The unique characteristics of Valdepeñas wines are rooted in the region’s winemaking tradition and history, which date back several centuries before Common Era.
History of winegrowing in Spain
The type of vines that are used to make wine today are a direct descendent of the VITIS VINIFERA, from the Vitaceae family. They have been grown throughout the centuries, since the times when history blurs into myth.
These vines are known to have existed in Babylonia and were grown by the first Pharaohs of Egypt.
However, it was the Greeks and the Phoenicians who developed viticulture in a more systematic manner and introduced it across their colonies.
These two cultures are the main primary sources of knowledge and the subsequent evolution of winegrowing in the West. This development was especially significant in Mediterranean countries such as Spain, France and Italy.
According to archaeological discoveries, we can say with considerable certainty that viticulture has been thriving on the Iberian Peninsula for nearly 3,000 years. However, according to studies, the bulk of the findings relating to the Greek and Phoenician factories that were set along the Mediterranean Coast, even reaching Cadiz on the Atlantic, come from the period 1,100 to 400 BC. Then, in the 3rd century BC, when the Carthaginians conquered the Mediterranean coastline, setting up camp in Saguntum and Cartagena, they discovered a flourishing wine trade.
We know very little about the first inhabitants of the Valdepeñas region; they must have appeared at some point during the quaternary period, as this is the fourth of the great divisions of the planet’s geographical history and the period in which human beings first appeared.
The first piece of evidence points to the Iberian world. Regardless of what it was called, the history of the area known today as Valdepeñas dates back to the 8th – 7th century BC, to a settlement known as Cerro de las Cabezas, located 7 km to the south of the current town. This hill is home to the most important Iberian settlement in Castile-La Mancha, which gives an idea of the importance of the region all those centuries ago.
Therefore, it is not unreasonable to suggest that 800 years before Christ, winegrowing already existed in Valdepeñas, or at the very least there was already a knowledge of wine, spreading across the Mediterranean basin from the first people to invade this area.
We know that grapevines arrived on the Peninsula between 1,100 and 800 BC with the Greeks and Phoenicians who settled on the Mediterranean Coast; and that the iberianization of La Mancha occurred with the arrival of Mediterranean influences and their acceptance by the indigenous population. We also know that Iberian settlements were usually established next to flowing water, with the Jabalón River at the foot of the hill serving as the water source for the Valdepeñas settlement, confirming a significant dependence on agriculture, including grapevines. This corroborates the words of Hubrecht Duijker, whose Wine Atlas of Spain claims that when the Carthaginians arrived on the Mediterranean coast in the 3rd century BC, they were met by a flourish wine trade on the Peninsula.
The geographical area that forms the current province of Ciudad Real, in which Valdepeñas is located, was occupied in Pre-Roman times by Oretani and Carpetani tribes, who were the first inhabitants of the modern region of Valdepeñas. The existence of these ancient tribes is well documented by multiple Greco-Romano and Latin sources.
The region and its inhabitants are referred by Strabo, a Greek geographer from the 1st century BC, born in Amaseia, (Asia Minor); Ptolemy, Greek mathematician, astronomer and geographer, refers to the Oretani as Opnravol; and so on and so forth with Pliny, Polybius, Livius, etc. The most complete list of Oretani cities is provided by Ptolemy, in the mid-2nd Century AD, in his work “Geography”, which references Miróbriga, located at 9º, 30’ / 39°, 30’, which is also mentioned in the list of cities grouped together to form modern-day Valdepeñas in 1243. Another name mentioned by the Greek writer is Lupparia, which is thought to be the closest city to modern-day Valdepeñas, as cited by Titus Livius. Curiously, these authors do not mention the settlement of Acinippo, yet there is strong evidence to suggest that a city existed with this name. In 1748, during some repairs at the San Nicasio chapel (in modern-day Valdepeñas), which was home to the Order of the Barefoot Trinitarians and still stands in the city today, a Roman grave was discovered. According to the translator Aemilius Hubner, the word “acinippo” appeared on the gravestone, corresponding to the name Lucio Acinippo, whose coat of arms bore a bunch of grapes flanked by two ears of corn, representing the two most important crops in the area. What is more, etymologically speaking, “Acinippo” comes from the Greek word “acinius”, meaning grape seed.
