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The olive tree

Olive-growing areas

The olive (Olea europaea) is a Mediterranean tree that has been present in the history and landscape of the River Ebro Valley for over two thousand years[1]. The Romans and Arabs protected the trees by perfecting the production techniques that had already been brought to the Iberian Peninsula by the Greeks, Phoenicians and Carthaginians.

The altitude of the current olive-growing areas ranges between the 350 m in the low-lying areas of Navarre to the 700 m in some arable enclaves of Álava. The Mediterranean is over 300 km away. Therefore, the continental transition climate where olives are grown is characterised by great differences in temperatures, low rainfall (500-700 mm a year), many hours of sun, influence of the cierzo (cold and dry wind from the north-northwest) and a short period free of frost. They are grown on lime-rich dark chalky soils. These are the conditions required for this species to grow and they are only exceptionally found in certain areas with microclimates to the north of an imaginary line.

The whole area historically has suffered ups and downs with regard to this crop. Far from being trivial, there was the land consolidation that forced the reorganisation of rustic properties and their uses and the fluctuations in prices of oil and the workforce used to harvest the production, and nowadays, there are the requirements of the European Union regarding the size of the olive groves. The area under cultivation is currently growing moderately thanks to new groves, protected by the designations of origin, to the growing prestige of the Mediterranean diet and the institutional support as olive oil is now considered a commercially competitive product even internationally.

Another important aspect today of growing olives is to do with stewardship of the landscape, wildlife and the environment overall. For centuries, the olive tress has helped to preserve the natural environment with minimum intervention by humans and to maintain farming land by avoiding the damages of erosion.


Historical background

Vines, originally from the Middle East, were brought to Mediterranean countries in ancient times by Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, who introduced them to Hispania. Under the Romans, viticulture spread along the upper and middle valleys of the River Ebro, as can be seen from different depictions of vines on funeral steles, mosaics and ceramics that have survived, along with the many amphorae archaeological remains, which are proof of wine trading existing from earliest times.

In Moreda, the most important wine-growing centre in the south of Álava, several agricultural holdings dating back to the Roman era remain where vines were grown and wine made. In the 10th century, the local residents used that beverage to pay a stipend to the Monastery of San Millán de la Cogolla. There are numerous stone winepresses dating back to the Middle Ages in La Rioja Alavesa in the towns Labastida, Laguardia, Moreda, Villabuena, Leza, etc., in the contact zone with La Rioja Alta where they also abound in Ábalos, San Vicente de la Sonsierra, Rivas de Tereso, etc.. These presses confirm that the wine-making tradition of this territory is centuries old[2]. The growing of vines spread at the same rate as the monasteries, the resettlement of the land after Muslim rule and St. James's Way, which facilitated contact with Navarre, France and the rest of Europe, as well as with Castille.

In the case of Navarre, drinking wine in the symposium ritual was documented in the 1st century B.C., in the protohistoric settlement of La Custodia, formerly known as Vareia under the Berones, in the municipal district of Viana. Wine amphorae, ceramic cups and bronze ladles have appeared in that village. Wine making was documented in Roman times, as can be seen from the archaeological findings of wineries in Liédena, Funes, Falces and Arellano (Villa de las Musas), which are proof of wine trading and exporting along the River Ebro.

In the 19th century, vineyards were at their heyday between 1840 and 1890 given the demand for wine from France, whose vines had been hit by powdery mildew. The area used for growing vines would then begin to shrink with the appearance of that same powdery mildew, which would reach our country later, mildew and, above all, phylloxera. The latter reduced the total surface area of the vineyards in Navarre from 50,000 ha to 700 ha, a surface area that was subsequently occupied partly by cereal and, to a lesser extent, by sugar beet. In the 20th century, the preventive action taken by Navarre Provincial Council, the appearance of rural credit unions and the momentum of the cooperative movement fostered the recovery of vine growing, along with the measures to liberalise the markets and the need to consolidate product supply and demand after Spain joined the European Economic Community. This led to the modernising of Navarre wineries, both the privately-run and cooperative ones (80% of Navarre wine is produced in the latter).

  1. There is a historical summary of olive growing within the area studied in David ALEGRÍA. “Molinos de aceite y trujales antiguos en Navarra y Álava” in Auñamendi Eusko Entziklopedia. (Bernardo Estornés Lasa Collection). Available at: http://www.euskomedia.org/aunamendi/153889/142192.
  2. Rosa Aurora LUEZAS. “Testimonios arqueológicos en torno a la vid y el vino en La Rioja: épocas romana y medieval” in Berceo. Issue 138 (2000) pp. 7-37. Stone winepresses have a simple morphology consists of two circular/almond-shaped or rectangular hollows, known as torcos (reminiscent of the torcularios (oil stores) alongside which the presses appeared in the documents of the Medieval monasteries), a large and shallow one (pileta, pocillo), where the grapes were put to be stomped, and another smaller, but deeper one where the must was collected as it ran off the crushed grapes along a small channel, where presumably a handful of wine shoots would be placed to filter the stems, skins and pips. Excavated holes are sometimes found next to them that may have been press beds (wooden beams or lathes).