The earliest record of winemaking in Rioja, Spain, is from the 11th century B.C., when the Phoenicians settled the region. Local populations have made wine almost continuously since then. While Rioja\u2019s geography isn\u2019t conducive to wine exports, the climate is excellent for production. As a result, most of Rioja\u2019s wine was consumed by residents or pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago until the 1800s.\r\n\r\nA series of technological advances and ecological disasters from the 18th century to the late 20th century helped to not only improve the longevity of Rioja\u2019s wine, but also make it one of Spain\u2019s most famous wine regions.\r\n\r\n\r\nThe early days of Rioja wine\r\nUntil the 1700s, wine in Rioja was produced by stomping grapes in stone troughs. It was stored underground in often imperfectly sealed amphorae, and its exposure to oxygen meant the wine often either quickly spoiled or turned to vinegar.\r\n\r\nThe small amount of wine that was exported had to be packaged in leather canteens called bota bags. They were branded with a seal that signified that the wine was made in Rioja from only local grapes.\r\n\r\nThe first attempt to improve winemaking in the region was made by Don Manuel Esteban Quintano Quintano, a Rioja resident who journeyed to Bordeaux to learn how to produce wine that tasted great, traveled well and improved with age.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nOne of the most important techniques he learned was to age wines in oak barrels to smooth its flavor and help protect it from spoilage. Soon, it was possible to ship wine as far as the Americas, but the expensive oak barrels fell out of favor in Spain due to area regulations. It also didn\u2019t help that Don Manuel attempted to promote French-inspired winemaking as the French army invaded Spain in 1808 during the Napoleonic Wars.\r\n\r\nOak barrels were reintroduced by Luciano Murrieta y Garc\u00eda-Ortiz de Lemoine nearly a century later. He learned to appreciate Bordeaux wines while visiting friend, Baldomero Espartero, in London.\r\n\r\nWhen Baldomero returned to his estate in Rioja, Luciano followed him. Like Don Manuel, he noted that the wines of Rioja weren\u2019t quite as good as the wines of Bordeaux. So, he traveled to Bordeaux to learn how the winemakers created such delicious and transportable wine. Unlike Don Manuel, when Luciano returned to Spain, his techniques were greeted with enthusiasm.\r\n\r\n\r\nThe railroad and phylloxera\r\nWhile these innovations improved the longevity of Rioja\u2019s wine, it didn\u2019t make it easier to transport bottles outside the region. This issue was resolved by the completion of a rail system in the mid-19th century. The railroad connected Rioja to two important port cities, Irun and Bilbao, which gave winemakers easier access to important national and international markets.\r\n\r\nThe railway coincided with two other ecological events in the mid-1800s. The first was an outbreak of fungus, called powdery mildew, in the vineyards of Galicia, one of Spain\u2019s other winemaking regions. Powdery mildew weakened the vines it infected and reduced grape harvests, which impacted winemaking. Rioja\u2019s vineyards were largely unaffected, and it began to fill the gaps left by Galicia\u2019s faltering wine production.\r\n\r\nThen, in 1863, the phylloxera epidemic hit France. Many winemakers moved to Rioja. Their expertise contributed to the region\u2019s exploding popularity.\r\n\r\nThe boom lasted until phylloxera arrived in Spain at the end of the 19th century. By then, however, it had been discovered that vines could be protected by grafting them onto American rootstock, which had resistance to the louse. By grafting American vines onto their own, the winemakers of Rioja were able to avoid the devastation that stuck the French wineries.\r\n\r\nBy the early 20th century, Rioja appeared ready to cement itself as one of the world\u2019s premier wine regions.\r\n\r\n\r\nCivil War, World War I, World War II and Rioja\u2019s winemakers\r\nJust when it looked like Rioja\u2019s winemakers could breathe easy, World War I (1914\u20131918) decimated European markets. Then, in 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out and vineyards throughout the country were neglected or destroyed.\r\n\r\nThe war\u2019s end offered little respite. Severe food shortages caused many of the remaining vineyards to be torn up to grow crops.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nSpain\u2019s wine industry didn\u2019t begin to recover until the European markets reopened after World War II (1939\u20131945). And it wasn\u2019t until the 1970 vintage, a legendary one for Rioja, that international consumer interest was reignited in Spanish wines. The death of dictator Francisco Franco five years later helped transition Spain to a democracy with greater economic freedom. Rioja began to recapture its former international prestige.\r\n\r\nIn the late 20th century, Rioja became known for delicious, affordable wines that could be enjoyed shortly after purchase. In 1991, Rioja received Denominaci\u00f3n de Origen Calificada status from Spanish regulators in recognition of the high quality and consistency of its wines. Only Rioja and Priorat, in Catalonia, have received this ranking, which mark them as Spain\u2019s premier wine regions.