There’s a commonly-held belief that starting in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, Bordeaux had a “revolutionary” impact on Rioja wine production.

In particular, in the 1860s, the winemaker of Bordeaux’s pioneering Chateau Lanessan, owned by the DelBos family, travelled to Rioja and eventually worked for the Marqués de Riscal. There’s even a scholarly article entitled “Jean Pineau, la revolución del vino en Rioja Alavesa.” Pineau and Riscal are portrayed as utterly transforming Rioja wine production, bringing it to a modern style after centuries of producing inferior bulk wine. Part of this oft-told story is that oak maturation in 225 liter barriques began in Rioja at this time.

There is in fact earlier history, centered on the Riojan priest, Manuel Quintano who had travelled to Bordeaux in 1785-86, studied Bordelais winemaking techniques, and published his ideas for improving Rioja wine production in Bilbao around 1787. Tim Atkin and Jane Anson recently discussed this history.

As to why we don’t hear much about this is that despite Quintano’s proposed methods meeting royal approval in 1804, his efforts to transform Rioja failed, in part due to the Napoleonic wars’ impact on the wine trade and infighting regarding the direction the local industry should take. This should all sound familiar to anyone cognizant of recent Rioja wine politics.

Although this standard history of oenological backwardness during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries persists, it ignores strong historical trends, the character of international wine commerce at least since the seventeenth century, and Bilbao’s place therein.

For centuries, Basque Bilbao was Rioja’s closest major port linking its wines to the world. Surveying the historical record points to a much greater common, simultaneous, and parallel development of both wine quality and commerce in Rioja and Bordeaux. This is in part owing common Enlightenment goals and knowledge transfer in the international wine community and these two major wine centers 400 kilometers apart.

The Seventeenth Century

Early on, Bordeaux and Rioja wine met in the international trade. Investigating the UK National Archives reveals records of “contested bills” of exchange—the wine merchants’ international credit system—as early as 1636-39 that mention both Bordeaux and Bilbao.

In 1667, a ship bound from Bilbao to London, laden with wine, was captured on 18 January by the privateer “Penelope”.

Bilbao was also an entrepôt for other wines, particularly Malaga, Canary, and Bordeaux. Thus in 1666 the Guerero of Bilbao captained by Juan de Arizabalo (a Basque), was travelling from Malaga to Ostend, laden with Malaga wine, fruits, molasses, and sugar. In 1665, the “St Michael of Penerf, master Jean Fifoche,” sailed from Bilbao to Ostend, carrying Canary wine, Indian hides, oranges, and lemons.

In 1689, an English merchant ship, the Jonathan, headed from Bilbao to London with a stock of wine and brandy, indicating a Bordeaux origin. Rioja, Bordeaux, and other wines thus competed in the international wine trade in the mid to late seventeenth century.

The Eighteenth Century Wine Trade and Knowledge Transfer

A century passed, and the trade connection had strengthened.

British duties had affected the routing of Bordeaux wine. This was particularly true with claret, as these taxes favored Spanish and Portuguese wines and disfavored the extremely popular Bordeaux claret (and French wine in general). Duties on French wine reached 55 pounds per tonneau (a 999 liter barrel), a tariff that vastly increased the cost of claret in Britain.

But the traders found ways around this. For example, in 1748 L’Amista of Bilbao (master Francisco “Albarez”) sailed from Bordeaux to Bilbao, “laden with wine, wax, etc.”

Why take Bordeaux wine to Bilbao?

Because it could then go to Britain, be declared, without too much dishonesty, to be of “Spanish origin” and thus taxed much more lightly by the British custom house. It then fraudulently passed into Britain (including prominently Scotland) as “Spanish” wine and was subsequently sold as claret (which it actually was) at a cheaper price.

The French and Bordeaux governments admired this system because it deprived the enemy Britain of customs revenue while aiding French exports and taxes. Négociants (often of Irish and Scottish origin) in Bordeaux, as well as claret wine entrepôts such as Boulogne-Sur-Mer, also required Rioja and other Spanish red wine for blending with Bordeaux wine, so Spanish wine ended up in France in substantial quantities.

This is all to say that Rioja and Bordeaux enjoyed close links through the international wine trade well before the late eighteenth or mid nineteenth centuries. Importantly, the traders didn’t only ship wine, they also made it by blending and ageing to meet the taste of specific market segments.

The traders, in turn, transmitted information to the Spanish and French winegrowers, who adjusted their production techniques to meet market demand.

In 1720, for example, the French Protestant wine trader named Jacques LaMude, who was in Amsterdam, informed the Bordeaux philosopher and winegrower Charles de Montesquieu that his claret was unsellable anywhere, but especially in Britain, which was the primary market for Bordeaux reds. It was too light and not sufficiently concentrated, still resembling the “vin clairet” of the past century. This almost-rosé wine style was made using relatively short period of skin contact during fermentation and, typically involved a field blend of both red and white grapes. It was not capable of aging well.

