Monday 16 July 2018

Experimental wine in Rioja

Vineyards at sunset in autumn harvest
Vineyards at sunset in autumn harvest

While you may think "once you've seen one vineyard you've seen them all", there's something very special about seeing vines when they're laden with plump, juicy grapes. By now, most of the vineyards across the northern hemisphere will already have harvested their grapes, but I was lucky enough to hit in at harvest time when I visited Campo Viejo a few weeks ago.

Kitted out in wellies, a straw hat, gloves, a secateurs and protective glasses to ensure that I didn't jab my eyes with a vine, I took my bright blue crate into the middle of the row, crouched down and set about the fulfilling task of cutting off bunches of grapes that must have weighed close to a kilogramme each. The best part was I didn't have to do it all day, so I dodged the backache and moved swiftly on to the fun part.

Campo Viejo is a big brand that will be familiar to most people. It produces a good-quality Rioja wine, which is widely available, so I expected the set-up at the winery to be impressive on a mass-industrial scale. And yes, it certainly is, but not in the way you'd imagine.

When you first see it, you think, "Oh, right, a visitors' centre - all the real wine stuff happens somewhere else"; but what you need to be thinking is, "What would a winery look like in a James Bond movie?"

Cue a collaborative effort between a star architect, Ignacio Quemada, and the chief winemaker, Elena Adell, and you end up with a 45,000 square-metre winery, which is buried more than 20 metres below ground. It's like an iceberg. Just one storey is visible, and the colours of the natural materials used blend in with the terroir. But this is not just about aesthetics; the subterranean conditions are perfect for making and ageing wine.

The winery is dark, cool and calm, and the piping system has been designed at a slight slant so that throughout the whole process, the grapes are moved by gravity, without undergoing any type of pressure which could affect the final result. This, and quite a few other clever innovations, means that this winery has been the first in Spain to acquire carbon-neutral status.

Down one level, huge doors, about two storeys high, lead into a corridor with a production facility containing 320 enormous stainless tanks on one side and a dark room on the other, where six million bottles of Rioja wine age in climate- controlled conditions.

A level below all of this is the breathtakingly impressive sight of 70,000 oak barrels - stained with red wine at the swell of the bulge - as they sit ageing for up to two years.

But back to my day making wine. As you would expect from a winery befitting Ernst Stavro Blofeld, there is an experimental room, and I can't believe that I'm saying this, but yes, there is a beautiful female winemaker. "All our crazy ideas, everything we want to try, starts here," says Clara Canals. "It allows us to make mistakes and play around."

So, under her instruction, we sorted the grapes we picked on the sorting table; they went into the automatic de-stemmer, and within minutes, the grapes were being pressed, and beautiful fresh grape juice was flowing. We tasted it, sent it off to be fermented, and everything from now just takes time. Clara says that they run about 30 different trials each year, decide which are the most interesting and bottle four or five different wines. I'm looking forward to drinking mine.

Simply the fest for cocktails

The Irish Cocktail Fest is kicking off this Monday, October 9. Pubs around the country will be creating their best cocktails and the public will decide which one wins by voting using the #BestIrishCocktail hashtag on Twitter. Check out the closing party on October 14 at Eastside Tavern on Leeson Street in Dublin, where there'll be plenty of samples of different Irish spirits and a cocktail, specially created for the finale. Tickets are €10 plus booking fee. And if you're looking for the newest place to try cocktails, head to Mulligan & Haines on 32 Dame Street, Dublin 2.

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