The sun drenched vineyards of Rioja
Visiting a vineyard in the Spanish countryside is easier than one might think...
I think I'm a city girl, until I find myself in somewhere like Rioja.
Looking out over a sun-drenched vineyard, glass of red in hand, paella simmering away behind me, it's hard not to reconsider. Arriving in Logroño, visions of dusty old wooden porches and scenes from Zorro were hastily quashed by the urban hotel we stayed in. Not a problem – just not what I dreamed up on the hour and a half trip from Bilbao airport through the surprisingly green countryside. Logroño, the capital of La Rioja, has over 50 tapas restaurants lined up and down a few narrow streets in the town.
Each place is famous for one or two dishes in particular and is served with a complementary wine, made with grapes grown less than 5km away. Green chilli roulette (not its official title) at El Rincon De Alberto was a highlight, served with pink rock salt and made for sharing. The jamón at La Fontana was melt-in-the-mouth, but my favourite were the little morsels of rare salty beef in Bar La Canilla.
Logroño isn't without the typical disco bars that play cheesy Europop with naff neon decor. Naturally, we stumbled upon one. Goblets of gin were consumed and bad Spanglish spoken until the lights came on.
Bright and early we headed to Campo Viejo. Modern urban art was planted slap-bang in the middle of the vines, a new, quite boxy, smallish building that looked like a warehouse – with no grapes in sight!
We got the low-down on the different varieties grown in the region, the predominant grape being Tempranillo. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viura grapes are being trialled in small experimental vineyards to see how they react in Rioja to keep up with the demand for white wines.
Back at the bodega, Roberto was waiting to show us around. That small boxy building I saw earlier now started to make sense. The architect, Ignacio Quemada, buried the winery underground so as not to ruin the beauty of the natural landscape with the 45,000 square metre project and to actually assist in the wine making itself. Three levels down and you've got the perfect natural conditions for making and ageing wine without the need for artificial air conditioning in La Rioja's warm climate.
What I didn't expect was the Breaking Bad-style lab sprawled in front of me. Think Walter White's workshop times a thousand. Massive stainless steel containers below our feet, it was hard not to imagine falling in (and thinking there'd be worse ways to go).
The illusion was being shattered, everything felt so modern and sterile, not what you envisage when reading the traditional Spanish labels on the bottles. My disappointment was quickly forgotten at first glimpse (and smell!) of the barrel room. 70,000 of them, all beautiful wine-stained oak lined up in the dark. The perfect mix of contemporary and classic.
Six million bottles lay ageing before the last step in the packaging process, almost ready to transport all over the world.
Our host's motto during the wine tasting that followed was "why not, just try", something I can seriously get behind.
I noticed the difference between wines aged in French or American oak, the latter being my preference for the sweeter flavour it imparts on the wine – a subtle creamy vanilla taste (the French is slightly more spicy with a satin texture). The surprise stand out moment was our excitement at finding that one of the bottles was corked. Everyone wanted a try, confirming or invalidating suspicions of bad wines in the past. The smell alone was a giveaway, damp rotten cardboard in case you were wondering, and the taste was bitter, lacking fruitiness. It was one of the rare occasions that the spit bucket was used!
Later that night we arrived back at the winery, greeted with a glass of their own delicious Cava as we watched the sun set over Rioja. Roberto opened a 1981 bottle of Gran Reserva. Savouring every last drop, we asked how long should we keep wine at home? "Buy it and drink it", the reply (the theory being you probably won't store it right and young or old – wine is to be enjoyed).
No need to tell us twice. There's a major feeling of unpretentiousness at Campo Viejo and it draws you right in. You don't need to be a wine snob to visit, in fact you'll fit in better if you're not.
Reluctant to say goodbye, I vowed to return for harvest in Autumn.
ALSO IN RIOJA:
Bodegas Ysios – where there's a club that allows members to buy a barrel of wine and store the bottles in a personal locker with the use of a dining room overlooking the vineyard at their disposal. How very INSIDER of them?
A TASTE OF RIOJA IN IRELAND:
Campo Viejo run their annual Tapas Trail until 29th June in Dublin and 2nd-27th July in Cork. A fusion of food, wine and urban art across four of the best tapas restaurants in each city. For further information and to purchase tickets, priced at €25 per person, log onto www.campoviejotapastrail.ie.
VISIT CAMPO VIEJO:
Guided hour-long tours of the winery with a glass of wine start at €10 per person. Visit www.campoviejo.com for bookings.
Aer Lingus operate flights three times weekly to Bilbao from Dublin.
Keep leftover red wine in the fridge to preserve it, allowing it to come back to room temperature before drinking.
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent