Founded by five local families, La Rioja Alta has been a paragon of excellence in the Rioja for more than a century. It is a property totally dedicated to quality, yet run practically. The keen business sense and resiliency of the company is illustrated by the firm’s history. Shortly after its founding in 1890, the phylloxera scourge attacked local vines. In the face of certain devastation, La Rioja Alta winemakers acted quickly: they grafted American rootstocks onto local varietals, such as Tempranillo, to produce plague-resistant vines. Another testament to the astute business sense of Rioja Alta producers and to serendipity as well, is the story of how the tradition of aging Rioja wines in 225-liter American Oak, as opposed to French Oak, barrels began. At the end of the 19th century before the Spanish-American War, Rioja wine was traditionally transported in barrels to America and bottled at its destination. The positive effect on the quality of the wine imparted by aging in American-oak barrels on a long trans-Atlantic passage was duly noted and adopted as a standard practice for all Rioja wines of distinction. Thus, today the noticeable oak flavor and tannin content of Rioja wines is an expected and desirable trademark – thanks to La Rioja Alta and American oak.
Today, La Rioja Alta takes care to protect the consistency and the quality of its various labels. Each January at the first manual racking – the transfer of wine from one barrel to another – of the previous fall’s harvest, the bodega’s expert oenologist tastes each barrel’s contents to determine their final destination, as a Gran Reserva, Reserva, or Crianza. Since La Rioja Alta is determined to produce only the wines and corresponding labels for which the grapes are suited, the bodega does not produce all of its labels every year. So, when you pick up a bottle of La Rioja Alta, S.A., you are assured of ultimate quality. You are free to dream of a land at the crossroads and know that your gastronomic journey will only be enhanced by the product of the vine within.
From the moment Roman legions marched up the Ebro River valley to displace tribes of Celtic origin in the 2nd century, the status of the Rioja region of Spain as a crossroads has been reaffirmed many times. And like many geographic areas that occupy points where cultures meet, the Rioja has been inhabited and controlled by various people throughout its history. Arabs invaded the area in the 8th century, Castile and Navarre traded control of the region from the 12th to the 15th centuries, the French armies of Napoleon conquered the valley during the Peninsular War, and finally, after the death of Franco, the Rioja’s current boundaries were affirmed. Despite the potential for unrest, lingering trauma, or schizophrenic identity that might be expected in a region that has seen so much political turmoil in its history, the people of the Rioja have taken the best of what each occupying culture brought to the region and forged a lifestyle and culture that is rich, distinctly their own, and remarkably practical, yet tradition bound.
Located squarely in north-central Spain along the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, and at a point that linked the north of Europe to the Mediterranean and northern Africa, the people of Rioja astutely sought to cater to the needs of travelers and pilgrims. Of course the production and sale of wine was a local cottage industry that served the pilgrimage trade. Yet, despite a long history of wine production, it wasn’t until the second-half of the 19th century that wine became a major industry of the Rioja. When French wine makers fled the devastation of vineyards in Bordeaux by phylloxera in 1870, they chose the climate, soil, and geography of the Rioja as an ideal location to reestablish commercial production. Since then, the prominence of the Rioja region has grown so that when people around the world think of Spanish wine they often think Rioja. Within Rioja, three identifiable growing regions, Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja, and Rioja Alavesa, are distinguished by elevation and soil composition. La Rioja Alta, S.A., the producer of this month’s selection, Vina Ardenza Reserva, is, as its name suggests, a producer of wines in the Rioja Alta subregion, the most elevated of the three areas at around 1,500 feet. Based in the town of Haro since its foundation in 1890, La Rioja Alta, S.A., exemplifies the characteristics of Rioja culture and illustrates why Rioja vintages garner such renown.