The Rioja Renaissance

An old Spanish wine takes on new life

Spanish wine has been heading into the future in something of the same way that Spanish food has, though not at the same torrid pace.

As with food, the “faults” Spanish winemakers have needed to correct in order to catch up to the modern world can be considered virtues. True, the system for making wine in much of the country was, until well into the twentieth century, literally antique: grapes were crushed in stone troughs, using methods not far evolved from stomping, and were then stored in concrete amphorae, whose imperfect seals led to a Spanish taste for oxidized rancio wine. A national ban on irrigation, lifted only in 1996, accounted for a lower yield per vine, and so did unimproved grape varieties. (Spain has more land planted with grapes than any other country in the world, but it produces less wine than France or Italy.) The virtues, of course, were intensely flavored grapes, little to no use of fertilizer and herbicides, and old and strong vines not yet torn out for the merlot of the moment.

Even if many of Spain’s wine-making methods were unchanged for millennia, some parts of the country nevertheless had a head start in catching up to the rest of the wine world—most notably Rioja, the best-known Spanish wine region. Thanks to its relatively cool and dry climate and its location in north-central Spain, just over the Pyrenees from France, Rioja winemakers looked to Bordeaux as the closest analogue from which to draw lessons on how to make better wine—and get more money for it. When the phylloxera blight went through Bordeaux, in the 1870s, French winemaker-merchants suddenly needed Rioja more than Rioja needed them. Their own vines devastated, they began working in Rioja vineyards and selling Rioja wine. By 1900, the Rioja norm became long aging in new oak barrels, often American oak. Many of the wines were superb, and up to Bordeaux standards. But after Bordeaux vineyards recovered, Rioja returned to being al-most completely overshadowed.

There things remained until the 1960s, when new and young wine fans discovered in Rioja a wine they could afford—and one they could drink right away, without the space- and time-hogging tedium of cellaring. A large advantage of Spanish bottling and labeling laws is that any red reserva wine has to have been aged at least three years, two of them in oak and one in the bottle. (Gran reserva red wines, aged five years, are made in especially good years.) There was no need to wait, even if some wines would improve with age. Rioja began to develop an international reputation for producing well-priced reds comparable to Bordeaux.

The Spanish wine industry is going in for some fairly radical innovation today—no surprise, given Spain’s national pursuit of the avant-garde. Stainless-steel fermenting tanks, with their pinpoint temperature control, arrived as early as the 1960s, brought by the forward-thinking Miguel Torres to the Penedès region of Catalonia; now they are nearly universal, and Barcelona exports them. Many winemakers are giving in to the (Robert) Parkerization of wines, using big-name red grapes that will make high-alcohol, knockout wines rather than the more-subtle, lower-alcohol wines—which come from a wide variety of little-known indigenous grapes—that have been traditional. (Naturally, Frank Gehry has been called in. At Madrid Fusión, and later in New York, at a show of new Spanish architecture, I admired his plans for a spectacular new inn—all undulating strips of colored titanium—at Marques de Riscal, a long- standing and innovative Rioja winery.)

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Corby Kummer is a senior editor of The Atlantic. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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