At Rioja wine cellar I found and impressive contrast between classic and modern
One can say it was thanks to the French that Rioja became a wine region. After the phylloxera epidemic – a plague that destroyed most vineyards for wine in Europe in the 19th century – Bordeaux producers went looking for a place that had escaped and where the terroir was similar to their hometown.
Rioja is located shortly south of the Basque Country and the red variety Tempranillo rules. The region is delimited by the Cantábria Sierra and the Ebro River, which ensure a well-balanced development of the grapevines every year. The white variety Viura is popular as well but what I recall the most are the full-bodied reds, very flavourful, with an ever present wood note.
I already knew Rioja was famous for cellar design by renowned architects but I discovered much more: I found a refined contrast between old and new and a growing history!
The winery El Fabulista, or ‘the story teller’, is one of the few underground cellars currently in the small Laguardia with long tunnels spreading below ground level. Owing to the special features of such a space, produce is lower than most wineries in the region. On the other hand, they make the most out of old winemaking techniques and knowledgeable hands are required in pretty much every stage. To make it even more special, the bottles are labelled with colourful depictions of the different fables.
Another cellar very much in tune with tradition that bypasses modern technology is Viña Tondonia. The winemaking and ageing methods used are the same used by its founder Lopez de Heredia back in 1877.
They call themselves romantics and believe this is how to bring the best out of the wine – they’re not mistaken! The cellar é naturally cool and the casks rest in underground tunnels – dark, cold and damp as they should. All casks are made and refurbished in the on-site cooperage, a fascinating place that smells of toasted wood and where master coopers are at work daily.
Marqués de Riscal is also one of the oldest cellars in Rioja. It was founded in 1858 and the original buildings are well kept. In 2007 Frank Gehry’s hotel came to clash dramatically with the esprit of previous generations with its extravagant, colourful and metallic flair – the exact opposite of the neighbouring medieval towns! It was also Marqués de Riscal that made use of golden mesh to cover their premium bottles, as a way to avoid counterfeiting, at the time a serious concern among producers.
Another example of historic elegance is Marqués de Murrieta, which takes pride in being the first cellar to ever set in Rioja in 1852. It was a very special and custom made tour. In a small group, I visited the vineyard and learned about the terroir, the most popular grape varieties and the different methods and designs for grapevine growth. We also checked the ageing room and cellar, which stores all the wine since the first harvest. Instead of the usual mouldy and damp halls, I found modern facilities, with elegant lighting under the barrels, paintings and beautiful events rooms.
Though the century-old cellars are enchanting, the Baigorri cellar is as surprising, even if for the opposite reason! It dates from the 19 th century and uses the most advanced technology in winemaking. We got to the first floor and made our way down to level -7, passing all winemaking stages and areas and ending in the barrels room and restaurant. The tasting room enjoys a clear and wide view of the vineyard and the white 2013 and red Crianza 2012 came with some exquisite pintxos which enhanced their features.
A trip to Rioja would not be complete without a visit to one of the most important wine museums in the world – Museo Vivanco de la Cultura del Vino. It comprises six floors devoted to the history of wine and Vitis Vinifera (the most popular vine in Europe), winemaking methods throughout the centuries, cooperage and an extensive collection of some unexpected and very original bottle openers!
Before leaving, because Rioja has so much more to offer than would fit in this post, I’d like to recommend all wine and travel lovers to go and visit the region and as many cellars as possible, to spend the night in lovely medieval Laguardia and not to leave without trying chuletillas al sarmiento – mutton chops roasted in vine wood! Convinced already? 😉