Rioja has undergone a make-over. Matthew Wilcox explains why the view isn’t the only thing that is changing
Spain, the country that gave us the ‘Bilbao Effect’, knows better than most the transformative effect of architecture. Soon after Frank Gehry finished the Guggenheim in 2003, the owners of one of the oldest wineries in the country lured the architect to la Rioja, a 30-mile swathe of vineyards, monasteries, and walled towns along the banks of the Ebro River in northern Spain.
The result of this wooing is Gehry’s spectacular City of Wine complex that sits atop the Marqués de Riscal cellars in Elciego – and it is the most prominent example of what has come to resemble an architectural arms race in the sleepy and tradition-bound region. But the plethora of aluminium-clad follies that have been erected in the years since, reflect something more than just the shimmering vineyards from which they rise.
Although wine has been made in the area since the Romans, rioja is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating from the mid-19th century, when emigré French winemakers, looking for viticulture areas free from the catastrophic phylloxera blight, taught the Spanish how to make wine in the style of Bordeaux.
And as the decades ticked by that is largely how Rioja stayed, gradually acquiring a reputation as staunchly traditionalist, until the mid-1990s when a number of producers sought to break free of these shackles and introduce a more international style of wine, with an emphasis on concentration, intensity and aging in French oak.
In the years since, this style has been made manifest in the region’s bold new architecture as one super-star architect after another – Frank Gehry, Philippe Mazières and Santiago Calatrava – has attempted to express the balance between tradition and technology that is rapidly becoming the hallmark of the area. As Richard Harvey, Bonhams Head of Wine, confirms, “Crucially, these changes haven’t come at a cost to Rioja’s sense of identity. Other areas such as the Ribera del Duero and Priorat have become fashionable recently, but for wine lovers being priced out of Bordeaux and Burgundy, there is little to compete with Rioja’s history and quality.”
In February’s sale, Bonhams is offering a range of mature rioja from top estates such as Bodegas Bilbainas, CVNE, Franco-Espanolas, Marques de Murrieta, Marques de Riscal, Riojanas and Lopez de Heredia. Lopez de Heredia, widely considered the great bastion of traditional rioja, (as shown by their insistence on the use of un-trellised bush vines and slow aging in American oak,) is the antithesis of the flashier producers such as Marqués de Riscal. Despite this, Lopez, too, have just built a bespoke (and suitably space-age looking) Zaha Hadid tasting room.
Architectural fantasy has always been a marketing tool, and nowhere more so than in the wine world, a truth borne out in the improbable châteaux of innumerable wine labels (made up or otherwise). The results of la Rioja’s architectural revolution have, if nothing else, created one more reason to visit the region.
Matthew Wilcox is Deputy Editor of Bonhams Magazine.