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A diverse range of peoples hailing from very different backgrounds and cultures passed through Álava, and it was precisely one of these incursions that brought the miracle of the grapevine and hence winegrowing to the region. This would have somewhat of a civilising effect on what was then excessively military-minded architecture. As such, the region would reach the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, medieval man began to build underground wine cellars and "caves" in which to store the fruit of his harvests, and which were probable places of refuge and served as barracks for the last invaders. In all of the old quarters, with their narrow streets and emblazoned houses, replete with porticoes and archways, there were doorways which opened up to fields and the mythical vineyards of Rioja Alavesa beyond, privileged plots of land that yielded high-quality grapes and boasted excellent growing conditions.

From the 11th century to the 14th centurygrains, olives and of course, winegrowing. were the chief agricultural pursuits in La Rioja. This was so much so that in 1.324 king Don Sancho, so as to reduce competition, prohibited the entry of wines from Navarre into Castile (a dictate which would remain in effect until it was finally annulled by the Catholic monarchs in 1479).
The wines of Rioja Alavesa were the cause of conflict and dispute. In 1.585 the vineyards of Laguardia and Samaniego became infested by a plague of louses, which had to be conjured and exorcised in accordance with the prevailing rituals of the day. But this naturally caused a split in opinion, with some inhabitants siding with a laic friar, while others claimed that in Laguardia there were clergymen of a more moderate stripe, much more learned in imprecations than the laic friar so highly regarded for his conjurations.

Photo of glasses with three varieties of wine Three varieties of wine

The water of St. Gregorio Ostiense, who died in Logroño in 1044, seems to have been the resource used in the vineyards of Laguardia every time a plague threatened to ravage grapevines.Both grapevines and wines had numerous religious implications during the 15th and 16th centuries, and served as the basis for conjurations and exorcisms, imprecations and taboos, which generally involved sprinkling with an aspergill.

The vineyards of Samaniego, Leza, Lapuebla de Labarca, Lanciego, Elciego and especially Labastida and Laguardia would experience growth during these years of the Enlightenment, with some of their native sons becoming wealthy in the process.The elegance of the Sanctuary of Nuestra Señora de los Angeles in Toloño, the hermitages of Nuestra Señora de la Plaza, San Cristóbal, Santa María de los Reyes, Berberana, Peciña, etc., stood out as religious jewels that were set against the backdrop of vineyards, fields of grain and other crops.

Photo of a bottle of wine and a glass Bottle of denomination wine

It is therefore no surprise that an illustrious priest from Rioja Alavesa was present in the Medoc district in Bordeaux during the entire grape harvest of 1786 so as to be able to learn about Bordeaux winegrowing methods and implement them in his native soil.
We are talking about the mythical and nearly forgotten figure of Don Manuel Quintano y Quintano, a priest who was born and baptised in Labastida on 2 January 1756, and the first to introduce Bordeaux winegrowing methods in Rioja Alavesa.In July 1787 the doubts as to Álava's winegrowing potential re-emerged, but Don Manuel Esteban Quintano y Quintano's successful venture dispelled the theretofore irrefutable axiom that wines could not be grown and aged in Rioja Alavesa.
In 1795 the vessel "La Natividad" set sail from the port of Santander with approximately 9,760 litres of wine from Álava in its holds, in 10 casks and 1,050 bottles, covered with straw and stored in old barrels made from apple tree wood and bound with hemp. Havana and Veracruz became two destinations where sailing ships would frequently unload casks from Labastida, which arrived in perfect condition. Don Manuel Quintano's fortunes would reach even greater heights in the 19th century, and he took over the post of Dean of the Cathedral of Burgos in 1800. The selection of varieties, absolute cleanliness, the better care of vineyards, destemming during grape harvesting, a rational use of the winepress, the disinfecting and preparing of casks, along with the techniques for filling, racking, pumping and filtering brought by Manuel Quintano y Quintano from Bordeaux-these were the factors that helped to achieve quality winemaking in the region, a fact which remains undisputed today.

Factors for Quality in the fine wines of Rioja Alavesa.

