Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Some wine cellars!

I’m back on my feet again and finally ready to return to Spain and Rioja wines. Some time ago I lectured about the different subregions of Rioja (here). You may remember that it was the Rioja Alavesa region in the Álava province of the Basque Country that produces the Rioja wines with a fuller body. In retrospect, it’s only natural that our guide on this Riojan trip – a friend who has now lived in Madrid for more than a decade – had booked the first winery visit for our group from the very top of Rioja Alavesa in the village of Elciego. In fact, we started from the very top of the whole realm of wine as the Herederos del Marqués de Riscal is considered one of the most admired wine brands in the world.

There certainly is much to admire. I already told about the above stunning Hotel Marqués de Riscal designed by Frank Gehry, built to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the winery a few years ago (here). We soon learnt that also everything else inside Riscal’s 10-hectare City of Wine is impeccable and state-of-the-art, both innovatively modern and impressively traditional. Even the well-tended plants and gardens as well as the uniform colour scheme of stone and the bright red of Rioja contributed to a feeling of efficiency and consistency.

The visitors were first shown a film outlining the history of the winery, which is the oldest in Rioja. The current Marqués de Riscal Don Francisco Hurtado de Amézaga is the great-grandson of Don Guillermo who founded the winery in 1858. He had studied wine-making in Bordeaux and so he adopted the techniques of the great French winemakers, including aging wine in oak and cutting cellars from stone. Rioja Alavesa wines are well suited for oak barrel aging thanks to their high acidity and good tannin structure, which provides good aging potential. We saw plenty of both oak barrels and vaulted stone cellars when walking the 90-min tour around the premises of the winery.

The timing of our visit, early November, turned out to be rather perfect. This season harvest had been in mid-October so the grapes were already destemmed and sorted but we were able to see some real action in the fermentation hall. Riscal uses a technique in which must is pressed out of the grapes. A few men were busy working on a dozen or so presses in one corner of the hall. It takes four hours to press one tub full of grapes as the process must be gentle to get the juices out of the grapes and grape skins without squeezing a single seed. We were later shown the outcome, a rigid disk or cake of burgundy leftovers that seemed to consist of little more than unbroken grape seeds.

There were more than 70 steel vessels or tanks ‘brewing’ in the huge fermentation hall. If I’ve understood the process correctly the must is kept in these tanks for a few days or a couple of weeks at the most so the workers were probably living the busiest time of the year inside the winery. The processes are monitored from a control cabin just like in any process manufacturing. (There was someone there but he happened to be stretching his legs away from the control desk.)

Next we went down and through a large hall with some oak barrels to another hall with a couple of dozen smaller steel vessels, then to a space with a few freshly filled oak barrels and a huge hall with pile after pile and row after row of oak barrels with young wine, 225 litres (59 US gal) in each.

The guide told that after the initial fermentation and maceration the winemakers will spend days tasting and choosing which wines will become ‘just’ Crianza (aged about one year in oak and one in bottle) and which will become those suitable for laying down for many years, that is Reserva (aged about 2 years in oak and one in bottle) or Gran Reserva (aged about 3 years in oak and a minimum of 3 years in bottle).

The following photos are from the cellar built in the 1880s that has recently been transformed into a highly modern space with two halls of oak vessels for the Reserva wines. This cellar also includes several majestic vaulted passageways with double rows of oak barrels. I was wondering whether they were brought to such a narrow and worker unfriendly spaces just for the visitors and whether the majority of the Reserva barrels were stored in another more modern space, too.

Lastly, we entered the original 1860s cellar and walked through dimly-lit vaulted passageways with more rows and piles of aging oak barrels. So I guess I was wrong about the worker unfriendliness. There we were allowed to have a look at the Cathedral of the winery, a barred cellar with a unique collection of wines from every vintage since the very beginning of the bodega. An impressive place, almost solemn. It was easy to understand why they had decided to term it cathedral and not cemetery like some wineries reportedly call their vintage cellar.

To top it all, some wine tasting followed but no photos about that. I was so shy I kept my camera in my pocket. Well, the tasting room at the far end of the wine shop behind the café was rather crowded as there were two groups of some 20 people each that had been attending the visit at the same time but with a guide of their own. It would have been impossible to shoot anything without including a number of strangers, which I wanted to avoid. And yes, the two wines tasted were excellent.

All in all, I highly recommend a visit to Marqués de Riscal’s magnificent winery if you ever travel to Rioja. It will be €10 very well spent. Advance booking is necessary but I noticed they have launched online booking on their website. In addition to Spanish, the tour can be given in English, French, German, Italian or Russian.

I know, this post became a tough one after all because everything was new to me. The other visits were to smaller wineries and thus I will have much less to report, I promise.

Some final facts about Marqués de Riscal:

·         One of the largest bodegas in Rioja currently controlling some 2,000ha (about 4,950ac) of vineyards, 1/4 of which are owned by the winery and 3/4 contracted from Elciego and neighbouring villages.

·         In the early 1970s, they added a white wine to their selection. It is produced in the Rueda region of Castilla y Léon out of 200ha (about 495ac) of their own vineyards and 250ha (about 620ac) of contracted vineyards.

·         Other Rioja brands owned by the company include Barón de Chirel and Marqués de Arienza. The bottle with the blue label in the above photo is Riscal 1860 Roble produced in the Duero region of Castilla y Léon.

·         Currently produces 12M bottles of wine annually, of which 60% is exported to more than 100 countries.

The village of Elciego seen from a square inside the City of Wine.


  1. Tässäpä oli taas silmäniloa ja pohdittavaa kerrakseen, mahdottomia kellareita ja systeemeitä. Mielenkiintoista.

    1. Mielenkiintoinen ja mieliinpainuva vierailu tosiaan. Puolitoista tuntia meni siivillä, kun kellarista kellariin siirryttiin pitkin noita "viinikaupungin" maisemia, joita niitäkin piti ihailla.