LaMude found it “impossible” to sell this wine profitably. Montesquieu’s continued production of this lighter red wine style had fallen behind the times, causing him to lose sales. Notably, LaMude referred approvingly to the wine of “Cairies,” which meant the Queyries in Bordeaux’s Médoc sub-region.

A late eighteenth century text provided an enlightening description of this wine:

It is with Petit and Gros Verdot, Malbec, Mancin, and the two Vidures [probably Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon] that the wines of Montferrand and Queyries are made, as well as generally the other palus: (by the word ‘palus,’ we mean the plains surrounding our rivers, and sometimes dried-up marshes.) These wines are consumed little in the region and are shipped to the East Indies; they only achieve their perfection after these overseas voyages. These wines age well, rarely decompose, and have a good finish. When aged, they acquire a bouquet.
. . .
About 30 years ago, the plantations in the palus were generally of Petit and Gros Verdot. The quality of the wines was excellent, as these varieties only produced quality. Since then, other varieties I mentioned have been substituted, which are less susceptible to spring frosts and yield a higher quantity of wine. This alteration has affected the quality of these vineyards; nevertheless, the wines are still powerful, highly colored, and healthy.

It is notable that LaMude called Queyries wine “dark and robust,” which points to a more generalized change in wine style throughout the region and not just by the famous estates. The prototypical new French “claret” was advertised and supposed to come from the higher-quality vineyards of the Graves or Médoc, including Haut-Brion’s home in Pessac, and not from the Queyries or other palus. This did not stop Queyries production, however, and in the first two decades of the eighteenth century there was a general rise in vineyard plantations throughout Bordeaux.

Montesquieu proceeded to adjust his claret production to meet evolving British taste by buying land near Haut-Brion and, it appears, using new oak barrels. He probably also increased the length of skin contact during fermentation to produce a heartier style of claret, which had popularly become known in England as “the new French claret” by the 1710s. The December 29, 1712, Daily Courant, for example, identified “the noblest new French claret that ever was imported, bright, deep, strong and of the most delicious flavour.” Definitely a far cry from the original meaning of the term.

The use of new oak barrels had also come into vogue.

In October 1725, Montesquieu recommended new barrels for his wine from Martillac, sent to Bordeaux for export. “You will also send me to Bordeaux the wine that will have been collected, and you will buy barrels for this purpose. I recommend this last item to you,” he wrote. Montesquieu succeeded.

In a 23 August 1726 letter to his friend Francis Bulkeley, he proclaimed: ‘We will have wine this year worthy of England; my God, how triumphant it is!’ In what style was that wine? Echoing LaMude, in 1727, he observed: “The English require dark wines that are both strong and pleasant at the same time.” Montesquieu had learned from the failed sale of the old style of French claret reported by LaMude.

The conventional history would be that Rioja and Bilbao remained totally ignorant of this trending style.

The Impact on Rioja

Yet, in Rioja, winegrowers did indeed take similar notice as the Bordelaise.

In 1726, the Frenchman Antoine Augustin Bruzen de La Martinière had to begrudgingly observe that Alava, which included la Rioja and Bilbao, produced “passably good wine.”

A 1798 dictionary ascribed the historical origin of the phrase “vino clarete” to Rioja, evidencing the Bordeaux wine style’s international influence.

In 1799, Jacques Peuchet mentioned the white pet-nat “chacoli,” which only lasted for four months, and in comparison “the wines of Rioja, which become better with transport.” Indeed, in 1784 Manuel Antonio Valdés, writing of Spanish exports to Mexico, spoke of “so-called clarete of la Rioja in barriles y barricas of the best quality produced from her lands.” He also compared pet-nat Spanish whites, “with wired corks,” “some of which are as special as [those from] Bordeaux.”

In 1793, Eugenio Larruga again described the vast Americas trade of “vino de la Rioja” in barrels. Lest we think that the Bordeaux “invention” of using new oak had no parallel in eighteenth century Rioja, in 1789 the Real sociedad vascongada de los amigos del pais documented recommended best practices for handling Rioja wine:

You should also have well-cleaned and prepared oak containers in the cellars with four iron hoops or six for each barrel, and good fresh wooden staves, to prevent them from drying out quickly in the cellar’s heat and dislodging. This way, the barrels will arrive without any spillage. Additionally, by placing a small sheet of tin on the lid, it ensures that the captain, during the stowage of the ship’s hold, tilts the barrels slightly so that the wine always touches the cork. All these precautions are straightforward and involve very little expense.

Not only did Rioja wine mature in new oak well before the late eighteenth century, vintners also received advice about reducing air contact and oxidation during transport.

In 1793, Eugenio Larruga wrote of the excellent quality of Rioja wine and of its “considerable bodegas.” He spoke of a recent Latin publication on Rioja harvests and its commercial potential: O fortunata nimium sua si bona norint! (Oh, how fortunate they are, if they know their goods!). He also recorded a 1769 document that defined the modern appellation’s geography: the “brotherhood” of Laguardia, with four or five towns of Castilla contiguous on the shore of the Ebro River, and on the other bank from Altable to Alfaro, with the entire Sierra of Cameros: “it is divided into Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta, and Rioja Baxa.”

