Living in Europe, you are surrounded by history in a technologically evolving setting. If I leave my house right now, I can step into a church dating back to the 9th century in just under fifteen minutes; but I can also walk out of the church and into the mobile telephone shop, where I can buy a phone that can also act as a computer, camera and stereo. Time in conjunction with human thought continually evolves, transforms and tumbles upon itself to create something that we intend to solve our problems. Yet, whatever we create today will eventually have a replacement – something faster, more efficient and sleeker in design. Therefore, in world that values modernity and technology, yet speaks of history and simplicity with nostalgia, must we always replace the old with the new?
Close your eyes. Now open them…
You emerge into a huge dark cavernous space dating back to the 19th century. The air is thick with dust and age, dirt and mold line the walls in dense patches, and the floor is rough and crusty from decades of hauling in grapes by horse and wagon. Large wooden vats tower over you, while batches of maroon stained grapevines wrapped tightly in cord to filter wines lie gently in slumber at your feet. You wrap your jacket tight around your shoulders from the chill in the air, as the stone walls act as insulators, forever keeping the temperature low and the humidity high.
Heading towards the doorway housing a long stone stairwell, steep and daunting, you pass various rusted tools used to cork bottles, stir wine and fix broken machines. Picking up your pace, curious at what lies below you, you’re suddenly distracted by the tinny clacking sound behind the adjacent wooden door. Clank. Clank. Whooosh. Slowly opening the door, you see two men joining wooden staves inside a medal ring. With one man holding the wood in place within the hard metal ring, another hands him single stave from the floor. Once fused in perfect unison, a second ring is placed on top, while the flower ring is hit repeatedly with a hammer to push it farther down the wood. “Excuse me, what are you doing?” you ask in a soft voice. “Estamos haciendo las barricas!” Having never seen a barrel being made, you find yourself transfixed by their agility and precision to craft it by eye, rather than by measure. As both rings are in place, with the bottom staves flaring out in a crown shape, they hoist the barrel over a small fire located in a pit in the floor. Whooosh! The sound of water being poured on the outside of the barrel to keep the wood from either burning or cracking echoes through the room. The heat allows the coopers to tie a metal hoop on the outside of the barrel and bend the heated staves into the same rounded position as the upper staves.
Awing their work, you suddenly feel pulled back into the winery by an invisible force. Leaving the cooperage, you heave the heavy door shut and start down a long stone-lined stairwell leading deep into the cavernous cellar of the winery. As your foot hits the cellar floor, you look up and realize how far underground you are. Your bones are completely chilled from the dank environment, and the smell is no longer of dust, but of wine. Looking to your right, you see a long hallway lined with barrels stacked two high. Spiderwebs fall like curtains from the ceiling and the mold that was only millimeters thick has now taken on a carpet like appearance. Choosing to edge your way down the 300 meter hallway to the door opening to the river Ebro, you stop cold in your tracks when you realize that the passageway you see in your peripheral vision is an enormous room housing hundreds upon hundreds of old barrels. Continuing forward down the long corridor, you see another storage space of equal size, and another, until you find a room lined with old disfigured bottles. Wiping away the dust you look at the date 1957. The next with a thicker layer of dust settled on its bottleneck reads 1877. Then turning and looking at the opposite side of the wall, you see a bottle with almost no dust on it labeled 2004. Suddenly, it dawns on you, they’re making wine exactly as they did 130 years ago. Strangely, absolutely nothing has changed.
You wake up. Take a drink of water. Take a deep breathe and let your body slowly drift back asleep.
You are walking through sliding glass doors in the middle of a vineyard, surrounded with Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano and Manzuelo grape vines. The day is absolutely stunning with a fresh cool breeze and the smell of mineral and flowers in the air. As the door swishes closed behind you, you see a shiny new elevator in front of you and a wide curving metal stairwell hugging the frame of the elevator to your left. Choosing the stairwell, you begin your descent following the small floor lights guiding your path. As you arrive to the bottom of the cellar, you find yourself in an enormous but immaculate space. Eight large 170 hectoliter wooden vats sit in front of you with perfectly angled ceiling lights to highlight their clean lines and soft wood. On the other side of immense room are even more perfectly designed vats with a small computer screen housed on the wall.
Seeing a small laboratory with two men hovered over a computer, you ask, “Excuse me, what are you doing with the computer?”. “Estamos vigilando las barricas.” Although you’ve heard of state-of-the-art stainless-steel vats, you never considered traditionally looking wooden vats to have the capacity to monitor and regulate everything from temperature to remontage through a computer. This idea astounds you as you walk back to the vats and run your hand over the wood wondering how quickly winemaking has modernized itself.
Turning around, hearing the scruff of your shoes on recently swept floor, you see another glass door leading into a large cavernous room with slate floors, metal pillars decorated with fist sized metal bolts, stone walls and floor lit barrels, many of which contain a small glass vial filled with red wine. Unlike the fermentation room, here, the temperature is perfectly regulated to achieve ideal carbonic maceration temperatures. Lifting the glass vial off the hole, you inhale the wine, enjoying the rich fruit flavor. Peeking over your should, fearing that someone might see you, you quickly reach up and grab a wine thief conveniently hanging on the pillar above one solitary wine glass. Plunging the thin metal cup into the whole and out again before pouring the almost black juice into the glass, inhaling the bright fruit and new oak aromas. Taking a second quick glance around you, you steal a sip, realizing that this isn’t a blend, but a monovarietal garnacha wine still in the midsts of carbonic maceration. Your head swoons from the powerful flavors, but you smile, curious of this wine only faintly reminds you of similar Garnacha wines of the Priorat, differing only in their acidity. While Priorat wines show similar color and fruit, you remind yourself that they tend to show lower acidity and firmer tannins. Placing the wine thief and wine glass back in their rightful place, praying that no one will notice the think dark ring around the glass before you leave, you head towards the exit.
Walking back through the glass door to the main room where you continue to the second set of glass doors leading into a gigantic aging room. With mouth agape, you walk into the 4,500 square meter hall. The ceiling is lined with concrete sheets that appear like wooden boards snug tight upon one another. Large geometric cement pillars support the center of the room, while thinner more circular pillars place themselves more sparsely among the barrels of which are stacked three high in either pyramids or long straight lines. And like a cathedral, the lighting is low, strategically placed to highlight both the pillars and the barrels, without a sound to be heard. The space is completely silent.
Sitting along the wall, you look out among the sea of barrels and realize that winemaking actually takes place in this immaculate space. Throughout your journey, you haven’t seen one dash of dirt, one grape stain or anything that would resemble the messy act of winemaking. Although whole grapes have been transformed into wine, you would never know that the process actually took place here, unless you experienced it first hand. Suddenly you realize, rather that winery, it reminds you of a museum, an homage to wine.
You wake up with ideas rushing through your head of all the possibilities your imagination can conjure.
Although you may not be used to looking at a winery from this angle, ironically, this is not far from what we experienced. When looking back between these two wineries, I’m elated and amazed that they both exist – each unique in both their history and their approach to winemaking. One, Lopez de Heredia, is creating wine the way it has been done for centuries; while the other, Dinastia Vivanco, is experimenting with wine, playing with it as if it were a new magical toy. Neither of these methods are wrong. They’re simply different, and this difference can be seen in their wines. To taste Lopez de Heredia in a blind tasting, you will unequivocally find it with its style branded just as it was a hundred years ago. While Dinastia Vivanco is more elusive and changing. I highly doubt what you will taste now, will be same as it will be in five, ten or twenty years to come. This winery, like a mad scientist, will continue to play, create and innovate its brand, searching to find what meets their sense of elegance and La Rioja tradition.