Spain has always been the the ugly stepsister of Europe, living in the shadow of the more popular France.
But Spain has a long and proud winegrowing history that dates back more than 2,000 years. Especially in the Rioja region, which is in north-central Spain, near Pomplona.
During the Roman Empire, centurions from the 4th Legion who graduated with honors achieving victories for the Emperor were awarded plots of land in Rioja’s Villar de Anerdo, which then became known as Campus Veteranus. Over time, this evolved into Campo Viejo, or “the old camp”.
When they arrived, they found that local tribespeople, whom they called the Celtiberi, already were cultivating vineyards of a local grape, the temperanillo (from the Spanish “temprano”, or “early”, referrring to the grapes ability to be harvested earlier than other varietals). While the locals had been making wine in a crude manner, the Romans tutored them in advanced winemaking techniques.
Over time, temperanillo wines became an important part of the region’s economy. By the 1860s, a local nobleman – Camilo Hurtado de Amezaga, the Marques de Riscal de Alegre – returned from studying in Bordeaux armed with the newest ideas in winemaking. He and another local nobleman, the Marques de Murrieta, began planting Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes from vinestock imported from France and produced wines in what was then the Bordeaux style.
Other local winemakers, unable to get hold of the imported grapes, were introduced to the new processes by the aristocrat winemakers. They discovered, to their great surprise, that the local grapes they had been working with for years — especially temperanillo — responded extremely well to the new methods, with or without the other, more expensive, grapes.
At the same time, on the other side of the Pyrennees Mountains in France, the phylloxera infestaton was devastating nearly all of the French vineyards. Desperate to provide wine for their French customers, negociants from Aquataine and elsewhere came to Spain to find wines to buy. They were delighted to discover that Rioja’s newly developed wine industry was utilizing French winemaking methods and were available so close to home.
Rioja wines flourished and — for a short time, at least — Spain was no longer the ugly stepsister but the belle of the wine ball.
Campo Viejo is the largest wine company in Rioja and one of the few big enough to export its wines to the US and elsewhere. Founded in 1963, the bodega (Spanish winehouses are called “bodegas”, just as French are called “chateaus”), grows most of its own temperanillo grapes on an enormous vineyard that encompasses more than 1,260 acres.
In 2001, the bodega opened an architecturally-stunning state-of-the-art winery that follows the principles of sustainable agriculture and has won awards for being one of the first “green” wineries anywhere.
At $6.79/bottle, this particular Campo Viejo Temperanillo is certainly affordable and it’s flavor is fine, if a little bitter for my taste. It has a strong black cherry flavor, with hints of blackberry, strawberry, spice and vanilla.
Like the French wine regions, Rioja has extremely strict winemaking laws. This is a very young wine, having spent only four months oak barrels and even less time in the bottle. In order for wines to graduate to the “Crianza” status, they must spend at least a year in the barrel and another year in the bottle. This wine would benefit from a little more aging to smooth out its rough spots. But then, of course, it would cost much more.
While Campo Viejo Temperanillo has a lot of history in the bottle, in the end I think it needs just a little more time.