Further evidence from the Roman period includes the discovery in Alhambra, one of the municipalities of the current Denominación de Origen Valdepeñas, of a votive inscription to the Roman god Mercury, who was the divine protector of merchants and artisans. In addition, numerous Roman roads from Toledo to Cordoba cross the province of Ciudad Real, and other alternative routes cross the Jabalón River, positioning us at the time as a budding trade centre.
Given the Romans’ love of wine and winegrowing, combined with the evidence listed above (the road system, a gravestone with the name acinippo, the coat of arms bearing a bunch of grapes, the worship of the god of trade), it would not be unreasonable to argue that Valdepeñas was the birthplace of winegrowing in Castile-La Mancha.
The Romans brought with them important technical improvements and the rationalisation of economic resources. This period gave us the plough and large ceramic vats (tinaja or orcae) that improved grain and vine cultivation, and developments in the way that grapes were processed, as the Romans fermented their wine.
From a political perspective, the reign of Euric marked the beginnings of Visigoth control over Ciudad Real, and therefore the Valdepeñas region. Given its geographical location, the region served as a valuable natural gateway between the north and south.
The region saw a great deal of fighting after Liuvigild launched his southern campaigns: including the Cordoba campaign in 572 and Orespeda in 577 (in the Cazorla mountain range), marking the consolidation of Visigoth rule. The subsequent rebellion led by Hermenegild in Seville, and the inevitable civil war that followed, highlighted yet again the tragic military value of this region, with the resulting devastation of local agriculture and trade. It is safe to assume that the survival of agriculture in this period, as in times to come, was down to the hardiness of our grapevines, being much harder to destroy than other crops.
In addition to the impact of these wars, natural disasters were a constant concern in the Visigothic period, especially in the farming and livestock sectors, which were permanently threatened by plagues of locusts.
These plagues were well documented by literary sources.
In his Historia Francorum, dated 584, Gregory of Tours mentions that a plague had spread across Carpetani five years ago, affecting the neighbouring provinces and even reaching southern parts of Castile-La Mancha (where Valdepeñas is located). He laments that there was no: vine, tree, fruit or herb that had not been devoured by the insects. Once again, grapevines and therefore wine is explicitly linked to the region.
The collapse of the Visigothic Kingdom in 711 was more down to internal decline that the actual invasion of the Moors. This decline meant that from the Battle of Guadalete onwards, Tarik’s troops heading north from Cazorla would pass through the current province of Ciudad Real. This situation continued until the 11-12th century, when internal fighting in the Moorish Kingdom and the lengthy Reconquista converted the Valdepeñas region into no-man’s land, with near-constant attacks that destroyed lives, livelihoods and land.
There are a number of sociological and cultural phenomena that help explain the survival of winegrowing in the Valdepeñas region during the Moorish occupation, despite the strictness of the Koran with regard to wine.
The only historical reference in the numerous records from the time, which remains uncorroborated, claims that the Caliphate of Toledo issued a special bull permitting this winemaking region to produce wine.
This information is highly suspect (turning a blind eye and official ratification are quite different), although it is based on reasonable grounds.
There is evidence that the Moors allowed the natives to continue with their agricultural activities. What is more, grapevines were a crop that could be abandoned and then revived at a later time. This would become absolutely essential to maintaining the local economy given the frequent attacks from one side or another.
These attacks would leave the countryside abandoned or deserted due to the battles that were waged here.
In other cases, a scorched earth policy was employed to impoverish the area and ensure that nothing could survive.
In these cases, grapevines proved more resistant than seeded crops. It is important to remember that the Moors also gave us many traditional recipes from their own culture and others that were developed in Spain.
