Grape Escape: Discovering the art of winemaking in the vineyards of La Rioja

There's more to wine than tasting it as Sophia Smith Galer discovered on a trip to the rustic vineyards of the Rioja region.

Grape Escape: Discovering the art of winemaking in the vineyards of La Rioja
There is even an art to tasting the grape itself. Photo: AFP

Much like my attitude towards the culinary arts – ‘Am I a good cook? Well…I’m a good eater’ – I believe that you can’t have a solid appreciation of enology without having eyes bigger than your liver.  

So, on a holiday to the northern Spain, it was a must for my friend and I to see whether we could do some cultivated damage on some kind of wine-tasting sojourn.  

You hear about wine-tasting courses all of the time; in our hedonistic age the wine tourism industry is booming and it seems that nearly every region in Spain has something to offer, from cava in Cataluña to sherry in Jerez.

But it was a tiny little winery in Logroño that caught our eye offering the opportunity to not just quaff the stuff but to also learn a bit more about the wine-growing industry along the way.

Tantalisingly named “Be a Winemaker for a day!”, I have to admit that my imagination began to ran away with me.

But no, we didn’t get to harvest the grapes ourselves from the vine and stomp them like the grand, rustic vision I had been concocting for myself on the journey there.  

Instead, the day began with a more laid-back wine lesson right where the wine has its origins – in the grapes themselves.

Science, history and finally a taste test for Sophia Smith Galer  

So before we had even a whiff of the wine itself, we were set to work on the grape. Did you know that there’s actually an art to tasting the grape? You find the hole where it was removed from the stem and suck the insides out, leaving the skin behind, to get the true flavour.

Our guide then tells us the history of the vineyards and its battle with phylloxera, essentially Europe’s wine plague, that threatened the existence of the wine industry.  It has been solved by breeding an American variety, already adapted to thwart phylloxera, with the European roots to provide the plants with immunity.  

After furtively eating as many grapes as possible, we are ushered back into the wine van and we are packed off to the modest and traditional family-owned winery itself and given a science lesson on knowing when wine has finished fermenting (it’s in its density).

And then finally… it is time to taste it for ourselves.  There are three techniques to tasting the wine and they all involve varying levels of ugliness as we contort our mouths to slurp, swish and ‘inhale’ (start choking) to release the wine’s different colours onto our palate.  

We are also taught how to hold the glass up against a white serviette to tell the wine’s age by examining the browner or bluer hues.  

Photo: Sophia Smith Galer

The day ended with a picnic of chorizo, freshly baked bread and pork pâté, served between the vines of course, and accompanied by rioja, which we attempted to artfully drink from a ‘bota’. What’s more we were invited to cork and take away our own bottle of the wine we favoured during the extensive tasting.

Experiencing a hands-on and thorough lesson in the charming Logroño countryside leaves a lasting appreciation of a Spanish wine growing region and a renewed admiration for wine itself, whatever the vintage.  

Here’s a toast to a wonderful day out.

Sophia Smith Galer booked the 'Be a winemaker for a day in Rioja' through Wine Tourism Spain for the price of €33.

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Uphill battle: Spain’s wine growers forced to adapt to climate change

For over a century, Joaquin Gay de Montella Estany's family produced wine in Spain's Mediterranean region of Catalonia, but the effects of climate change have pushed them to seek higher ground.

Uphill battle: Spain's wine growers forced to adapt to climate change
Over the past 60 years, average temperatures in Spain have risen by 1.3 degrees Celsius, forcing Spanish wine producers to adapt. Photo: Josep Lago/AFP

Now their Torre del Veguer winery also has vineyards at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains — at an altitude of nearly 1,200 metres (3,900 feet) — where temperatures are cooler.

It’s one of the ways in which Spain’s wine producers are trying to adapt, as a warmer climate advances the harvest season and makes the need for more heat-tolerant grape varieties greater.

In searing August heat, farm workers pick the white grapes by hand at a vineyard with sea views in Penedes, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of the city of Barcelona.

Higher temperatures have brought the grape harvest forward by 10 to 15 days over the past decade, said Gay de Montella Estany, who owns the ecological winery.

“We have to harvest at the start of August when the heat is the most intense,” he told AFP.

So in 2008, the company moved part of its production to Bolvir, a village in the Pyrenees near the French border.

Speedy ripening

With a total of 961,000 hectares (2.4 million acres) of vines, Spain has the largest area of vineyards in the world, the International Organisation of Vine and Wine says.

It is the third biggest wine producer behind Italy and France.

Over the past 60 years, average temperatures in Spain have risen by 1.3 degrees Celsius, according to the national weather office, Aemet.

And wine producers have seen an impact, as the timing of the harvest is crucial.

An employee tends to the grapevines at the Torres vineyard at a 950-metre altitude in Tremp near Lleida in the Catalan Pyrenees. 

Higher average temperatures speed up the ripening of the grapes, which leads to lower acidity and increased sugars in the fruit.

This yields higher alcohol levels in the wine and also alters other compounds in grapes that affect aroma and flavour.

Grapes must be picked quickly to avoid an excessive alcohol content.

“Essentially these grapes have not fully ripened in the right way,” said Fernando Zamora, a professor in the oenology department at Rovira I Virgili University in Tarragona.


The Familia Torres winery, one of Spain’s largest producers, embraced higher elevation more than 20 years ago, despite facing scepticism at the time.

The company, which has grown from a small family business in the late 19th century, began planting grapes in Tremp, 160 kilometres northeast of its Vilafranca de Penedes base, in 1998.

Grapes for making wine had never been grown before at higher altitudes in this region in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

“Farmers in the area thought it was absurd. They thought grapes would not mature,” said Xavier Admella, who is in charge of the farm located at an altitude of 950 metres.

“Climate change has proven us right,” he added, as workers set up nets to protect the vines from hail which is much more common along mountain ranges.

Ancient grape varieties are treated in vitro at the Torres vineyard lab in Vilafranca del Penedes near Barcelona.

New techniques

In Tremp, temperatures are almost 10 degrees Celsius cooler than at sea level, Miguel A. Torres, president of the Familia Torres winery, said.

That makes it possible to grow grape varieties to produce white wines “that still have very good acidity levels”, he added.

The company, which exports to 150 countries, also has a laboratory where it revives grape strains that have almost disappeared.

One of them which performs well at high altitudes has already been planted in Tremp.

But the fight to adapt has a stiff price tag.

“The future is complicated,” Torres said, adding the wine sector had asked for aid from both the Spanish government and European Union.

Gay de Montella Estany agrees.

He predicts that Spain’s wine sector will have to go on planting at higher altitudes and “look for grape varieties that ripen later” to survive.

He does not rule out that some parts of the country, especially in the south, will one day no longer be suitable for wine production.

Not everyone is as pessimistic, though.

“Climate change is leading many wineries to get their act together and learn how to make wine, not like our grandparents did, but by looking for new techniques,” university professor Zamora said.

“And wines are now much better than they were a few years ago.”