Ancient relics of winemaking

Intriguing stone grape presses, vats carved in rocks and stone shelters amid the vineyards – there’s reminders of Rioja wine heritage everywhere you turn. Discover the ancient relics of winemaking in our tour The Ages of Rioja.

Things to do in Rioja: Discover the ancient relics of winemaking

Wine has been made in Rioja for hundreds of years, so you don’t have to go far to find remarkable evidence of the early winemaking techniques. Let’s go on a wine tour of Rioja’s past…

Originally Rioja wine would have been made in natural rock carvings, which served as the grape presses with the juices running down into the caves below. It was in these natural ‘cellars’ where the wine was left to spontaneous fermentation. In those days the wine was administered by the church, with convents and monasteries such as San Millán playing a significant role in its production and selling.

Rioja’s stone wine presses

At the Sonsierra cave wineries, you can still find the original stone presses, some of which date as far back as the 10th century. Carved out of the limestone rock on the banks of the River Ebro and close to the vineyards, the stone bases were used for stepping on the grapes. With a slight inclination to one side, the grape juices could then run off the stone into one or two narrow channels leading to a small but deep tank in the cave below, known by the name of torco – a Riojan term for the hole underneath the vat spout.

More and more of these impressive feats of wine engineering are still being unearthed in the area every day.

The Way of St James

The famous pilgrimage route that crosses Rioja and you can hike along today was a vital transport and marketing link for Rioja’s burgeoning wine industry in the medieval times. Connecting towns and monasteries, the wine was transported in wineskins (made of fine goat leather) and it wasn’t long before Rioja’s reputation for winemaking was established.

Rioja’s iconic stone vineyard shelters

Take a walk through the countryside of Rioja and you will likely spot small shelters, which have provided vineyard workers with protection from the heat or rain for years and years – with some even dating as far back as the 11th century.

As well as the more obvious conical-shaped stone-built shelters, you might see them fashioned out of rock overhangs, and some even excavated in the ground, taking advantage of the lie of the land. They are known in Spanish as casillas, chozas, chozos or guardaviñas, depending on the town near which they are located. Most of those that you can see today date from the 18th and 19th centuries.

What stands out about the Riojan vineyard shelters is their sophisticated construction, made in harmony with the natural landscape, and the sheer number of them. In the Rioja Alavesa area alone, more than 1,700 shelters have been counted.

As well as being a living reminder of a long-established way of life, Riojans’ honour the shelters as symbols of their identity in winemaking history.