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Amongst the Barrels in Rioja and Catalunya

On return from a trip to Spain, Manager of Majestic Maidstone Will Monk shares the first part of his travels from around the key wine regions of Rioja and Catalunya…

Last month I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit a couple of our suppliers out in Spain, Bodegas Bilbainas (famous for their Vina Pomal range) and the Cava giant Codorniu. Both wineries are now part of the same family owned group, but both have a long history which, in the case of Codorniu, goes all the way back to 1551!

First stop was Haro in Rioja, where it was illuminating to see that many of the wineries, including Bodegas Bilbainas, are clustered around the train station. Rioja enjoyed its first boom when the Railway arrived, opening up a trade route to the port at Bilbao. From there the wines were shipped to far flung corners of the Spanish Empire. The importance of this trade is reflected in the winery’s name, which comes from the fact that it was established by a group of Industrialists from Bilbao, in order to keep their workforce well lubricated!

The railway north also helped Rioja to its second boom in the 1860s, when vine diseases devastated Bordeaux. French winemakers headed south over the Pyrenees, and brought with them the techniques that made Bordeaux so highly regarded, such as small barrel aging. By the end of the 19th century, Rioja was exporting 13 million gallons of wine per month to France.

Although these days all the wine is produced and matured in temperature controlled warehouses, the original cellars (or Calado, as they are known here) are an astonishing sight. Dug out of the bedrock by hand over 100 years ago, there is an eerie stillness as you enter. A black mold coats the walls, and the smell, aside from the expected mustiness, is reminiscent of dried fruit and an almost oloroso sherry like nuttiness. What is most astonishing the the scale of these cellars, which seem to go on for miles. It is no surprise that a few years ago they found a batch of Gran Reserva Rioja from 1978, which nobody knew existed, but had been maturing happily for 30 years! It was apparently drinking beautifully, although there was a lot of sediment.

We move through the cellars until we reach another room. The walls here, rather than being black mold encrusted rock, are white mold encrusted tiles. Asked why, our guide reveals that this was the room that was originally used for removing the yeast from bottle fermented Cava. This was a messy process, so the room was tiled so they could be easily rinsed down. Judging from the mold in this room this had not happened in this room for decades. Its a good job that all the Cava was produced in the modern winery.

Of course, most people do not associate Cava with Rioja, because most Cava comes from Catalunya, to the east, which is where we were heading next…

… we will catch up with Will and his journey to Catalunya soon!