Thu 31 Dec 2015

Rioja Harvest 2015: Sights and Sounds

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Read part one here, which includes news from Viña Amézola and Bodegas Palacio.

Laguardía at sunset with the granite slopes of the Cantabrian mountains behind - the point at which the Alevasa vineyards stop

Laguardía at sunset with the granite slopes of the Cantabrian mountains behind – the point at which the Alevasa vineyards stop

While they are used to dramatic temperature differences in Rioja, such heat as we experienced during our visit in October was not usual.

How had this affected the vintage?
You might assume that the winemakers we visited would be ecstatic about an early vintage of ripe healthy grapes. Yes, it’s fair to say that there were plenty of smiles on faces – but these are wines that are crafted for the long haul and the winemaking men and women behind them are a pragmatic lot… and these were early days.

María José of López de Heredía told us, ‘we don’t like to judge our harvest straight away. Our grandmother told us you must always wait until after the second fermentation’ (that is the malolactic fermentation – you can read more about that in our series of winemaking articles.)

The general feeling is pretty positive though: the summer was continuously hot and dry and the tempranillo grape – the main constituent of Rioja – was picked in good health and full ripeness. Small grapes (the result of evaporation caused by the heat) may result in lower quantities, however.

María said that having a mix of grapes gives Rioja producers a distinct advantage and that in 2015 at López de Heredía they will reduce the amount of garnacha they use (a variety that tends towards high alcohol levels) and will increase the amount of graciano and mazuelo, two grapes that give highish acidity to the wine. In the face of a changing climate these grapes might become more important, she suggested.

The railway quarter in Haro
López de Heredía, together with La Rioja Alta, Muga and several other well-known names, are all in Haro’s historic railway station quarter. Here the harvest was still in full flow, with tractors trundling in and out of their impossibly picturesque wineries.

The view from Haro town of the historic railway station quarter, where so many famous bodegas are based in a tiny area

The view from Haro town of the historic railway station quarter, where so many famous bodegas are based in a tiny area

Of all of these, López de Heredía’s is the most surreally romantic.

López de Heredía

López de Heredía

López de Heredía

Grapes are brought in to the winery in poplar wood crates in the way that they have been for centuries. The technique hasn’t been retained for any reasons of sentimentality; María tells us that they have discovered that the unusual shape of the crates and the poplar wood from which they are made are ideal for their wines. ‘The wood harbours the indigenous yeasts that we want for fermentation. We have experimented with other methods over the year, but we have come to realise that our predecessors knew what they were doing!’

Across the road at Bodegas Muga, we were treated to the full spectacle of the harvest being brought in. Trucks were unloading and grapes weighed and analysed (15% of grapes come from a network of small family growers as was traditional in Rioja); an optical sorting machine ensured only the best berries made it through to be made into wine, and the barrels were being made and toasted to just the right levels in Muga’s own cooperage. Muga is one of the few wineries in the world whose barrels and casks are made by their own coopers.

La Rioja Alta – ageing the wine and the effects of climate change
The other bodega we visited in the station quarter was La Rioja Alta – home of our Exhibition Rioja Reserva. Here, too we were treated to a tour of the cellars but the wines are not made here (fermentation, bottling and labelling all now takes place at Labastida a new winery some five minutes away).

José Féliz racking our Exhibition Reserva Rioja

José Féliz racking our Exhibition Reserva Rioja

So no sights and sounds of vintage here, just the row upon row of barrels gently ageing and La Rioja Alta’s classically styled reservas and gran reservas are given considerable ageing and are only released when fully ready. For example, the gran reservas are aged for on average 11 years (the minimum is five) – five or six years in barrel and at least five in bottle.

What sets the wines apart from other traditional producers and the reason we chose them for our Exhibition wine is that their wines still retain vigour and feel alive. This is attributed partly to the skilled job of racking the wine (moving it from one barrel to the next to remove sediment and clean the barrel). At La Rioja Alta this is done traditionally and it is only after five years’ training that a new cellar hand will be allowed to do this skilled job on their own.

The rackers get to know their barrels intimately and notice when things aren’t quite right. Interestingly our guide told us that they usually rack every six months but climate change is having an effect on this part of the winemaking process too. They are starting to notice as humidity levels have dropped slightly the wine is maturing more quickly, the pores in the wood presumably widening ever so slightly. Now they check the barrels more often and top up the barrels every month.

Brave new world at Viña Real
On our last day in the region and in complete contrast to the wonderful historic cobwebby cellars of López de Heredia, we found ourselves witnessing state-of-the-art winemaking in Viña Real’s purpose-built winery dug into the hillside in the Rioja Alavesa. Designed by Bordeaux’s Philippe Mazières, the architecture is as stunning as it is practical, the winery looking like a vast barrel on top of the hillside.

Viña Rea

The operation is vast here and highly ergonomic. Tunnels carved out of the hillside were built by the same company that constructed the underground system in Bilbão and took three years to make and were a considerable investment for the company. 25 thousand barrels and three million bottles are housed here, but only nine people are employed.

But the most impressive aspect of this circular bodega is the vat room where the design allows for the vast fermentation vats to be filled automatically using a robotic crane. Gravity alone is used to move the grapes and juice around the bodega avoiding the need for any pumping which has a negative effect on quality.

Grapes for Viña Real wines are hand-harvested then sorted by both a visual inspection and automated hoppers before falling into mini stainless-steel vats which are then slowly hoisted by a crane and moved around the circular fermentation hall by a huge electronic arm. We were lucky enough to see this in action.

You can watch the process in this short but noisy video!

Joanna Goodman
News Editor

• If you’re interested in buying wines from the Rioja region, including those from some of the bodegas mentioned above, visit our website.

• There’s more on the effects of climate change and its influence (or not) on rising alcohol levels in wine in our article by Caroline Gilby MW here.

Categories : Spain

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