Certain wines are instantly recognizable by their bottle. A tall narrow bottle is a pretty good indication that you’re getting a Riesling and a Rosé bottle with hourglass curves is more than likely a product of Provence. Wines from Rioja can be distinguished by the gold wire netting they come wrapped in. The question is, is that wire a style choice or a does it serve a real purpose?
The answer is both yes and no. Currently it’s more a stylistic choice to indicate the wine comes from a winery (or bodega, to use the Spanish terminology) in Rioja. However, the practice was initially started as an anti-counterfeiting measure. In 1858, Camilo Hurtado de Amézaga y Balmaseda, Marques de Riscal founded what is now one of the oldest bodegas in Rioja on his properties in Elciego and Torrea. He named it after his title “Marques de Riscal” – which is a Spanish noble title created by King Felipe V in 1708. Camilo had studied oenology in Paris and Bordeaux and in an effort to modernize and industrialize Spanish winemaking, he adopted many French winemaking techniques, including the practice of aging his wines in French oak barrels. Wines from the Marques de Riscal bodega exploded in popularity, which meant that it wasn’t too long before some enterprising thieves created their own business of selling false Riscals. They would take empty bottles of Marques de Riscal and similarly prestigious wines from other Rioja wineries, fill them with cheap table wine, recork them, and sell them to an unsuspecting public. In order to stop this, Marques de Riscal took to wrapping their bottles in the wire mesh. The labels were affixed to the mesh instead of the bottle. The bottles couldn’t be opened without damaging the mesh and thus damaging the label, which helped to determine the counterfeit bottles. If you had a bottle with an intact label, the wine was the real deal, whereas anybody selling bottles with damaged labels was instantly recognizable as a swindler with cheap wine. The other top winemakers of Rioja quickly adopted the same practice, which led to the mesh becoming an indicator of quality in and of itself.
Spain began instituting regulatory classification systems during the early 1900’s which decreased the need for such intense anti-counterfeiting measures. The mesh cages at that point were so entrenched in the visual identity of top quality Rioja wines, however, that the vintners continued to use them anyway. The practice has become less common with modern Riojas, but it still makes for a great story!