Wed 30 Dec 2015

Rioja Harvest 2015: In The Thick of It

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2015 was the earliest vintage on record in Rioja and inadvertently we were there to capture some of the hustle and bustle of harvest time.

On a recent study tour of Rioja, timed to take place just before the vintage, we found ourselves instead, right in the middle of the harvest – the earliest on record and three weeks earlier than usual.

Grapes in transit (not to one of our bodegas!)

Grapes in transit (not to one of our bodegas!)

Harvest is usually the busiest time of year for wineries and not the best time to visit, generally. But it is an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good and for us it was a fantastic opportunity to see for ourselves what actually happens when the grapes come in.

Visit a winery at just about any other time of the year and you’ll be struck by how empty it is. You’ll be lucky if you see another person as you are shown around vast echo-y galleries with serried ranks of tanks and barrels, perhaps with a bit of pumping over or racking going on if you’re lucky. It always makes me think that being a winemaker must be quite a lonely profession!

But seeing a winery in full flood (as it were) is to see it in its true colours, in full operational mode. All those things you’ve heard about or read in textbooks are happening before your eyes, and the wonderful thing about Rioja in particular, is there is such as contrast between the old, highly traditional and the bright, shiny new.

Tempranillo grapes arriving in good health at Amézola

Tempranillo grapes arriving in good health at Amézola

The whole region is in action and it’s quite exciting. In Rioja grapes are quite often brought some distances to the wineries and the roads are busy with tractors and trailors trundling back and forth with their load of grapes. Special road signs are put out to warn motorists of slow-moving grape carriers.

Extreme weather
At Viña Amézola, sisters Cristina and María said that normally they would start harvesting around 6th October. This year, they had pretty much finished by 1st October; the last of the grapes were coming in while we were there (theirs is only one of three bodegas in Rioja who don’t buy in any grapes) and Amézola were breathing a sigh of relief. Just up the road, some bodegas had lost their entire crop, and even the vines themselves, the result of freak, highly localised hail storms in August.

Tasting the new wine
Arriving at the bodega when we did provided another unforeseen opportunity – the chance to taste wine straight from vat just before fermentation had started (when the grape juice is referred to as ‘must’ and still tastes sweet), at a day old and then at two days old. It was fascinating to taste the work of the yeast on the juice in progress.

Tasting the new wine from the 2015 vintage at Viña Amézola

Tasting the new wine from the 2015 vintage at Viña Amézola

During our winery visits, we couldn’t help but remark upon the bundles of sticks that were often seen amongst the vats of fermenting wine. Apparently these are placed into the vats as a way of filtering the wine. Fresh reeds are harvested each year and from specific plots of trees; a traditional method that I for one had not come across anywhere else.

Bunches of reeds used to help filter the wine

Bunches of reeds used to help filter the wine

Bodegas Palacio, home of The Society’s Rioja Crianza, had already finished picking bringing everything in (from some 500 different plots) in a record 10 days. Every single vat in its vast cellar was full. Winemaker Roberto Rodriguez looked pretty exhausted when we arrived at the bodega on the outskirts of picture-postcard perfect Laguardía at early evening.

Feel the fermentation! The dense CO2-laden air and hum of the ventilating fans made the process of fermentation palpable.

Feel the fermentation! The dense CO2-laden air and hum of the ventilating fans made the process of fermentation palpable.

Opening up the enormous gates of the winery we were hit by a new sensation… enormous fans, resembling those you see on jumbo jets, were circulating the CO2-laden air. The noise and the lack of oxygen were quite overpowering. Roberto was anxious to check that we were all ok and that nobody had asthma – it is not unusual for people to suffocate in wineries and removing the CO2 safely is a challenge in the winemaking process.

Feeling a little light headed, we were taken to Roberto’s control centre. Looking like something out of a James Bond film, the array of dials and computer screens enable Roberto to monitor what is happening in every single vat, from temperature control to alcohol levels, wine densities, pumping over, micro-oxygenation etc. It makes it sound simple, as though with the press of a button all can be viewed and controlled, but clearly, there’s a lot more to it than that!

…back to talk of the weather
The medieval hill-top town of Laguardía is in the Rioja Alavesa region which produces grapes that according to Roberto are ‘the soul of Rioja.’ From the town you can look out over the surrounding vineyards and appreciate why this might be so. South-facing and protected by the Cantabrian mountain range, the unique soils and cool nights all contribute to producing grapes with finesse and crucially, the vital acidity that’s required to allow Rioja to age.

We were all too aware of this large diurnal temperature variation. In the day the temperature had got up to 28°C, now that the sun had gone down and we were taking an evening stroll around Laguardía we were all freezing.

These are just the conditions that the tempranillo grape loves.

Joanna Goodman
News Editor

Read part 2 here, including reports from López de Heredía, Muga, La Rioja Alta and Viña Real.

• 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

Comments

  1. ejh says:

    Rioja Alavesa is a comarca: not really a “region” in the sense that we’d use that term.

  2. Helen Murtagh says:

    Great writing Jo and very enjoyable to read. Look forward to the follow-up articles.

  3. Martin Calway says:

    Jo,
    As stated before a very enjoyable read. It brings back lovely memories when we toured the Rioja region a couple of years ago staying for a couple of in the lovely LaGuardia.

    Let’s hope the partially lost harvest caused by the hail storm doesn’t effect the quality and the price for this vintage.

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