For example, escabeche, a dish of marinated fish or meat cooked in vinegar (also a Moorish invention), which as we know, is made from the acetic fermentation of wine. In any case, Atilano Martínez Tomé provides solid proof of the Moors turning a blind eye to vineyards in the area, stating that:
The cultivation of grapevines (in the Moorish period) continued in the south despite the teachings of the Koran, which were practically ignored by the powerful followers of Mohammed in Al-Andalus. The refinement of the upper echelons of Hispanic-Moorish society led to an increased indulgence of the finer things in life. The historian García de Valdeavellano confirms the libertine lifestyle of the upper classes: meals were lavishly seasoned with honey and raisins, served with copious amounts of oil and followed by sweets and cheese; wine was consumed in ceramic cups or in crystal or glass beakers.
The conquest of the Valdepeñas region was part of the huge Hispanic-Christian offensive of the 11th-13th centuries (known as the Reconquista) and can be pinpointed to 1212, with the victory of Alfonso VIII at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.
From this date onwards, modern-day Valdepeñas begins to take shape and we see more and more documents referring to the region’s wines and vineyards. Thanks to this documentation, we know that what would become the comarca of Campo de Calatrava, was previously owned by the Knights Templar.
This is a very interesting point as wherever the Knights Templar founded a monastery or a defensive post on their travels across Spain, winegrowing either emerged or intensified. This is because despite their vow of absolute silence and strict abstinence from meat, fish, etc.; the Trappist monks never dined without a bottle of wine on the table, following the biblical thinking that wine signified abundance and favour from God.
When the Templars appeared in the region of Valdepeñas, they introduced the mouldboard plough drawn by horses rather than oxen, soil fertiliser and the rationalisation of vine cultivation. As such, winegrowing in Valdepeñas today has its more modern roots in the history of these famous Knights.
The Templars arrived in 1150, when Alfonso VII granted them large quantities of land in La Mancha, establishing in the transfer documents a toll on the vineyards and landed estates of a fifth of all wine and bread produced in the region.
From this time onwards, we start to see connections between vineyards in Valdepeñas and Burgundy, as highlighted by various writers including Raymond Dumay in his book La mort du vin, in which the author retraces the journey of the monk Raimond de Citeaua, founder of the Order of Calatrava in Spain.
The route starts at the Vougeot Abbey in Burgundy and passes through Haute-Loire, Bergerac, Navarre, Rioja, Valbuena del Duero, Calatrava and Valdepeñas.
These events bring us up to the 13th century, to the year 1243, when Berengaria of Castile grouped several nearby settlements together into a single town known as Valdepeñas, which means valley of rocks.
This decision was fuelled by one of the many quarrels between the Queen of Castile and Leon and the nobility and military orders, who disputed her claim to the throne upon the death of her brother Henry I, until she abdicated in favour of her son Fernando III, known as the Saint.
From the 13th century onwards, there is an increasing number of references and accounts of the vineyards in Valdepeñas and the surrounding area. Also in this century, we see chronicles recording failed harvests due to frost, draught, hail, etc. In addition, winegrowing begins to take precedence over cereal crops, which is why the Valdepeñas region is not home to the windmills that are so characteristic of the La Mancha countryside. Winegrowing requires more effort and more work in the form of digging, turning and pruning. The harvest is also costly and the transformation of grapes into wine requires a certain expertise. However, in return for all this, winemaking offers the advantage of a regular product and easy sale of surplus production, as explained by Francisco Ruiz Gómez*. Ricardo Izquierdo Benito* whose study La explotación del territorio y la distribución de la renta feudal en la provincia de C. Real, documents: The special importance of winegrowing throughout the Middle Ages. There was possibly already a certain tradition in place, but at the end of the
13th century, the emergence of vineyards intensified, which were often protected with fences, coinciding with the re-population of the area. This expansion occurred in parallel to a growing demand for wine, largely due to increased consumption in urban centres.