Soil

The Rioja Denomination of Origin avails vineyards planted in seven different types of soil, three of which are particularly widespread:

  • Clayey-calcareous: ochre in colour.
  • Clayey-ferrous: garnet in colour.
  • AlLuvial: greyish, stone or blackish in colour.
Photo of a wine cellar with casks Wine cellar with casks

Clayey-calcareous soil yields the finest-quality wines, since it is what gives them their delicate aroma and finesse. 95% of the vineyards in Rioja Alavesa are planted in this type of soil.Cultivating this soil is complicated by the fact that the subsoil consists of somewhat clayey soil sandwiched between sandstone-limestone layers. Moreover, the horizontal arrangement of this stone layer prevents large plots from being laid out.
The clayey component in soil serves to absorb late rainfall during ripening, which prevents water from easily passing to the grape. Thus, grainberries ripen to a smaller size, which is indicative of quality.
The sinewy contours in the geography of Rioja Alavesa prevented train tracks from being laid in the region in the 19th century. What then seemed to be a disadvantage today has led to the existence of a relatively recondite enclave that continues to be divided up into small family-run winegrowing operations.

Climate

This peculiar climate proves to be well-suited for winegrowing for two reasons: the pattern of winds and the arrangement of vineyards. During the summer, there are damp winds that blow into Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Alta from the north to the south. These damp winds produce some rainfall in July and August which help to ensure quality.
On another front, vineyards in Rioja Alavesa are arranged on slopes facing southwards , which helps to produce grapes of superior quality.

Grape Varieties

Riojas Denomination of Origin covers seven different varieties:

  • Red Wine: Tempranillo, Grenache, Graciano and Mazuelo.
  • White Wine: Viura, Malvasía and white Grenache.

Fine red wines are made with Tempranillo, fine rosé wines are made with the dark Garnache grape variety and fine white wines use Viura. Tempranillo and Graciano are autochthonous to Rioja; the rest of the grape varieties are originally from the Mediterranean basin but are well acclimated to this region.
97% of the red wines from Rioja Alavesa are made using Tempranillo.

The Human Factor

The winemaking regions that continue to thrive today have been able to do so due to a series of natural factors as well as the savvy of its winemakers. The following are good examples:

  • Scritical spirit: The fabulist Samaniego,from Rioja Alavesa, is an exponent of the need for winemakers to constantly assess their current situation and the direction in which they are headed.
  • Loyalty to tradition and progress: The Quintano brothers, from Labastida brought modern enology from Bordeaux to bear on Álava?s winegrowing tradition at the end of the 18th century.
  • Method: The Marquis of Riscalchose Elciego as the place to make quality red wines after scientifically studying Rioja?s soil types, microclimates and vinestocks.

The current technique used to make wine in Rioja Alavesa is a compendium of proven practice and a knack for linking up tradition with the needs of today?s marketplace, without neglecting the region?s particular winegrowing needs and nuances.

Wine Types

Nowadays in Rioja Alavesa two types of red wines are made: young wines and aged wines.

  • Young red wines. The year?s vintage wines from Rioja Alavesa have continued to be made according to this centuries? old process: whole bunches are dumped inside open-topped tanks measuring roughly 3 metres in length by 3 metres in width and 3 metres in height, where grapes are fermented and the sugar in the juice is turned into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Afterwards, the juice is transferred to vats where the rest of the fermentation process is carried out. With this system, aromatic, fresh-tasting wines are obtained, making them apt for consumption as young vintage wines.
    Up until the end of the 18th century, all of the red wine in Rioja Alavesa was made this way. Today, this method accounts for 25% of all winemaking in the region, and is mainly used in the elaboration of young wines.The method used to produce these wines is known by several different names: whole-grape fermentation, carbonic maceration, intercellular fermentation, etc.
  • Aged red wines. At the end of the 18th century, the Quintano brothers came to the realisation that the year?s vintage wines were not good keepers, and so they decided to use the Bordeaux method of mashing and destemming grapes. This method yields wines that are less aromatic and slightly rougher, but ageing in casks and bottles has the effect of making them smoother and more complex.
    This method is known by the following names: destemming, crushed-grape fermentation, the Bordeaux method, mash fermentation, etc.

In summary:

  • For the year's (young) vintage wines, colour is first extracted and then fermentation is performed.
  • For red wines made using the Bordeaux method, wines are fermented first and then colour is extracted.

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