For most of the world, Rioja equals big, blended red wines that deliver far more to your palate than they demand from your wallet. That’s a fair, and for the most part, accurate generalization.
Because wine is so intrinsically enmeshed in the culture of Rioja—the industry is worth about 1.5 billion euros a year and accounts for about 20% of the region’s economy—it’s easy to overlook the fascinating way in which art and architecture have been indelibly linked to the evolution of wine there. But once you’re on the ground, the connection is impossible to ignore.
Getting Grounding in Rioja
Winemaking’s roots in Rioja can be traced to the 11th century B.C. when Phoenicians settled in the area. Wine has been made in some form there ever since.
Rioja is Spain’s leading designation of origin (D.O.), with more than 550 wineries, 14,800 grape growers and the largest number of barrels in the world. (Bodegas Muga, one of the most renowned and well-known Riojan producers, cranks out around 14,000 new barrels a year.) Rioja is also the oldest D.O. in Spain, earning the designation in 1925, and the first to earn the country’s highest-qualifying wine qualification Calificada in 1991. (Priorat is the only other region with the designation.) That’s all to say that Rioja has one of the richest winemaking histories in Europe—and its winemakers are finding ways to preserve that history.
Finding Rioja’s Future Through Its Archeological History
It’s hard to understand the present—or plan for the future—without a sense of the past. That notion set Vivanco Winery’s founder Pedro Vivanco Paracuellos down a rabbit hole in the 1960s, says the son of the late Paracuellos, Rafael Vivanco Sáenz. Paracuellos began searching Rioja and its surroundings for tangible records of the winemaking past, focusing on the tools used in the farming and production of wine.
Sáenz, Vivanco’s current owner and winemaker, explains that initially, his father’s collection of wine ephemera—and the notions behind it—were quite humble.
“He grew up watching his own father make wine, and he was fascinated by the history and culture of winemaking in Rioja,” Sáenz explains. “He began collecting unusual relics of winemaking and managed to save several wooden presses, some centuries old, from being cut up and used for firewood.”
“My father wanted to honor Rioja with the collection, but also provide the context for wine around the world,” Sáenz says.
The 4,000 square-meter museum’s collection includes ancient winemaking artifacts from Georgia to Spain; priceless wine-inspired artworks from Picasso, Warhol, Chagall and Joaquin Sorolla; a 13th-century B.C. glass; an 8th-century B.C. drinking vessel from China; Roman and Byzantine mosaics and other key items related to the farming and production of wine across millennia.
Paracuellos’ focus began expanding beyond Rioja. After decades of accruing treasures from across the globe, he opened a winery museum on the grounds of the Vivanco winery in 2004. And it was no mere compendium of objects: The importance of the collection was underlined when Spain’s King, Juan Carlos I, attended the opening.
Visitors to Vivanco will find, in addition to the 250 acres of estate vines, five permanent exhibition rooms, a temporary exhibition room and the Bacchus Garden, essentially a collection of 220 rare vine varieties from around the world.
“At Vivanco, we are rooted in the past but eager to lead Rioja into the future too,” Sáenz says. “We are in the process of converting much of our estate to organic production. We are also eager to explore new categories of wine in Rioja. We were the first to make a sweet wine and the first to make a sparkling wine.”
Bodegas Queirón is equally invested in the past and future. Founded by Gabriel Pérez in 2010 and currently run by his children Raquel, Leticia, Rubén and Maria, the winery encompasses much more than just vineyards and winemaking facilities.
“Our region, Rioja Oriental, is probably the least visited and understood by outsiders,” says Raquel Cuevas, Queirón’s vineyard manager. “Our vineyards are high-elevation, up to 800 meters [2,624 feet] above sea level, with a lot of wind and a confluence of Mediterranean, Atlantic and Continental climates. In our neighborhood, Quel, wineries have been built into the mountains for centuries.”
Part of Pérez’s early mission—and something he and his children continue to do today—is the preservation and study of these ancient cave wineries.
“They were dug out by hand; there were no machines,” Raquel says, gesturing around one of the many 17th-century and older cave wineries she and her family have preserved with the help of scientists and archeologists. “Looking around the landscape here, you’ll see mysterious chimneys everywhere. That’s what growers would use to funnel their grapes into big lagares set in the caves. The grapes would then be crushed underfoot, fermented and aged.”
