Monday 11 December 2017

The grape escape - Campo viejo is a rioja lover's paradise

Producing 15 million bottles of wine a year, Campo viejo is a rioja lover's paradise, writes Maureen Gillespie, who paid the winery a visit

Campo Viejo is one of the largest wineries in Spain, the barrel room alone is the size of an aircraft hangar.
Campo Viejo is one of the largest wineries in Spain, the barrel room alone is the size of an aircraft hangar.
Chief winemaker Elena Adell
Campo Viejo reserva wine
Campo Viejo winery
Campo Viejo winery

While we in Ireland shivered our way through last summer, mainland Europe sweltered in a record-breaking heatwave. And that hot, dry weather was good news for the Rioja-based winery Campo Viejo, which had one of its best harvests in years.

Founded in 1959 and now one of the largest wineries in Spain, Campo Viejo experienced an earlier than usual harvest of its mostly tempranillo grapes, which go to make up its award-winning range of Riojas. Thanks to the weather, and the decision by the Rioja certification board to increase the production limits, it was a bumper harvest.

"The 2015 harvest was unique," says the company's chief winemaker Elena Adell. "First of all, a hot and dry growing season with an unexpectedly high number of days over 35˚C meant an early start to harvest - over two weeks earlier than the previous year. Despite this, we enjoyed all of the conditions required for a great vintage, so we expect the 2015 to be excellent quality."

Located in the countryside just outside the small city of Logroño, in northern Spain, the Campo Viejo winery is worth a visit for any Rioja lover. Built in 2001, it is a beautiful construction of concrete and wood and was the first winery in Spain to achieve a carbon neutral status. Just one storey is visible above the ground, and its size belies the vast subterranean production and storage units. Campo Viejo produces around 15 million bottles of wine a year so the sheer scale of the production is mind-boggling. The barrel room alone is the size of an aircraft hangar and holds around 7,000 barrels, each one containing 225 litres.

Unlikely as it may seem for such a massive operation, in some ways Campo Viejo appears to retain the ethos of a small wine producer. Listening to vineyard manager Mario Ezquerro, who looks after the relatively small amount of vines that are grown by the winery itself (around 80pc of the grapes come from other local suppliers), as he talks of the respect that must be shown to each individual vine, you can hear the pride and love he has for his work.

"We must care for each grapevine," he says, "as we must care for the wildlife and plant life of the vineyard. They are just as important as the grapes."

The high standards that inform this ethos are also demanded from the 2,200 big and small vineyards that supply the grapes each year. This attention to detail has been a huge factor in the winery's success as it has earned a well-deserved reputation for consistency, although Elena Adell also credits what she describes as "the magic of tempranillo" - a grape than can be enjoyed just months after it has been harvested but also ages very well.

"As a winemaker, I adore working with tempranillo. It's such a versatile grape, with a robust, fruity flavour married with an excellent ageing capability. I love seeing the many different ways it can express its character in such a diverse range of wines."

If you are taking a trip to the Rioja region, you should definitely spend a few days in Logroño.

Just over an hour south of Bilbao, it's a small, elegant city and although it's on the Camino route to Santiago, tourism (certainly of the non-Spanish speaking type) is not very evident. As a result it has the authentic feel of a living, working city. It also has some fabulous pintxos (tapas) bars, most of whom sell small bites for €1.50-€2 each.

From a trio of garlicky mushrooms on a cocktail stick, to a fried chorizo topped with a quail's egg, or a local version of salty Pimientos de Padron, all go perfectly with a copa or two of Campo Viejo, or one of the many other Riojas available by the glass for less than €2.

From its promotion of tapas trails (which in Ireland take place every summer in Galway, Cork and Dublin) to the use of two Spanish street artists to create multi-coloured artworks, in recent years Campo Viejo has done much to modernise the image of Rioja.

This is most evident in its experimental mini-winery run by Clara Canals (both of the company's main winemakers are women, and both are Logroñians so have Rioja in their veins). Describing it as her playground, Clara's focus is on innovation to meet the changing demands of wine drinkers - and her work has resulted in Campo Viejo's contemporary fruit-driven Rioja.

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