“Wine cheers the sad, revives the old, inspires the young, makes weariness forget his toil, wrote Lord Byron, who was not only famed as a poet, but a traveler, carouser, and bon vivant. He came to this opinion glass by glass, having sipped his way across Europe, visiting the vineyards of France and the bodegas of Spain alike.
French vintners have been perfecting the art for some 2,000 years, creating the largest wine economy in the world. Spain may have a younger viticulture, but it boasts the highest percentage of land dedicated solely to vineyards of any nation on earth. And both countries are passionate about the wines they make.
Over the millennia, rulers as diverse as Visigoths, Moorish invaders, and Napoleonic troops have claimed the fertile landscape of La Rioja for themselves. Today it is an autonomous province under Spain’s banner, a kingdom within a kingdom.
A sweeping mountainous plateau marked by seven plunging valleys and ribboned by the ebro and Oja Rivers, La Rioja is a land where geography and climate have conspired to favor winemaking. The mountains, covered in forests of oak, beech, pine, and juniper, offer vineyards protection from the fierce winds common to northern Spain, and help to moderate the climate.
Since at least the 9th century, when monks began tending vines, winemaking has been part of the local culture here, but it wasn’t until 1902 that Rioja was formally recognized as a wine variety, and not till the end of the 20th century that it was both awarded a certificate of origin (which guarantees its provenance) and then given the highest classification Spain allows.
Though best known for its reds, white and rose riojas are also available. experts describe classic Rioja wines as bold and complex, with unmistakable cherry and vanilla notes. What makes a Rioja so full-bodied is the employment of oak barrel-aging techniques inspired by the wineries of Bordeaux. Some Riojas are aged up to five years in barrel and bottle before their release. The result is a wine imposing enough to stand up to meat and strong cheeses, and, if you ask a Spaniard, to challenge any wine France can produce.
However, Bordeaux – the elegant “Little Paris” on the banks of the Gironde River – feels no threat from other wine regions. With a wine industry dating back to the 8th century, Bordeaux blossomed fully in the wake of the marriage of eleanor of Aquitaine to the future King Henry II. In the 18th century, as it became the world’s wine capital, the city added 5,000 buildings of such beauty that Victor Hugo compared it to a metropolis-sized version of Versailles. In fact, “Little Paris” was the model for its (now) bigger sister: Napoleon used the building boom for inspiration in revitalizing the City of Lights.
As Bordeaux became a major port city, merchants were able to ferry the wine to the Netherlands and Great Britain, creating a global demand. Still the epicenter of the wine industry to this day, Bordeaux’s 13,000 grape growers and 10,000 chateaux together produce nearly a billion bottles of wine every year.
Like Riojas, the wines of Bordeaux vary by color, though it is the array of deep, rich reds for which the region is best known. Bordeaux reds blend two wines-Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot-and each vineyard determines the proportions. Vineyards on the left bank of the Gironde are Cabernet heavy, while those across the water favor the Merlot. Both yield earthy reds, good with lamb, beef, truffles, and tomatoes. The whites here, drier than the reds, are excellent with seafood, including the sweeter varieties, which also shine with cheese.
Older still than Bordeaux and further north, St. Emilion is one of the most romantic cities in France. Settled since prehistoric times, it is best known for its medieval architecture, with steep, narrow streets winding between limestone buildings. Some of the streets continue below ground into tunnels and catacombs, once home to the hermetic monk for whom the city is named.
Emilion was originally from Breton, where he was credited with a number of miracles. His acclaim drew attacks from the Benedictine community and he fled south, hiding in the underground cavern where he would live the rest of his life. Pilgrims began to seek him out as confessor and as the catacombs became a destination, an entire religious community arose.
Within a century, the town of St. Emilion was making wines commercially, expanding private vineyards that were planted a good 700 years before. When the Santiago de Compostela through France became a major pilgrimage route in the 11th century, a robust wine industry tempted visitors to stop here. Though both the Hundred Years’ War and The War of the Religions both stalled the region, the wine trade never ceased completely; in fact, wine sales fueled St. Emilion’s rebirth in the 18th century.
Today, it is known for its reds, which most often blend Merlot and Cabernet Franc, with a few wineries adding Cabernet Sauvignon to the mix. Reaching maturity-and your table-faster than the Bordeaux vintages, St. Emilion wines stand up well to game birds, salmon, and nutty cheeses like tomme de savoie or reblochon.
Though you may now enjoy the best wines of both lands in the comfort of your own home, those who have followed in Byron’s footsteps to europe know the difference it makes to savor these regional creations right where they’re made. Lift a fine Bordeaux to your lips while the sun sets over the countryside, or inhale the heady bouquet of Rioja in a Spanish bodega. Drink them where they’re made on our new small group tour, France & Spain: History, Culture & Wine, and you’ll find there’s no comparison.