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Gilbert's Grape: One night in Rioja

Published:  24 May, 2016

As a wine journalist, I have been told I can expect to see hundreds of barrel rooms and vineyards in the course of my new career.

As a wine journalist, I have been told I can expect to see hundreds of barrel rooms and vineyards in the course of my new career.

I've been lucky enough that the yellow-brick road in my own personal search for wine expertise has already taken me to the beautiful La Rioja Alta, where indeed, I saw one of these rooms.

And what a sight it was!

The 20,000 barrels piled into a basement at La Rioja Alta SA's Torre de Ona vineyard was an impressive sight, to these fresh, un-jaded eyes at least.

And on that morning at the beginning of May, the room wasn't even full.

At full capacity, the cavernous space can accommodate another 10,000 barrels, bringing the total to upwards of 30,000.

Eventually, we found our way to the exit and sunlight, but not before witnessing racking by candlelight - a rarity in modern winemaking, and one of Torre de Ona's USPs.

All of this occurred after seeing the vineyard's state-of-the-art equipment, which seemed to suggest that traditional winemaking methods exist in harmony with the new.

But of course, this harmony is often the exception rather than the rule, and how to find that equilibrium frequently forms the crux of many heated debates in the industry.

For example, since the 19th century, Rioja has enjoyed a reputation as Spain's most voracious and most important wine-producing regions, and La Rioja Alta SA, is one of its oldest dating back to 1890.

But today, there is some debate about the usefulness of the Rioja label and how a premium brand like La Rioja Alta SA can often be hindered by what is usually associated with £5 supermarket wine by UK consumers.

Some producers, such as elite brand Artadi, have de-classified themselves from the Rioja DO.

"Everyone knows Rioja and everyone knows what to expect, which is good and bad," says Guillermo de Aranzabal, La Rioja Alta SA's current chairman and the fifth generation of his family to work for the business.

"It means that people identify you with Rioja and everything which is produced in the Rioja DO even though the quality varies hugely. That isn't fair."

The future is always uncertain, but there is wisdom to be found in La Rioja's Alta SA's own heritage.

The vineyard is one of a handful of classic wineries which were founded in Rioja in the 1890s after phylloxera tore through Bordeaux and French winemakers took their expertise south.

De Aranzabal explained: "It changed Rioja totally. Rioja was making wine for centuries before that, but we didn't know how to make quality wine.

"We had no casks, so we had one year to drink it or to throw it away. Before the harvest, they used to say the river ran red. Between 1850-1890 was the beginning of Rioja as a quality wine region."

What I will take away from La Rioja Alta SA's history is an understanding of the fact that tradition comes from somewhere; it is not a constant, it has beginnings.

Just as French and the Spanish winemakers were pushed together by circumstance, at some point, time and circumstance will again radically change Rioja and other winemaking regions across the world.

Whether winemakers will continue to conform to the rules of the Rioja DO or if they will forge their own paths remains to be seen.

One thing I do know is that they will continue to evolve, and rise to the challenge.