It’s clear to see that centuries ago, the Rioja name and place of origin were quite important and today’s appellations have a lineage going back centuries.

The Black Family and European Elite Taste

A good example of how the cosmopolitan wine trade affected winemaking knowledge transfer is the Black family, originally from Aberdeen, and then later established in Ireland.

John Black II traded with Montesquieu’s family as early as the 1680s. His son, John Black III, moved to Bordeaux in 1699. His brother moved to trade wine in Spain. Within this family network, Bordeaux vintages found their way to Spain and vice versa. So too did knowledge of wine styles and winemaking.

In the 1770s, we find John’s son selling wine to Thomas Robinson, 2nd Baron Grantham, who served as the British Ambassador to Spain. He ordered wine from Bordeaux sent to Bilbao and hence to Madrid and Aranjuez, the summer palace. Black wrote advising that the claret promises to be “light, smooth flavouring and will improve the longer it remains in the bottle.” Ageability was important. Grantham enjoyed the wine so much that he recommended it to Portugal’s ambassador, who also placed a large order.

In 1777, Black sent “80 dozen wine” in care of “the widow Broduirs & Sons of Bilbao,” including 20 dozen each of the “best and commoner claret” as well as the “best and commoner Graves.” “Claret all 1771, oldest and best to be had just now. All are very good wines, will improve if not drunk till next winter.”

Merchants like Broduirs and Sons would likewise transmit knowledge on market demand to Rioja winegrowers, who adjusted their viticulture and winemaking, while people like Grantham spread the elite taste for ageable “strong and pleasant” red wine, creating international demand for the style.

Rioja Responds

In 1793, Larruga noted how Bordeaux had reached a level of opulence rivalling royal palaces solely through its wine commerce. He described how, Rioja wines being inferior neither in “quality nor quality” to Bordeaux, the Economic Society of Rioja’s cosecheros had plans to improve the Spanish road network, including a royal decree dating back to 1764 allowing tolls on the camino real to help finance the venture.

By 1796, the Madrid medical community had taken note of admirable new production techniques. “Rioja wines that have been attempted to be manipulated to imitate those from Bordeaux lose no value in the eyes of the discerning.” This could well be the result of Quitano’s writings, but he is not named, and the concern here was eliminating harmful winemaking techniques that resulted in “colic.”

Among the suggestions: less (or no) sulfur; natural ingredients for clarification and color adjustment; balancing acidity. (“sour taste”) with honey or natural sugar mixed with skimmed milk and salt; “perfuming” using “la flor de la uva seca” wrapped in linen; not exposing the wine alternatively to heat and then cold; “don’t rack them too much”; and filling the barrels to the top, eliminating air contact.

The author, Ignacio María Ruiz de Luzuriaga, clearly believed Rioja winemaking, as well as that of other Spanish regions, required reforming to bring quality up to international levels. This indicates that a good deal of Rioja winemaking left much to be desired but also acute awareness of “modern” claret winemaking in the region, which many were actively pursuing. Although clarete clearly sought to imitate high-priced Bordeaux claret, Rioja was not an isolated backwater as the nineteenth century dawned.

Finally, returning to Jean Pineau, prior to Rioja, he worked at André Delbos’ Chateau Lanessan. Delbos belonged to a prominent Bordeaux negociant family with roots in the village of Domme in the Dordogne.

In the mid nineteenth century, André was the paragon of advanced, modern winegrowing. He invested heavily in the most advanced equipment, planted his estates in well-organized vineyards, and won wide acclaim for his efforts. He was so wealthy and successful, his daughter even married the Baron de Montesquieu—the philosopher’s direct descendant— becoming nobility.

Delbos and Pineau were at the cutting edge of Bordeaux wine production, but they hardly represented the average state of wine production there, which remained mostly backward, not too dissimilar from Rioja. Thus, Pineau’s “revolutionary” impact on Rioja must be viewed in context. The vast gulf between the two regions, painted by most current historical account, was perhaps not so vast.

This brief survey of primary sources indicates that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries both Rioja and Bordeaux formed part of a common system of international wine commerce.

Both regions developed in parallel during the eighteenth century, responding to market demand.

Winegrowing knowledge was transferred by perspicacious traders, and winegrowers in both Rioja and Bordeaux employed techniques to improve winemaking quality, enhance new oak contact, and produce more concentrated red wines, with higher levels of phenolics and tannins, suitable for long ageing.

The Bordeaux style, claret (which we can see was very much an evolving style), undoubtedly led the way, and Rioja was indeed handicapped by being landlocked. These did not prevent innovation and communication, however, and Spanish Enlightenment-era elites became just as aware as their French counterparts of the importance of altering wine production to meet market demand by the mid to late eighteenth century.