From Tradition to Modernity – Two Sides to La Rioja: Part 2

March 4, 2011 11:23 am - Posted by Roland Hulme in Eat

For a taste of La Rioja’s winemaking heritage, we explored the third oldest bodegas in La Rioja, R. López de Heredia. Now it’s time to compare the traditional with the modern – visiting state-of-the-art winemaker Bodegas Baigorri.

Part 1: Bodegas Baigorri

“We make wine to be consumed,” explains Simón Arina Robles, technical director of Bodegas Baigorri. “To appeal to a new audience – that’s what we see as the future of D.O.C. Rioja.”

If it’s the future you’re talking about, you’d be hard pressed to find a more visual representation of it than the astonishing concrete and glass structure that houses the Baigorri winemaking process.

Buried deep within a hillside in Vitoria-Logroño, Bodegas Baigorri is a beehive of gleaming, stainless steel vats and a forest of sterile concrete – making the underground facility resemble something from a James Bond movie.

“The winery was built completed in 2002,” Simón explains. “At the same time as many other bodegas in La Rioja invested in architecture and remodeling.” But there’s one thing that seperates the stunning architecture of Bodegas Baigorri from the Frank Gehry-designed hotel at Marqués de Riscal, or Santiago Calatrava’s design for the nearby Ysios Bodega: Practicality.

Basque architect Iñaki Aspiazu Iza designed Bodegas Baigorri to be as visually stunning as the other architectural landmarks in La Rioja, but also created it to be brutally functional – with every aspect of the design planned with the wine making process in mind.

“The building allows us to use gravity during every stage of production,” Simón shows us, as we stand on one of the upper floors of the looming structure. “The grapes come in on this level, and we can then load them into the vats below, using nothing but gravity.”

Avoiding having to heft the grapes up into towering vats helps protect their skins and stems, which Simón says ultimately makes for a better wine.

The level below is where the first fermentation takes place – in a row of gleaming 17,000 liter vats.

“This is a new shape of vat,” Simón says with not a little pride. “The shape allows more of the grape skins to be in contact with the wine, and we can heat each vat individually to the perfect temperature.”

There’s another innovation Simón has pioneered at Bodegas Baigorri, which makes his wine unique amongst those of La Rioja: He triple-filters every drop of water used in the winemaking process.

The water in the mountainous La Rioja region is notoriously hard, and Simón believes removing the calcium improves the taste.

“It makes better wine,” he explains simply, “and also protects against TCA,” the chemical compound chiefly responsible for cork taint.

After the first fermentation, the inspired design of Bodegas Baigorri makes it simple to transfer the wine to the second stage of production – straight down, with gravity powering the process.

It’s at that lower level, however, that even a winemaker as innovative and pioneering as Simón Arina Robles has had to make such concessions to tradition: Specifically, Rioja’s signature barrel aging process – which modern technology can’t (yet) eclipse.

“Winemaking in La Rioja was modeled after the style of Bordeaux,” Simón tells us. “Traditionally, they aged wines in French Oak – but now more and more bodegas have switched to American Oak.” Baigorri actually has stocks of both French and American oak, and Simón carefully balances aging between both – to take advantage of the strong vanilla and coconut components of American Oak and the more traditional complexity offered by the French variety.

Although barrel aging is a process essentially unchanged for centuries, Simón’s eye for innovation means he’s still looking for ways to improve the technique. “I’m looking more and more at American Oak,” he explains, “because they’re managing to grow more fine grain wood there, more similar to traditional French Oak.”

On the bottom level of Bodegas Baigorri, one corner is dedicated to something Simón is particularly proud of – his experiments.

Racks of assorted barrels and small, stainless steel vats line the concrete walls.

“This is where I experiment,” Simón beams, with a fervor that once again conjures up images of the villains in James Bond films. “I love experimentation: It’s the future!”

In the small vats, Simón experiments with different grape varieties, blending techniques and even different sorts of yeast – including varieties modified in a lab. His passion is palpable; and some of the innovations he tells us about are potentially mind-boggling. Simón hopes that, one day, some of his pioneering discoveries will help winemakers worldwide make a better product.

“We need to keep things modern,” Simón explains. “It’s very important to invest in new projects. One of the biggest problem for winemakers in Spain – all over the world, in fact – is approaching a new generation of wine drinkers. Doing what we’ve always done just won’t do any longer.”

He points to the statistics: “In the 1970s, the average Spaniard drank 70 liters of wine per person, per year. Today, that figure is just 16 liters. Wine is less relevant to the new generation and modern techniques and styles are the key to winning them over.”

He discusses the way many young Spaniards are introduced to wine – mixed half-and-half with Coca Cola in a cocktail known as Calimocho (or, alternatively, Rioja Libra, in the spirit of the rum and Coke cocktail Cuba Libra.)

“The problem is that young people no longer progress from Calimocho to wine,” Simón laments. “That’s what we need to get them to do.” In pursuit of that aim, he discusses options that might have the more traditional winemakers in La Rioja turning white – like Lambrusco-style sparkling wines and other ‘easy drinking’ products.

Ultimately, though, Simón’s current focus is not on revolutionizing Rioja – just keeping it modern and relevant. He’s embraced the latest winemaking innovations and technologies; but the wines made at Bodegas Baigorri remain true to the spirit of Rioja; crisp and modern, yet recognizable in both scent and palette.

There’s little argument regarding Simón’s success in bringing a modern edge to one of the world’s most traditional wines – and that success has been recognized worldwide. The wines of Bodegas Baigorri won 35 different medals in global competitions in 2009, and upped that to 46 in 2010.

“That’s about enough,” Simón admits, somewhat sheepishly. He reminds us that they produce wine to be consumed and enjoyed – not just to win medals (although that part is nice.)

If there is one medal to be justifiably proud of, however, it was the gold in the Japan Wine Challenge 2009.

There, Bodegas Baigorri’s entries earned them the title of “Best Old World Red Winemaker in the World.”

If there’s a better way to recognize Simón’s commitment to blending tradition and modernity, I’m hard pressed to name it.

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