This explains the growing expansion of vineyards—measured in aranzadas, with around 400 vines per aranzada—…/… The need to boost local wine production led to the emergence of a type of protectionism that sought to block other wines from entering the region. Likewise, many municipal charters stipulated that all re-populating inhabitants had to plant a specific number of grapevines to be exempt from certain taxes. This explains the large number of wine cellars, presses and casks found on many agricultural estates. The importance of winegrowing in Campo de Calatrava is highlighted in numerous documents, such as the income received by the Order in the 15th century from its encomiendas, which came to 137,000 maravedíes in 1493 from the Valdepeñas encomienda. This income was raised through alcabalas (10% sales tax) and tercias (two ninths of the Church tithe on agricultural production).
The Order of Calatrava received various types of income, and winegrowing is mentioned in them all. This income could be territorial from the lease of cereals, irrigation, olive groves, vineyards…; feudal (in recognition of the estate): food, accommodation, ovens, the right to the early sale of wine, etc., tithes: on bread or cereals, beans, wine, etc. and many other fiscal charges.
Over the course of the 16th century, winemaking in Valdepeñas saw steady consolidation and growth. The Valdepeñas wines, which were already known to the Hapsburg court, started to be sold in Madrid, after it was named the capital city of Spain by Philip II in 1561. In 1594, a record attributed to the Trinitarians sings the praises of Valdepeñas wine.
The economic problems that had caused Charles III so many headaches were also an issue for Philip II. As such, the king found that he needed to sell Valdepeñas to the Marquis of Santa Cruz, don Alvaro de Bazán. To proceed with the sale, he issued a royal decree on 21 May 1582 proclaiming that Valdepeñas no longer belonged to the Order of Calatrava. And on 22 April 1585, it was sold to don Alvaro de Bazán for 104,895 reales and 8 maravedíes.
Since the Reconquista, the region was predominantly a cereal-growing area and the presence of grapevines in Valdepeñas and the surrounding area as an alternative crop was an exception that would later extended to the rest of the region.
In Valdepeñas, vineyards represented 20% and were developed as a monoculture from the 18th century onwards. J. López Salazar suggests that vineyards were highly influential in the privatisation of land for regional use, due to the long-lasting nature of the vines. With the cutting back of farming land in the 17th century, the barren lands or fields sown sporadically produced good wines and healthy returns, and with the growing demand from Madrid, various councils encouraged the abandonment of bothersome livestock obligations. Grapevines became a key element of farming economies and brought security, as they did not need annual sowing or a large number of workers, the work on the vines could be done in sections, they gave a yearly harvest and did not depend so much on the weather. During these years, the foundations were set for the subsequent surge in development.
The economic boom during these years in Valdepeñas, thanks to its wines, is very well documented. Sources include writers travelling through the area (as discussed in greater depth in another chapter), records of economic transactions like those from 1625 when Philip IV issued a Royal Provision for the Knight Commander of the Clavería Palace to pay the sacred convent of Calatrava 1,200 arrobas of Miguelturra wine. Since if he did not, he would have to pay with Valdepeñas wine.
In 1790, the Mayor of Valdepeñas, don Antonio Mesías de la Puerta, recorded annual production of 200,000 arrobas of wine.
Charles III, also the best mayor of Madrid, used the alcabalas (a royal sales tax) on wine to develop the capital.
Indeed, thanks to the booming sales of Valdepeñas wine in Madrid, sections of the gates of Alcalá and Toledo were paid for by these wines. The quality of the Valdepeñas wines in this period can be summed up in a single anecdote collected by Richard Ford in his book Gathering from Spain:
The best vineyards and bodegas or cellars are those which did belong to Don Carlos, and those which do belong to the Marques de Santa Cruz.
