Published by Instituto de Estudios Riojanos (Riojan Studies Institute), El vino de Rioja en sus etiquetas (Rioja wine through its labels) is a delightful book for any wine lover. A genuine trip back in time and proof that wine labels, as well as attracting the consumer's attention and explaining what is inside the bottle, can be a faithful expression of their age.
The 1,000 labels on its pages represent a third of the collection amassed by Eustaquio Uzqueda. A draughtsman, designer, painter and illustrator from La Rioja, whose work has been published in a number of books, Uzqueda has been closely involved with wine since he began working for Marrodán, a food machinery company. From there he moved on to printing and luxury packaging, developing his artistic skills at the same time. He has illustrated wine labels for Palacios Remondo, Montecillo, Ramírez de la Piscina, Franco-Españolas and Bodegas Riojanas.
The book is written by the journalist and editor Javier Pascual, who was in charge of communications at DOCa. Rioja between 1992 and 2017, founded La Prensa del Rioja magazine and has written several books on the region's wines and cultural heritage. "When you look at all the images together, you discover an impressive account of how Rioja's brand awareness has developed. The events and trends of each period are very much in evidence on the labels.”
What follows is a selection of 15 labels that help to explain the trends, the curiosities and the forgotten histories -just a small part of the vast amount of material that is included in the book. Aesthetically, the designs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries have stood the test of time remarkably well and should be a source of inspiration for today's producers (as they already are). The book (in Spanish) is available from the Instituto de Estudios Riojanos.
The winery has been very consistent in its label design over the years, which is why the mention of Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1873 vintage is so remarkable. This variety arrived in Rioja in 1860 thanks to Guillermo Hurtado de Amézaga, Marquis of Riscal, who lived in Bordeaux and used his contacts to ship 9,000 plants of various French varieties. This was the time of Médoc Alavés, an initiative launched by the Diputación de Álava to help local producers improve the quality of their wines by adopting Bordeaux practices. The project involved hiring French oenologist Cadiche Pineau, who eventually joined Riscal as winemaker after public funding failed. Of all the French grape varieties tested, Cabernet was the one that flourished in Riscal's vineyards, eventually producing the famous Reserva Médoc or XR (for Xtra Réserve). These wines had more depth and structure. Some, like the legendary 1945, the star of a historic tasting held at the winery in Elciego last year, are incredibly vibrant.
According to Javier Pascual, the most common term on Rioja labels until well into the 20th century was "clarete". It has nothing to do with the traditional rosés made from a blend of white and red grapes, but with the English word claret, which refers to red Bordeaux. In Rioja, the term is used in both English and Spanish, even within the same winery, to distinguish between domestic and export markets.
In the 19th century, Rioja's fine wines followed the Bordeaux model, so it was common to allude to the "método Médoc" (Médoc method) on the labels. According to Pascual, this was the second most common mention during this period. Other terms that emphasised quality were "fino" or "vino fino" (fine wine). "Vino de mesa" (table wine) was also a positive mention at the time.
Some examples can be found on the labels of Bodegas Real Divisa in Ábalos (note the importance of the village, which was a constant feature of the period). The A.F. de Navarrete brand is named after Antonio Fernández de Navarrete, Marquis of Legarda. A well-known civil engineer (he designed the Pilar Bridge in Zaragoza), he was one of the largest vineyard owners in Rioja at the beginning of the 20th century and a staunch promoter of the DO Rioja.
This is a peculiar label by Cvne. The design of this 1922 "claret" is specific to its importer in La Habana and includes the following caption in Spanish and English: “All bottles which do not bear the trademark of this Company, on the label, on the capsule and cork and on the wire netting should be rejected as spurious. Examine the cork on opening the bottle to make sure that it is the genuine article.”
Preventing fraud was an obsession for many leading producers. The mesh on the bottle assured consumers that no one had tampered with the wine inside. "In the first 15 to 20 years of the 20th century, authenticity was a major concern for producers," explains Javier Pascual.
On a more general level, there were also health issues. A popular song goes: 'The warehouses of Haro / we're going to burn them down / because many people are dying / from artificial wine'. This is a clear reference to the adulteration practices of the 19th century, when alcohol, water and harmful dyes were added to wine. Therefore, labels of the time, such as the wine below from Haro's Bodegas J. Diez de Corral, sought to reassure consumers with legends like this: "I guarantee the absolute purity of the wine and its exclusive Rioja origin".
The most dramatic example in the book is a label that reproduces the wine's analytical data, according to a “microbiological laboratory certificate”, with the wine's brand superimposed in a rather confusing presentation.
Many Riojas of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were inspired by established French styles, mainly from Bordeaux but also from Burgundy. It was very common at the time to find references to "cepa Sauternes", "cepa Médoc", "cepa Borgoña", "cepa Chablis"...
Franco-Españolas Diamante, the popular semi-sweet wine that is still produced today, was originally sold as "estilo Sauternes" (Sauternes style), as the label below shows.
The mention “Spanish Burgundy” in a 1953 red wine from Gómez Cruzado caught our eye. It is clearly a label destined for export as it includes the name of the importer: Paramount Liquor, Co., based in Missouri. Note also the generous display of medals from various exhibitions; this was the equivalent to Parker scores in the 19th century and most of the 20th century.
