

  •  tempranillo 76,37%
  • graciano 7,38%
  • calagraña 4,94%
  • mazuelo 4,57%
  • jaén 4,38%
  • garnacha 1,81%
  • morisco 0,55%

Four of the seven varietals (tempranillo, garnacha, mazuelo and graciano) are official varieties in Rioja today, while calagraña is still present in Rioja, although today included in ‘other varietals’ by the Rioja Regulatory Council.

It seems pretty clear to me that Riscal’s project had more to do with vinifying red varieties and aging in oak casks than producing white and red wines from French varietals like his neighbors.

If anyone is interested in reading this fascinating book (sadly only available in Spanish), it can be found in the gift shop at Marqués de Riscal or through the publishing house LID Editorial Empresarial, S.L.  www.lideditorial.com

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3 thoughts on “The Marquis who salvaged Rioja wine

  1. Thanks for providing this summary! Most interesting. Its a shame that the book has not been translated–it sounds like a must-read for us historians who are also Rioja fans.

  2. Thank you so much for another brief inside in Rioja history. As a historian who has studied a lot of winehistory too, in recent years, I try to find as much literature as possible. I don’t read Spanish, so your translations and summaries are absolutely great!

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