One anecdote will do the work of pages in setting forth the habitual indifference of Spaniards, and the way things are managed for them. This very nobleman, who certainly was one of the most distinguished among the grandees in rank and talent, was dining one day with a foreign ambassador at Madrid, who was a decided admirer of Valdepeñas, as all judicious men must be, and who took great pains to procure it quite pure by sending down trusty persons and sound casks. The Marques at the first glass exclaimed,
“What capital wine! Where do you manage to buy it in Madrid?” ” I send for it,” was the reply, ” to your administrator at Valdepeñas and shall be very happy to get you some”.
The 19th century marks the beginning of the real golden age of Valdepeñas and its industrial development, due to a number of events that occurred in this century.
In the world of politics, several historic and highly prestigious events took place in Valdepeñas. On 06 June 1808, the people of Valdepeñas stopped the French troops, on their way to Bailen, from passing through the city. The troops, led by general Ligier, failed to break through the defensive and were forced to detour around the town. The delay caused by the hold-up at Valdepeñas, together with other factors, gave general Castaños enough time to regroup the Spanish army and to go on to win the Battle of Bailen, setting in motion the expulsion of Napoleon’s troops in Spain.
By the mid-19th century, winegrowing had become a monoculture, forming the backbone of the economy.
This coincided with a scarcity of French wine, which at the time was crippled by a plague of phylloxera that devastated vineyards across France. As a result, there was a surge in demand for wine from other countries, including Spain, with a knock-on effect on production in Valdepeñas.
This increased demand for wine led to the industrialisation of the sector. In fact, winemaking was the most developed industry in the province of Ciudad Real in the 19th century, with the majority of production destined for export, including not only wine but also alcohol. As such, it was the winemaking sector that ushered Valdepeñas into the world of industrialisation, trade and capital.
The crowning glory of the century came with the arrival of the railway in 1861. By that stage, the wine market had become so important that a special wine train was commissioned, with daily departures from Valdepeñas to Madrid, with over 25 carriages of double-level rolling platforms loaded with over 100 skins of wine.
Another rail line was created for provincial connections, facilitating the transport of wine to the ports of Alicante and Valencia, where Valdepeñas wines were exported to the Philippines, Cuba and all over Central America.
This boom in commerce brought with it the creation of important bodegas close to the railway, some of which are still active today.
The most important bodega of the period was established at this time:
Luis Palacios, which came to send 2,500 skins to Madrid every day; and Bodegas Bilbaínas, which had a private railway line from its loading area straight to the station. Another important bodega was that of Tomás López Tello, whose wines were highly praised by the writer Joaquín Belda in 1929, together with the white wine from the San Ramón vineyard and the Canalejas cognac.
In summary, the 19th century lay the foundations for Valdepeñas to begin its rise to fame, after many centuries preparing for this assent. Yet in a cruel twist of fate, the 20th century dealt an enormous blow to the region: not just due to the social upheaval that shook the century, in which Valdepeñas was heavily involved, but also due to a plague of phylloxera.
Phylloxera reached Valdepeñas in 1900; interestingly, the summer heat of the Meseta Central dramatically slowed the progress of this blight, which had appeared in other parts of Europe 30 years before. Damaged areas were immediately replanted with American vines, which were immune to these insects. But a devastating number of vines were still lost. Nevertheless, making the most of the surge in activity brought about by the new plantations, Valdepeñas wine was officially recognised as a unique category of wine and began to appear in taverns across Madrid.
The phylloxera crisis raised awareness across the sector and led to important technological and scientific developments. As such, given the reputation of its wines, the Ministry of Public Works created the first Oenology Station and Field of Experimentation in Valdepeñas. Then, in 1925, under the presidency of the Marquis of Casa Treviño, the Regional Foundation of Winemakers was created. In addition to this, and to protect and promote Valdepeñas wines, a winemakers’ trade association known as the Círculo Mercantil Vitivinícola was formed in 1928. Thanks to the work of this association, on 01 May 1930, the Regional Winemaking Board set up its headquarters in Valdepeñas and, although the current Denominación de Origen classification came later, the first Wine Statute, dated 1932, already recognised the Denominación de Origen Valdepeñas.