In addition to preserving these artifacts, Bodegas Queirón has helped pioneer the preservation of ancient vineyards, several of which are more than 100 years old; many of these vineyards are used for their single-vineyard wines like El Arca, a novelty in Rioja, where field blends and widely sourced wines dominate. They also use unusual—for Rioja—vessels for aging; in addition to the large foudres and barrels in their cellar, concrete, stainless steel and eggs stand out.
Their pioneering efforts to draw attention to Rioja Oriental are paying off: Every year, usually in July, the Pérez teams up with other growers and vintners to throw a wine party. Last year, 2,000 people—many from far away—attended.
“We are also thinking of opening a tasting room,” Raquel says. “No one else in the region offers that. But if we begin, we believe people will come, and it will inspire other winemakers to do the same.”
Exploring Rioja’s Ancient Architecture and Modernist Flights of Fancy
Rioja has long drawn friends and foes from abroad, creating a melting pot of people, cultures and influences. Today, the imprint of Roman, Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures can be seen in the architecture and tasted in the wine and food. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, Romanesque art and architecture flourished here, traces of which can still be found around Rioja.
At Bodegas Taron, the collective heritage of the region and the individual heritage of the families lives on through these buildings, Taron’s manager, Gonzalo Salazar de Gurendes Colina, explains. Located in the northwest corner of Rioja Alta, the cooperative encompasses 220 families with around 1,730 acres of grapes under vine.
“These decommissioned [deconsecrated] churches are a symbol of our culture and heritage,” Colina says. “They are, in some ways, just as important as the centenary vineyards that define the quality of our wines. We bring visitors to both places: first the vineyards that are more than 100 years old, then to these churches, where we taste the wine and discuss the terroir and history of the region.”
Ancient architecture—from the ancient chimneys where growers sent their grapes to the Romanesque churches where villagers gathered to worship and mark major milestones in their lives—may be the bones that built Rioja, but soaring modernist constructions of rippling steel that seem to melt into the landscape are the flesh that animate the region.
A trip to Herederos del Marqués de Riscal in Rioja Alavesa, one of the oldest but most unconventional Bodegas in Rioja, brings past and future together. The winery was founded in 1860, and it made its mark on the world stage when it became the first non-French wine to win the diploma of honor of the Bordeaux Exhibition in 1895.
“We owe a lot of our success to the French,” José Luis Muguiro, the fifth-generation family owner of Marqués de Riscal, says. “We were the first bodega in Rioja to make wine with the intention of aging it in the Bordelaise style. We used their techniques, and it transformed the wine.”
Many vintners noted the success and followed in Marqués de Riscal’s footsteps. Today, Rioja is celebrated for the incredible lifespan of its reds, the best of which can sing more than 75 years after first being plucked from the vines.
“There have been a lot of firsts here,” Muguiro says.
After visiting the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao that Frank Gehry designed in 1997, younger members of the executive team decided that Gehry was just the man to infuse new life into the medieval village of Elciego, and indeed, Marqués de Riscal itself. Gehry wasn’t convinced it would be a good fit initially, but he was lured to the winery with promises of an epic feast.
“They opened a bottle of wine from Frank Gehry’s birth year , and one thing led to another,” Muguiro explains, adding that the winery has a vast collection of wine from 1860 onward. “They toasted to the idea of Gehry designing a modern version of the French chateau on the property of the winery, which could serve as a symbol of Marqués de Riscal in the Rioja landscape.”
Unfortunately, some of the older executives were less enthused about the initiative, which they thought was too modern. But over a period of years, which entailed compromises on all sides, Gehry built what has become one of the most iconic landmarks in Rioja, a hotel overlooking its medieval fiefdom like a hyper-evolved space-age fortress.
Opened in 2006, the 43-room hotel is a masterwork of titanium and stainless steel Zen flow. The building’s gleaming glass panels and billowing metallic wings seem to soar like birds toward the vineyards, while a series of cubes ground it.
The Rioja terroir—the soils and weather, yes, but also the ancient vineyards themselves, its historic artifacts and its awe-inspiring architecture spanning millenniums—can and should be appreciated in the glass, but visitors step onto the land itself for a true taste of Rioja’s past, present and future.