La Rioja mixes the old and the new


Futuristic architecture reflects a new attitude towards wine

The Rioja wine region in northern Spain is a great example of what is old is new again. At 96 years old, it is the oldest Designation of Origin (DOC) in the country. But the current generation of winemaking berates this dusty image, making La Rioja a laboratory for experimentation outside the rigid age designation system. And this new wave is manifested in the astonishing cellar architecture for which the region is now known.

“La Rioja has always been progressive – it just wasn’t always allowed to be. These genes and creative abilities have existed and have always been present ”, explains Ana Fabiano, author of The Rioja wine region, the first comprehensive look at classic and contemporary winemaking out there.

The majority of the wines are still produced under the careful supervision of the DOCa regional control committee, but since the introduction in 1991 of the cosecha appellation, which has allowed the winegrowers to produce fresher and younger wines, the Rioja s’ points to a fresher interpretation of itself. You can still get an old-fashioned Rioja with its classic leather and tobacco profile, but under a new level of Guarantee of Origin with no aging restrictions, you can also easily find wines with brighter flavors that favor the concentration of fruit versus barrel spices.

And the bodegas themselves are also undergoing “extreme makeovers”, thanks to futuristic architecture that often sings to the sky. Fabiano calls the combination of the art of design and the art of wine “a double experience at multisensory levels”.

Here are some vineyards to stimulate your senses:

Bodegas Ysios. Perhaps the most illustrious symbol of this movement is the Bodegas Ysios 2001 by architect Santiago Calatrava in Rioja Alavesa, a wine cathedral widely recognized for starting the design trend. The architect noted that the site presented challenges with level changes in the landscape of up to 10 meters (about 30 feet) and as much land occupied by vines. This was solved by creating a “surface wave” with an undulating roofline that is both kinetic and graceful, reflecting the Cantabrian mountains it stands against. Ultimately, he claims this is both La Rioja and something otherworldly (indeed, the soaring interior offers projections into the sky). The grand architecture belies the scale of small-scale wine production, its modernity contrasting with the centuries-old vines in the vineyards.

Vinos Herederos del Marqués by Riscal. Added to La Rioja’s “starchitecture” portfolio, this wine hotel designed in 2006 by Canadian-born American architect Frank O. Gehry, who also designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa. Built against the backdrop of the historic winery (1858), the hotel was a novelty when it first opened – stainless steel and magenta titanium ribbons unrolled as if the building were a gift to unwrap – attracting a hip international clientele. It was easy to think the whole package was garish, even a little clumsy, or like a house of ribbon candy fun. But up front and up close, it’s a gorgeous, bustling building reflecting the changing light throughout the day and parts of the surrounding landscape. You can’t help but be charmed by it. The 18th century cathedral in the background provides the perfect backdrop for what is both old and new in La Rioja.

Bodegas Baigorri. Bodegas Baigorri, one in the Rioja Alavesa, is definitely more down to earth but no less amazing. The spectacular cube of zinc and glass sits atop a plateau, offering spectacular 360-degree views of the very characteristics that define La Rioja: mountains and vineyards. The shimmering pavilion, designed by Basque architect Iñaki Aspiazu, plunges seven floors into the earth, creating a microclimate within a mesoclimate. It offers a look into the future of winemaking where climate change is an unpredictable diviner. Winemaker Simon Arina Robles calls the structure “architecture in the service of wine”, adding: “We are the only winery where [it] plays a 100 percent role in wine. Gravity-fed, devoid of pumps or other grape-hardening machinery, the winery, in its solitude and humble exposure to the elements, resembles its own kind of temple.

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