The Rioja region has been a wine making region for thousands of years but the modern style we know as Rioja today came about with French influence–and perhaps directly from Bordeaux.
The Rioja region is located along the Camino de Santiago which is an ancient religious path leading to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. The first pilgrimages date back to the 9th and 10th centuries and the pathways run from France into northern Spain. One of these routes runs directly from Bordeaux. It’s been theorized that the tradition of aging wine in oak barrels was carried by the connection between the city of Haro in Rioja and Bordeaux in France (and perhaps the French oak forests in Limosin). There is, in fact, some evidence of this. As far back as 1780, a Rioja winemaker, named
Manuel Quintano, aged his wine in French oak. However, the French oak was expensive, and around the mid 1800’s the Spanish resourcefully started to import American oak and cooper the barrels themselves.
By the mid 1800’s, Rioja wine was booming. With the vine diseases of odium and phylloxera devastating the vineyards of France, French merchants traveled to the region to source an alternative. Many of these exporters stayed in Rioja and started their own bodegas (wineries) until 1901 when phylloxera finally came into the region and destroyed 70% of the vineyard area.
The loss of the vineyards to phylloxera, then World War I, and then the Spanish Civil War set Spain and Rioja into destitution. Vineyards were ripped out and replaced with wheat to fight starvation. Slowly the remaining steadfast producers continued to make outstanding aged wines and, by the 1980’s, investors began to reinvigorate the region.