Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Visiting Rioja: the Ancient and the Ultra-Modern

Fifteen years ago when I first visited Rioja, it was a region visited almost exclusively by Spaniards and the
wine trade. Only a handful of wineries opened to the public and it was rare to hear another English accent.
When I visited just a few weeks ago, it was an entirely different experience. Winery hotels have gone up, a tour group filled the square in Laguardia and there were plenty of American, as well as English accents to be heard.

But it presents an interesting conundrum for Rioja’s wineries. Obviously, they want to capitalise on the increasing interest from wine travellers but how best to do it?

Unlike many Australian and US wineries, Spanish wineries haven’t been built with wine tourism in mind – no bars, restaurants or cellar-door tasting rooms. Nor do they have the grand châteaux of Bordeaux. Instead, most Spanish wineries are functional concrete warehouses containing the usual array of stainless steel tanks, bottling lines and lots and lots of barrels. Not the most obvious of tourist attractions!

The Muruas sharing a glass, father and
son team behind Bodegas Muriel
Marques de Riscal in Elciego is arguably Rioja’s biggest wine tourism success story. To open their doors to tourist, they decided to build an entirely new facility designed by Frank Gehry, architect of Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum. This ultra-modern building which caused plenty of controversy when it was first built, now houses a hotel, three restaurants (including a Michelin-starred one) and a spa.

However, we were in Elciego to visit a very different Rioja winery. Bodegas Muriel, producers of Conde de Cron, Marques de Solariego and Viña Muriel, have taken a completely different approach to the wine tourism conundrum.

Instead of building a new winery, they’ve bought an old one – a very old one. Conde de los Andes was founded in 1896 in the small town of Ollauri. It used to be owned by Paternina but Bodegas Muriel bought it earlier this year. They haven’t yet revealed their full plans for this winery but they’ve hinted wine tourism will form part of them.

What makes Conde de los Andes one of Rioja’s most fascinating wineries, is that it houses more than 600 metres of underground cellars dating back to the 16th century. This is truly a treasure trove for Rioja lovers! Hundreds of thousands of bottles, including some legendary vintages, line the bewildering array of tunnels which twist backwards and forwards, up to 40 metres deep under the town.

Fortunately, we had owner, Javier Murua to guide us through the labyrinth otherwise I’m not sure we’d have ever got out. Still, I guess it could be worse than being lost in a cellar with only a quarter of a million bottles of Reserva and Gran Reserva Rioja to keep you company!

It’s a hugely exciting project and we can’t wait to see what Javier decides to do with it. We’ll keep you posted, and if and when they do open their doors to visitors (we hope so!), you’ll be the first to know.

In the mean time, look out for Conde de Cron in magnums - arriving before Christmas and our brand new Conde de Cron white.

Jennie Perry

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