Visiting the old wine cellars of La Rioja
La Rioja in Spain has a fascinating history and prestige to its winemaking region, the evidence of which you can still explore today in the many wineries or “bodegas” in the valleys. So if you’re deciding where to go when you’re on your Rioja trip, let’s take a tour back in time…
La Rioja’s medieval vineyards gradually moved down from the steep hillsides into the valleys so they could have easier access to villages and The Way of Saint James, which in those days served as a main link to markets. Here, the vineyard owners could then negotiate with what were called “Entradores” and were a kind of micro-broker between the winemakers and wine merchants.
In the Middle Ages, Rioja wine was closely linked to the monastic life of course, as winemakers relied on the monks for endorsing the drinking of wine and serving it at the mass to pilgrims on The Way of St James, who would then spread the word on their travels.
Rioja’s wine quality can be established way back, as the first document to make reference to protecting and ensuring the quality of Rioja wines dates from 1650, although even long before that, in 1102, King Sancho of Navarra legally recognised the wines and San Millan de la Cogolla monastery became the centre of wine land control.
During these times, the Rioja vineyard owners dug into the ground to imitate the conditions of the caves where they used to store the wine when they had their vineyards in the hills. As a result, wine cellar quarters appeared next to the villages. They became much like small Hobbit villages or complex anthills where the men used to not only make wine, but meet and socialise. And they remain to this day.
Each family had its own cellar, but not all had a press – this was a prestigious piece of equipment that only the richest owned, otherwise there would be one who offered the service to all. In the cellars, whole grape bunches were tipped into large pools where they fermented, and the resulting wines were smoother, with good body, intense colour and ideally suited for drinking during their first year.
You can see the original handbuilt ‘caves’ and presses – plus get some tastings! – on a tour of the old cellars today. There are 94 old wine cellar quarters still in Rioja. Nowadays, some of the cellars are still occupied by traditional-style wineries, while others are owned privately by local families who use them to gather together in the atmospheric surroundings for long, long lunches or dinners.
Rioja in Style can arrange exactly the experience you would like to discover this fascinating piece of heritage when you’re on your wine tour in Rioja.