Words + Photography by Luke Alland, using Leica's Q2 Reporter and SL-2.
The second day in Cenicero begins with breakfast delivered to our front door. Fresh croissants, charcuterie, jam and about five coffees later we're fully charged and suitably ready for any wine that is going to come our way...
A quick stroll around the town to let everything go down winds us up back to our door which coincidentally is opposite Las Bodegas Riojanas. We don't have to go down and queue, but rather observe the busyness from our window. It's a simple jump over the road when the crowd lulls and we get stuck in.
This is a vastly different experience to the day before. The tour goes ahead like clockwork (even for Spanish standards). If anything, we were the slightly late ones. As we walk in, we are greeted in a press room almost the same size as the bodega we saw yesterday. You can see immediately that this is going to be a well-oiled operation. I must admit, while it is a significantly commercial insight into wine and winemaking, the history of the region is definitely something that provides context for how and why La Rioja is the most successful and recognised Spanish wine name. From their conception in the late 1800s, through the First, the Civil and then Second World War, the region hasn't had it easy at all.
The Bodega itself was founded in 1890, making it the oldest in the group. Eight years later, the region would be ravaged by the one thing that actually caused the original upturn in its fortune. Phylloxera—an Aphid originally native of the Eastern North America—was carried over on ships crossing the Atlantic to France, and was to blame for the 'Great French Wine Blight' of the 1860s. Over a 15-year period, around 40% of French Grape Vines and Vineyards were decimated, leading to a large brain-drain of expertise, with many winemakers relocating to La Rioja.
With these expertise and new ideas flooding in, the region flourished until it had its own run in with Phylloxera. By that time, however, the remedy to halt it having too much of an effect had already been discovered in France. Grafting American rootstock gave the vines an aphid resistance that enabled the Spanish to replant all of their own vineyards to great success in a much shorter amount of time. Also learning from the French, regional authorities stepped in to bring down all wine imports, meaning that local wine would take priority, thus enabling the region to get back onto its feet.
One thing I did notice however, was that in comparison to other alcohol tours, such as whisky or a brewery for example, there isn't a great deal of work actually going on. I caveat with the fact I visited during a not-actually-off-but-kinda-off-season, but I guess I was so used to seeing every part of the process happening all at once, I expected at least some bottling going on. The fun kind, not the football hooligan kind. That being said, if you've ever done a tour, wine and whisky are up there with the best. The pairings of food and drink you get, and the actual explanation of flavours and how to open your palette up, is much more an education of how to drink, rather than what.
I always find with brands like this that they are much more inclined to give you the information and understanding of how to enjoy their craft, and bank on the fact that once you have relative knowledge, that the experience you've had makes you a customer for life. Realistically, out of season, you're unfortunately not going to see much actually happening inside the bodega, or around the town for that matter. Time is of the essence and when I was there in June, time was for waiting.
Bodegas Riojanas owns and operates almost 100 hectares of vineyards, including San Vicente de la Sonsierra, and where we were in Cenicero. As I've mentioned before, my horticultural knowledge isn't the greatest, but the soil is clay-ey, with a touch of limestone in it and along with a unique microclimate, it makes the region perfect for vine cultivation. The main grape varietals that grow in their estate are Tempranillo, Mazuelo and Graciano.
The workers handpick their grapes and take them to the winery in small boxes to be fermented. The fermentation itself takes place in the cellar, and after that, the wines are aged in oak barrels to attain the desired taste and structure.
We wrapped up the tour with a few glasses of red as well as a white, some chorizo and a few funny stories from the other guests who were on a stag from Barcelona. I can't help feeling that I've missed a trick not seeing the actual harvest itself, but it gives me even more of a reason to go back.
Although let's be honest, it's mainly to sample more tipples.
If you're thinking about going, or want to try something a bit different for your next trip, the details for what is listed in this article are below.
You can find out more about Bodegas Riojanas and their story here (website in Spanish):
The prices for visits are €16 and are in both Spanish and English.
And if you're looking for a place to stay...
The RiojaValley Apartments are just a twenty-second hop from the town centre, come with a glorious hand-delivered basket breakfast every morning, and the team are an absolute delight.
The Cuevas apartment offers the best view and cost around €80 a night.