Explore the year through the vineyards, meet the locals and see how winemaking is entwined in everyday life in Rioja.
Life on a Rioja vineyard
Almost everyone you meet on a wine tour in Rioja will likely be a winemaker – the shopkeeper, the bank teller, the school teacher… And that makes for a landscape chequered with vineyards.
Incredibly, there are more than 16,000 grape-growers in the Rioja wine region, many tending to their crops alongside their main careers. All of them are carefully audited to ensure they produce only the best grapes that Rioja puts its name to, and sell to the big wineries, of which there are more than 600 in Rioja.
This means the region is covered with hundreds and hundreds of vineyards – most of which are small and family-run, and every Riojan seems to have a part to play in the yearly cycle of vine-growing activities. Maybe it’s this heart-felt dedication that makes Rioja wine’s high quality and unique personality. It certainly makes for a patchwork-quilt landscape, the likes of which you won’t see anywhere else.
Rioja’s vineyards through the seasons
The beauty of deciding when to visit Rioja is you will benefit from going at any time of the year. From the bright fresh greens of spring when everything bursts into life, through the multi-coloured summer as the grapes ripen under the sun.
It’s in autumn when the changing colours of the leaves highlights the myriad grapevine varieties that grow in Rioja, and you’ll quickly learn not all Rioja are Tempranillo.
The Tempranillo and Mazuelo turning red, the Viura and Malvasia more yellowish, while Grenache stays green until the last minute – you can imagine the stunning effect this has on the scenery. Then in winter, the snow moves down from the surrounding mountain tops and often covers the valleys with its beautiful white cloak.
It’s in the coldest month of the year (normally January) when the vines are dormant that pruning takes place, in the exact same way it has been done here for more than 2,000 years – with a simple set of hand shears. The pruning is to manage the vegetation and is considered a very important stage in the vineyard’s year cycle.
When the warm Spanish spring comes round, the seemingly overnight transformation of the brown vines into luminous green bushes is astounding. Now it’s time for green pruning – nipping off buds and shoots to control the vine’s growth. This is remarkably carried out by hand, with a vineyard worker covering about the size of an American football field in a day’s work.
The pretty flowering of the vines, which then turns into clusters of those sacred grapes, begins in May and continues through to August, with vineyard workers pruning and thinning the vegetation all the time. Finally, October sees a hive of activity for the harvesting of the grapes, and then the transporting of them to those wineries for the next stage of their journey closer to your glass.