López de Heredia fans may be familiar with an old label featuring a hot-air balloon with five barrels hanging from it, bearing the names of the five continents where founder Rafael López de Heredia wanted to sell his wines. However, we thought the one below could well be a special collector's item and a great example of how wine is strongly connected to its age. It is a special edition bearing the date of the beginning of the Spanish-American War (21 April 1898) and the legend: "Go Spain! Go Spanish Cuba! It was made as "a gift from this house to the heroic, invincible Spanish Navy". Cuba was a very important market for Rioja producers.
Along with Guillermo and Camilo Hurtado de Amézaga of Riscal, Luciano de Murrieta was a great pioneer in setting the standards for quality Rioja. An aide-de-camp to General Espartero, he became interested in Bordeaux wines during his exile in London. On his return to Spain, he began making wine in Espartero's cellar in Logroño and, in 1877, he bought the Ygay estate on the outskirts of the city, where he fully embraced the Bordeaux château philosophy.
He designed the property as an agricultural estate to grow vines, cereals, olives and hops for brewing beer. The company was initially called Bodegas y Almazaras del Marqués de Murrieta and used identical labels for wine and olive oil. Two main wine brands were developed: Chateau Ygay (which later had to be changed to Castillo Ygay) and Marqués de Murrieta, which was produced in different styles (vintage, reserve, etc.). From the beginning, instead of referring to claret or the Médoc method, the legend "Vinos de Rioja" (Wines of Rioja) was used, which in a way reflects Luciano's confidence in the region's characteristics without resorting to French terms.
The book recounts the story of Compañía Española de Alimentación Trevijano e Hijos, a canning company that eventually had its own wine brands and sourced grapes and wine from the Logroño area. According to an insightful article published by Santi de Santos in his blog Historias del comercio y la industria riojana, Trevijano e Hijos processed vegetables, fruit, meat and fish (they had a fish factory in Getaria in the Basque Country), won numerous awards, exported their products and were suppliers to some European courts. They did not fall short when it came to wine either. In fact De Santos describes the company as "Rioja's historic winery". The label shown below depicts the large canning factory located in Logroño. For the rest, it follows the standards of the time including the legend "Médoc-style fine wines" and another common term at the time: "vino corriente" (ordinary wine), by no means pejorative, as it was still considered a fine wine. Corriente was intended to denote a lower-priced wine intended for frequent and immediate consumption.
Nowadays, some producers are able to compile a large amount of data that might be of interest to wine nerds. This was also the case in the past, as the following two examples show. The first is a 1935 "clarete fino" by Bilbaínas, which lists all its vineyards in Haro (Paceta, Zaco, Vicuana, La Pelea, Herrón, La Presa and Cores) by vines - not by hectares - as well as in Elciego and Leza, in Rioja Alavesa. It claims that "no other company has such large plantations or cellars with the capacity and proper conservation conditions that make this house the leading Rioja company for fine wines."
Thus, the label becomes an advertising tool. Bilbaínas was not bluffing. Founded in 1901 with significant investments of Basque capital, it was arguably the most financially sound winery in Haro's Barrio de la Estación during the first half of the 20th century. This is still evident in its spacious premises and even today, Bilbaínas is the largest vineyard owner in Haro. At its peak, the company produced wine in many other wine regions, was a well-known sparkling wine producer with brands such as Lumen and Royal Carlton, was a supplier to the Royal House and had offices in London.
The Paternina label shown below is another example of how a label can be used for commercial purposes. With a design similar to that of Bilbaínas, the lower part is intended to show the winery's portfolio - a layout shared at the time by Cvne, La Rioja Alta, Carlos Serres, Ramón Bilbao or Tondonia. The wines detailed by Paternina include three fine reds, named according to their ageing: third year (Banda Azul - blue stripe), fourth year (Banda Roja - red stripe) and fifth year (Alambrado), as well as two 'special production', 'selected vintage' Cepa Médoc and Cepa Borgoña. The whites include a third and fourth year Cepa Chablis, a Cepa Sauternes and a Cepa Rhin.
The Paternina winery in Ollauri (now Bodegas Conde de los Andes, owned by the Muriel group) has the most remarkable collection of old Rioja whites. The labels featured in this book will certainly help to unravel the different styles stored in its old cellars.
The first, which includes the family's surname (Eguren), shows an image of the winery at a time when it was far removed from today's state-of-the-art facilities. The caption reads: "This company owns beautiful vineyards in the foothills of the Sierra Cantabria, from which these delicious wines are made and aged on the estate". Confidence in the potential of the vineyards seems to be in the family's DNA. It is also interesting to see the simultaneous use of the old way of stating the age of the wine (5º Año - fifth year) and the one officially established by the appellation in the modern stage (Gran Reserva). It would be impossible to sell a Gran Reserva with this aesthetic nowadays.
Abel Mendoza's label reveals his pioneering spirit in recovering forgotten white grape varieties and his somewhat untamed character in going against the tide. The wine is described as: "Wine made from Malvasia grapes fermented in new French Allier oak barrels and looked after as the "Capricho de mi Bodega" (baby of my cellar). With this description, it was probably the closest thing to a genuine signature wine.